It smelled like the neighborhood Scandinavian bakery in my home the other day, with the aromas of freshly baked cardamom buns and hot coffee brewed as strong and dark as the Nordic night.
Boller—buttery, cardamom-scented buns —are just right with a smear of butter and a creamy slice of geitost (Norwegian brown goat cheese). Making them is as easy as can be, and yet the recipe used to intimidate me. You see, boller were among Grandma Adeline’s staples, one of those recipes I’ve wished that I would have learned how to make from her.
Over the years, Grandma taught me to make so many of her Norwegian recipes—lefse, krumkake, sandbakkelse, Norwegian heart-shaped waffles, and the list goes on. Before she taught me how to make those tender cardamom buns, however, she had the strokes. She couldn’t bake anymore. Just communicating was difficult.
I’d try every now and then to bake cardamom buns, usually under the guise of making Fastelavnsboller (which many people know by the Swedish name, semlor). It was easier, it seemed, to develop a recipe for those cream-filled treats that are eaten ravenously during the weeks before Lent, than it was to try to replicate something that was as tied to my childhood as my grandmother’s cardamom buns. But it occurred to me at some point that I didn’t need to obsess anymore about getting the boller just right—the ones I’d fill with cream were already as delicious as could be.
However, for those of us whose taste is as connected to our memories as is our sense of smell, perhaps it makes sense that I had worried so about replicating hers so closely. Recipes like boller—which are fragrant and flavorful with butter, cardamom, and yeast—seem particularly capable of connecting us to the past.
Scandinavians are some of the world’s biggest consumers of cardamom, that exotic spice that made its way to the Nordic countries from the Middle East centuries ago. Cardamom makes its way into countless treats, from boller and fika-worthy cookies to steaming pots of gløgg. Although the spice is not native to the Nordic countries, it is so woven into Scandinavian baking that the smell is enough to make many people nostalgic.
I used to keep an empty spice jar in my office. It once contained cardamom. Each time I unscrewed the cap, the scent would conjure up memories of my grandparents, long since departed.
The lingering aroma faded and I discarded the jar recently. After all, nothing earthly can take the place of those dear people who taught me what it was like to be loved. In its stead, I’ve come to realize, the memories are stronger than anything physical could provide. Each time I bake or cook something Norwegian I’m trying to keep a bit of that heritage—with all its inherent hospitality and love—alive for those with whom I share it.
These cardamom buns are part of that.
Boller (Norwegian Cardamom Buns) Based on my recipe for Fastelavnsboller, previously shared in The Norwegian American. At some point over the years of developing a boller recipe, I referenced a recipe of beloved Norwegian chef and cookbook author Ingrid Espelid Hovig. While this is no longer her recipe, I’m confident that the results are authentically Norwegian. And these boller are as delicious as can be.
1 stick (8 tbsps.) butter
1 ¼ cup milk
2 tsps. freshly ground cardamom
2 tbsps. active dry yeast
¾ cup sugar
½ tsp. salt
4 ½- 5 cups flour
1 beaten egg, for brushing
In a small saucepan, melt butter over medium heat. Add the milk and cardamom and heat until hot (don’t bring it to a boil), then set aside and cool until it’s lukewarm.
In a large mixing bowl, stir a half cup or so of the lukewarm milk into the yeast and a tablespoon of the sugar using a wooden spoon. Let sit until the yeast bubbles, about 5 minutes. Pour in the remaining milk, along with the rest of the sugar and the egg and salt.
Stir in the flour gradually, beginning with about half of the flour and then adding a half cup or so at a time until you have a dough that’s firm and releases from the sides of the bowl. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 10 minutes. Gather the dough and form it into a large ball.
Lightly grease a large bowl (you can minimize the dishes by wiping out and using the same mixing bowl you used to stir the dough). Plop in the dough, turning it around until it’s coated with the oil. Cover with a damp cloth and set to rise in a warm place until doubled, about 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit and line two baking sheets with parchment.
Punch down the dough and shape into 12 balls. Place them on the baking sheets, making sure the smoothest side is up. Cover with a damp towel and let rise again, this time about 20 minutes. Brush with the beaten egg.
Bake in the center of the oven, one sheet at a time, for about 10 minutes until golden on top. Watch carefully, as the buns quickly darken. Rotate the baking sheet if needed for even baking. If the buns are browning too quickly and the insides need additional baking time, then cover the tops with a sheet of aluminum foil. Cool on a wire rack.