Behind the Recipes

Sweden’s Iconic Cinnamon Buns

The sugar-and-spice delights known as kanelbullar feature a rich dough that’s perfumed with cardamom and swirled with cinnamon and butter.

Published Nov. 30, 2021.

On October 4, 2019, I ate my first Swedish cinnamon bun at a London location of Fabrique, a Stockholm‑based bakery chain. The bun was beautiful: a browned swirl of soft, fluffy, lightly sweetened bread infused with cardamom, filled with a buttery cinnamon sugar mixture, and sprinkled with white sugar pearls. I remember the date because October 4 is National Cinnamon Bun Day in Sweden, and it’s celebrated by Swedes worldwide, so the atmosphere was especially convivial. 

But Swedes don’t confine their consumption of cinnamon buns, called kanelbullar, to a single day. They’re a favorite feature of the daily (even twice- or thrice-daily) social ritual known as fika, which consists of coffee and a snack enjoyed with friends, family, or colleagues. To call it a mere coffee break is to ignore the Swedes’ reverence and affection for the concept. As coauthors Anna Brones and Johanna Kindvall explain in their book Fika (2015), “To truly fika” (it’s both a noun and a verb) “requires a commitment to making time for a break in your day, the creation of a magical moment in the midst of the routine and the mundane.” 

Amen to that. My first fika experience was so enjoyable that I was eager to make my own kanelbullar—and to incorporate the habit into my life. 

Bun Basics

The dough is made with white flour; milk; softened butter; and a bit of sugar, yeast, and cardamom. It’s then rolled out and spread with a mixture of sugar, butter, and plenty of cinnamon. Swedish bakers either roll up the dough into a log and cut it into pieces, which they stand on their cut ends like American cinnamon buns, or cut it into strips and wind each one into the intricate knot shape I’d had in London. They brush the risen buns with beaten egg, top them with pearl sugar, and bake them hot and fast so that the outside gets deeply browned before the inside dries out.

Some of the doughs I tried were wet and hard to shape, though they made fluffy, moist buns; others were easier to handle but baked up drier and firmer. And though I’d added a hefty amount of ground cardamom, my kanelbullar lacked the distinctive flavor that I remembered.  

Spice of Life

Kindvall provided assistance on the flavor: Instead of using commercial ground cardamom, which is typically made by pulverizing whole green pods, it’s better to pluck the more robustly flavored seeds from their pods and coarsely grind them so that the pieces are crushed between your teeth as you enjoy the bun, releasing hits of menthol and lemon. “You really want that crunchy bit here and there,” she explained.   

The solution for the dough was one I’ve called on before: incorporating a tangzhong, a cooked pudding-like mixture of flour and liquid. Doing so enabled me to add more liquid, but because that extra moisture was bound up in the gel, the dough didn’t feel wet and was easy to handle. 

A tangzhong also extends the shelf life of bread, so I’d be able to make the buns up to two days ahead, or even freeze them, without them drying out. In many Swedish families, keeping buns at the ready is a tradition. Kindvall’s mother, for example, used to stash batches in the freezer; she would transfer a few buns to a plate and thaw them on the radiator so that they’d be warmed through in time for cozy after-school fikas.

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Ingredient Spotlight: Swedish Pearl Sugar 

Swedish pearl sugar is made by compressing sugar crystals to form round particles that are then polished to create a glossy finish. (Don’t confuse it with Belgian pearl sugar, which is used almost exclusively in Liège waffles and is larger.) The snow‑white pearls won’t melt in the oven or draw moisture out of foods, making them ideal for topping baked goods.

Tying the Knot(s) 

To make my next dough even more workable, I let it rest in the fridge so that the soft butter could firm up. Then I created the layers: I rolled out the dough, spread on the filling, and then folded it and rolled it out again. Next, I cut the layered dough into strips, which I stretched long enough to wind into elaborate knots. As the knots rested, though, the dough protested my rough treatment by snapping back, leaving the buns misshapen. 

Unfortunate appearance aside, this batch was a big improvement on my previous one: moister and softer (if a little dense). Even during the room‑temperature, postshaping rest, the dough hadn’t expanded much, though I’d used my standard ratio of yeast. It turns out that cardamom has antifungal properties that inhibit yeast activity. So I increased the yeast, unworried about excessive yeast flavor because I knew the lavish spicing would hide it. Now to fix the shape. 

For the pops of menthol-y, citrusy cardamom that are a signature of kanelbullar, remove the seeds from whole pods of the spice and coarsely grind them.

For my next batch, instead of stretching the dough strips, which caused the gluten to rebel, I cut each strip almost in half lengthwise, gently opened it up to a 2-foot length, wrapped it loosely around my fingers a few times, and looped the last of the strand across the middle of the knot, resulting in a form that resembled a neatly bundled electrical cord. I let the buns rest for an hour and then painted the lightly puffed swirls with egg wash, adorned them with sugar, and baked them. 

These kanelbullar were beautifully perfumed with spices, fluffy, and exquisitely shaped. I ate one—and then another—before stashing the remainder in the freezer, looking forward to warming them, perhaps on the radiator, for fikas to come. 

Kanelbullar (Swedish Cinnamon Buns)

The sugar-and-spice delights known as kanelbullar feature a rich dough that’s perfumed with cardamom and swirled with cinnamon and butter.
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