While metro Detroit loses its collective mind over paczki on Fat Tuesday, a small Birmingham shop is marking the occasion with a different traditional pastry. Svenska Cafe, a compact coffee bar along Maple Road has been enticing customers for the past three years with its Swedish open-faced sandwiches, kanelbullar cinnamon rolls, and kolasnittar caramel shortbreads.
One item that’s gained a particular following customers in the lead up to Fat Tuesday are the semlor — palm-sized cardamom buns made with white flour and filled with generous helpings of almond paste and swirls of whipped cream. Each bun is sliced, so that a triangle-shaped, golden brown piece of bun can be dusted with powdered sugar.
Ingela Oginsky is responsible for making all the pastries at the shop, where she’s worked since Christina Bakalis opened Svenska in September 2016. Oginsky learned to bake semlor from her mother, a baker, but didn’t get serious about making Swedish pastries herself until moving to the United States. “In Sweden, you can very easily buy [semlor] anywhere,” she says. “And here if you want to show your children the traditional baked goods and foods you need to make them yourself.” It took time for her to get the hang of making the soft, brioche-like cardamom buns. “In the beginning everything was really hard and dry,” she says.
Scandinavian countries each have their own versions of semlor, sometimes filling them with jam instead of almond paste. And although they were traditionally considered treat ahead of the Catholic fasting season of Lent, in modern Sweden, Oginsky says, semlor are generally sold right after New Year’s all the way through Easter. According to one estimate, Swedes consume around five buns per person each year during semla season. At Svenka, Oginsky prepares hundreds of semlor annually to meet the demand.
Over the years, Svenska’s reputation for Swedish pastries and food has grown by word of mouth, attracting expatriates from around metro Detroit. Oginsky says that several of the Swedish hockey players for the Detroit Red Wings are customers and stop in for cinnamon rolls and semlor. Other customers include Swedes in the area temporarily for work and those who married Americans and settled down in the area.
For some patrons with Swedish heritage, eating a semla around Lent is a way to get back to their roots. “We get a lot of people whose grandparents came here way back when and that maybe don’t speak that much Swedish anymore, but really want to nourish those ties back to Sweden,” she says. “It’s good that they’re able to come here, because sometimes recipes get lost.”
Many of the pastries at Svenska are made prepared with almonds and perfumed with cardamom. “Swedes love cardamom,” Oginsky says, noting that the spice may be partly responsible for the U.S.’s recent obsession with Scandinavian bakeries like Fabrique in New York. One Svenska’s most popular items is cardamom cake.
When it comes to eating a semla, Oginsky recommends avoiding a mess by taking the lid off and dipping it in some of the cream. “If you bite into it, the cream is going to go all over the place,” she says.
Svenska Cafe is located at 930 E Maple Rd. in Birmingham; the shop accepts orders for semlor by direct message on Facebook up until Easter.