In malls and airports across the world, hungry wanderers can fill up on hefty, cinnamon-laced doughy whorls, drenched in a sickly, cream-cheese frosting: Cinnabon’s “legendary” cinnamon rolls. But the wiser among them would forgo the sugar-induced haze of such pastries and head to Nordic lands, where the best buns are baked.
The northern love of cinnamon dates back to the 16th century, when it was shipped in, along with enriched, yeasted breads so different from the dense rye and barley kind baked locally. Today the spice-stippled treats are found across the region. The Swedes and Norwegians favour a puffy, doughy bun. The Finns prefer a crunchier, crispier version. The Danes, meanwhile, veer into Viennoiserie, using laminated pastry, heavy with layers of butter – a different barrel of flour from their northern neighbours’ bakes.
It is Sweden that claims the cinnamon buns most hungrily as its own. The Swedish Home Baking Council traces the country’s current buns to the 1920s when white flour, butter, sugar and spices reappeared after first-world-war rationing. Today, while they are easily bought, many Swedes still prefer to make their own. “Rutiga Kokboken”, a classic Swedish cookbook, includes a recipe. But it is with their grandmothers, at a red-painted summerhouse, that most learn the art of the kanelbullar.
Swedish buns are plainer than the American sort, but their enriched dough is nonetheless full of fat and flavour. Milk and butter are melted together, then cooled slightly; too hot and the buns will refuse to rise. Mix with the yeast before adding sugar, salt and flour. The dough is then flavoured with cardamom, ideally fresh, the black seeds picked from their pods and crushed. Mix, knead, resist the urge to add more flour (it is meant to be sticky) and rest – you and the dough.
Cinnamon makes its appearance in the filling, blended with butter and sugar, and in some recipes breadcrumbs, smeared over the flattened dough. Individual buns are most common, the dough rolled and sliced into swirls or twisted and twirled into knots and bows. Signe Johansen, author of “Scandilicious Baking”, crams hers into a cake tin to create a giant bun blossom, with cinnamon-scented petals. Then the bake, short and hot.
Leila Lindholm, a Swedish television chef, brushes her buns with warm water and golden syrup. But such sticky glazes are usually the preserve of commercial bakers. Home cooks tend to use a milk or egg wash to allow the cardomom-speckled dough and cinnamon to shine. Finish with a freckling of nib sugar – no frosting allowed.
For Swedes, a cinnamon bun is the savour of childhood, its burnished exterior verging on the bitterness of caramel, ribbons of buttery cinnamon edging over the folds of dough, a puff of warm cardamom as you tear it apart. They are baked into the Swedish concept of fika, more than a coffee break: time to chat, to stop and breathe. And eat a bun.