Scandinavian Hot Buns
I know there are people on GWS who hate cardamom. These all can suck the shit out of my arse.
Today I'm a bloody wreck because I'm sick and miserable, sleepless and a shitty parent who can't make his goddamn kid fucking sleep. Hence I will neurotically bake something to project my internal turmoil onto the exterior and thereby resolve it through re-ordering and re-organizing this exterior. Mum always made these on rainy Saturday mornings, the smell of fresh baking and cardamom is the smell of comfort to me. I think I have deserved a little childhood-reverting by now.
They are very simple in terms of ingredients. This makes them difficult to make well. Most you'll be served in people's homes are dry, too sweet, and have far too little cardamom. Here, I'm trying to teach you how to make them right. My family is famous for these, with good reason.
I'm making a variant of Norwegian wheat cardamom buns that add a filling of custard. These are called "school buns", I reckon the name was invented by an industrious pastry baker back in the day. They are highly popular as snacks or hand lunches. Traditionally they are frosted with a light coating of confectioners sugar and water, then ground coconut. I don't do this. You may if you like.
First, some words and shit.
You'll chiefly find these in Norway and Denmark - the Swedes are more sweet in the tooth than Norwegians and Danes, and prefer drier, sweeter cakes and pastries, and the Finns seem to take after the Swedes. In Norwegian, the "wheat bread days" are the carefree first days of a new marriage, and something that sells like "hot wheat buns" is bound to make a profit. Conversely, returning to the "coarsecloth shirt and oatmeal lefse" is leaving the happy holidays for the gray tedium of the working week.
The quintessential snack bread, these are mainly eaten plain, either with or without raisins in the dough, or split and buttered with cheese or jam. Cardamom buns are not eaten with savoury spreads like liver pâté or coldcuts when they are made with cardamom.
Historically these were expensive treats, since they were made from sifted wheat flour. They are documented in the menus of the famously food-loving 17th century king of Denmark-Norway, Christian IV, and seem likely to originate from Germany, which was a centre of baking innovation for centuries. They are sure as Hell not native to Norway, a place where people into the 20th century would gather and grind the first, waxy, soft bark of birch and elm trees and grind up to cut what little rye or barley flour was around. Bark bread, hard and flat and, eh, wood-like, is a long shot from soft, sugary, spicy wheat cardamom buns.
Variations are numerous.
- There seems to be some disgusting trend in Norway, no doubt a result of petroleum-income decadence, of mixing chocolate chips into the dough as of lately. This is catpiss and I hate it. Raisins, dried citrus peel or dried currants I can abide.
-Rolling the dough into a half-inch thick sheet, smear it 2/3 down with butter, and spreading with sugar and cinnamon before rolling up and cutting yields cinnamon rolls. I'll make a post about these with photos another day.
- Norwegians knead (even more) butter and currants into the dough for the traditional Christmas Bread, and the Danes bake the Brunsviger by rolling the dough into a pan and making dimples in it like a foccaccia before smearing with a mix of brown syrup, sugar and butter. Think about it. A sugar-syrup foccaccia.
- A big pretzel-shaped loaf filled with almond paste, apples with sugar and cinnamon, or custard. This is called hvetekringle. Making it into a circle, snipping with scissors, and folding the half-slices over yields a Trønderrose.
- Add saffron and twist into weird, currant-decorated shapes into Lussekatter ("Lucia's cats", don't ask) for St. Lucias Eve December 13. This is a weird pagan Swedish thing. (Omit the cardamom. They're actually quite tasty.)
Cardamom buns are not overly sweet, and Americans, or for that matter immigrants to Norway from the Indian sub-continent, generally think they aren't sweet enough. However, my mum's recipe uses even one fifth less sugar than almost all other recipes in circulation, and this adds to their flavour. We're not really making cakes here, but something in-between cakes and breads. In fact, they're somewhat closer to American rolls, but more piquant through the spicing.
What to use
The flour used here is standard Norwegian sifted wheat flour. In terms of gluten content, it is close to American cake flour.
Most recipes listed use 1.25dl sugar per litre flour. Ours uses merely 1dl sugar. Too much sugar gives them a tiresome sweetness that doesn't work out at all compared to the perfectly sweetened, wheaty, cardamomy-steaming little wonders they should be when my mum makes them.
Another trick is to use whole-fat milk, and to add a single egg per two litres of flour, this was something I developed when I had to make them every other night when a girlfriend of mine was pregnant with twins (unbeknownst to her at the time) and was as sick as a dog. No matter what her husband fed her, she'd hurl. These, though, stuck, so I added eggs to the dough to make it richer and more nutritious. It makes the buns even softer yet springier, and seems to make them keep longer as well.
I advise to use vegetable margarine instead of butter as intuition might dictate. The latter for somewhat the same reason as cutting back on the sugar: letting the delicate flavours of freshly baked wheat flour and cardamom take the lead. You can use butter, but, like I said, I like margarine better - in any case, do not use unsalted butter. They need that little salt kick.
The yeast should be the type for sweet and heavy doughs. If you don't have this, use the ordinary type. The result will still be good.
My recipe uses 1.8 litres of flour for 200g margarine. Other recipes list 2l flour for the same quantity of fat. This is my mum's secret weapon: the flour will absorb a lot of liquid into the fiber as the dough rises. A dough that is hopelessly sticky when stirred together, will firm up nicely after an hour or so. This makes buns that are not dry, but juicy and soft. It makes a huge difference on the other recipes that use more flour to make the dough easier to work with. You will get a little more sticking, but you can still handle this with a little care and experience, and the end result is that much better.
Grind the cardamom yourself, if you can. It gets a deeper, almost citrusy aroma when freshly ground.
Notes on method
Melt the fat with the cardamom, this makes the fat-soluble flavourings seep out better. Also, the smell of cardamom frying is awesome.
The easiest thing to do, is to sprinkle a good layer of flour on top of the dough before rising it. When it's done, tip the whole thing onto a table and start working it. There'll then be enough flour between the dough and table to keep from sticking.
To work the dough, the method I use for a medium-sized dough up to 4l flour is as follows. I can't take photos of this, because I have floured hands, but I'll see if I can fix a video next week.
- With both hands, lift the nearest half of the dough up a little, then lay it on top of the farthest. Push down. You're stretching and folding. The stretching firms up the gluten fibres, readying the dough for final shaping.
- Repeat the lifting and folding a few times with floured hands. Lift up, fold, push down. After ten or fifteen times, the almost liquid dough will magically seem to firm up. Dust with flour as necessary to keep from sticking. Scrape up what gets stuck and continue.
- Finally, knead: continue the stretching, kneading and folding, but with only one hand, the other holds the dough in place. Work with vigorous, quick movements, rotating the dough with one hand as you're folding and pushing with the other. A couple of minutes should do.