Friday, December 23, 2011

Swedish Thin Bread

I have had a (huge) soft spot in my heart for Scandinavia ever since my beloved late mother-in-law Sigrid -who hailed from Charlottenlund near Copenhagen- introduced me years and years ago to the magic both of white summer nights and of Nordic Christmases. Juleaften (Christmas Eve) was her favorite holiday. She didn't bake or cook but she filled our house with lights and love and I will cherish these memories for as long as there'll be Christmas. So when Eva and Valter, our Swedish friends, invited us to a pre-Christmas bake party, my imagination (never idle) brought me back to these winters of long ago when I used to dream of snowy lakes and red cottages with glimmering windows and my heart immediately skipped a beat.
The thin breads are not part of the Danish tradition (at least not as I know it through Sigrid) but the elves (julenissen) very much are and the minute I stepped inside the Swedish bake house and saw these little creatures on the wall, I knew I was in the right place. Turns out, the elves were not only on the wall. They were rolling out dough, talking, laughing, snacking, tending the oven, counting seconds (it takes exactly 11 seconds to bake a thin bread in a wood-fire oven) and sipping glögg (mulled wine).
We joined right in and a few hours later, with floury aprons and much good cheer, we all emerged from the baking house with armfuls of flatbreads. These will be enjoyed with smoked salmon, lox or crab paste, cheese, jams or just plain butter all through the holiday weekend and even later since the habit is nowadays to freeze whatever isn't eaten immediately.
In the old days, families and friends met a few times a year to bake this bread, not only at Christmas time. So when the owner's family moved from northern Sweden to the Northwest, they had a brick oven built in a little house in the backyward and it became a tradition for the neighborhood Swedish immigrants (there were quite a few in the old days) to meet there and bake. The tradition has survived the generations and today the bake house is still very much in use.
The thin breads can only be made one at a time in a woodfire oven. They are never flipped, just rotated to ensure an even bake. The dough is typically mixed at home and brought to the bake house at the appointed time (families book oven time long in advance).
It is then scaled, rolled out (with lots of extra flour as it is pretty sticky), flattened into round pancake-shaped loaves, thinned out with specially grooved rolling pins, brushed to remove any flour which might still be clinging to the dough and then deftly lobbed onto the oven sole in front of the flaming wood. They are folded immediately while they are still hot. (I hung a few on my pasta drying rack to dry out completely when we got home as condensation had accumulated in the Ziploc bags. As soon as they were perfectly dry, I packaged them again).
What follows is Eva's recipe. Thank you ever so much, Eva! I used a blend of light rye and white whole wheat flour but I'd be tempted to add oat, barley or buckwheat flour next time or maybe use dark (whole) rye, just to vary the taste as the Swedes apparently like to do.

Ingredients (for 30 large thin breads):

  • 2.5 liters of milk
  • 19 g instant dry yeast (28 g active dry)
  • 5 g baking powder
  • 56 g butter
  • 130 g sugar (I might skip the sugar next time and that may sound like heresy to a Swede! I'll have to ask Eva)
  • 210 g syrup (I used maple but you can use any pancake syrup or a mix of molasses and syrup)
  • 13.5 g salt (I will use 2% of the flour weight next time as we like our breads a tad more salty)
  • 1815 g unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 913 g light rye flour (or a mix of rye and whole wheat flours)
  • 11 g ground fennel seeds (Eva leaves some fennel seeds whole or barely crushed)
  • 11 g anise seeds
  1. Mix all dry ingredients with hand or a wooden spoon
  2. Warm milk, butter and syrup to 120-130°F/49-54°C
  3. Mix everything together in a large shallow bowl
  4. Let it rise, covered, until needed (I gave it one fold as it looked really batter-ish)
  5. Divide into 30 pieces and proceed with the shaping and baking as per video above.

Happy Holidays!

The Swedish Thin Bread is going to Susan for Yeastspotting, her weekly roundup of breads and other baked goodies.


  1. Wow, these look so yummy MC. I wonder where you could find one of those special rolling pins? Merry Christmas to you!


  2. Merry Christmas MC,

    I just pack my less use rolling pin in the box and ready to send back to my parent's house this coming week. I can not wait to use my mom oven to bake this particular breads.


  3. @Teresa, happy holidays to you too and best wishes for a brand New Year! These rolling pins are also called lefse rolling pins and amazon carries some, from what I can see. You might find others on baking sites.
    @Kim, you'll send me pictures, won't you?

  4. This is great and now clears up the question I had on the holes, I can see how they're done!

    I tried to re-create at home Swedish style flat bread, I bought them at my local IKEA store and oldest kid loves them. They're not as flat as this one and cut into small squares. Looked at the ingredients on the packets and tried to make something similar, and obviously ended up with a complete different bread but still a tasty one.

    They also sold a bread similar to this one, round and very flat with the taste of aniseed. I will have a go at this in the new year but will have to adapt to dairy-free version. The milk here is producing a soft texture, will have to think about that.

  5. hi there MC and happy holidays!
    it is so interesting how traditions sometimes survive longer among immigrants than among the natives. I haven't met one single Swede in Sweden that does tunnbröd at home :) we just buy it at the supermarket. I did find a recipe for a smaller version of it, polarbröd, which I tried and came out pretty nice (but not perfect, without the special rolling pin). when I mentioned it to a Swedish colleague she was so surprised. can you really do that at home? funny. thank you for this lovely post. the bread does look just like the one you buy (but I am positive it tastes so much better) and you inspired me to repeat my polarbröd experiment soon.
    btw, the rolling pin you show was one of the Christmas presents I made to myself :) can't wait to use it (without it the bread splits inside and grows like a little balloon, just like pita bread)

  6. @azélia, I'll have to have a look on my next visit to Ikea, although maybe they don't carry quite the same items here in the US. I'd be interested in your efforts to develop a dairy-free version. Maybe there is already such a recipe in the Swedish blogosphere?
    @Barbara, I love the idea of emigrants continuing with a tradition now extinct in their home country. Very moving... But I don't think it is the case with this thin bread. During the bake, I asked Eva if everyone was making thin breads at home in Sweden before Christmas, and she said: "Oh, no! Thin bread making at home is actually only a tradition in the part of Northern Sweden, specifically Jämtland County, where our family comes from." Eva has a cousin who is so proficient at making these breads that she now sells them from her house at holiday time. That being said, supermarkets may well carry them even there. I'd have to ask Eva next time I see her. Polarbröd may wek be quite similar. From what I understand the area where the tunnbröd tradition survives to this day is very close to the polar circle.

  7. wow. this makes sense. bread from the very North. that's why here in Stockholm people just eat it but have no idea of how to make it :) I want to be the exception. thank you for the recipe and the info.

  8. Hi Barbara, go for it! But remember, you need a woodfire oven... It just wouldn't work in a gas or electric one because the heat loss would be tremendous every time you open the door to put in a new one with the result that the bread wouldn't bake properly.

  9. Hello MC,
    What a beautiful tribute to your mother-in-law.
    Your post gives a lovely image of a Nordic Christmas, and it's very interesting to read about this Swedish baking tradition (nice picture of the elves at work, too). Thank you!
    :^) from breadsong

  10. Thank you, breadsong! What I like best about Christmas nowadays is that it brings back so many memories...

  11. My aunt brought me one of those pins, but I thought they were for making crisp breads with! Near where i live there is a Turkish bakery where a woman sits and rolls out incredibly thin flat breads every lunch time with a very thin wooden pin; then they cook them on a large round electrically heated metal griddle. I tried once and ended up with strange archipelago shaped breads.I am fascinated by people who can roll dough out into perfect circles. Fantastic post, really made me smile watching the video :)

  12. Thanks for visiting, Joanna! I'd love to see these Turkish flatbreads. I bet they are super tasty and that they roll them up later with even tastier fillings... Eva said that the secret to rolling out the dough in a circle is to start at the center and roll away and do that all the way round. I have practiced since and still have a ways to go but I am doing better!

  13. Hi, thanks for the new recipe and the ideas about the different flours. I already have a thin bread recipe but this one is a little different. I have been searching for a couple of years for the rolling pins. The Leftsa rolling pins have bigger nobs and do not do as nice a job. I have found one on e-bay a few times but the go fairly quickly. If anyone out there knows of a place to buy one retail rather than have one hand made I would really appreciate it. thanks Dusty from Regina.

    1. Hi Dusty, I wish I could help you. Unfortunately the special rolling pins we used on that day were family heirlooms that belonged to our hosts... I wouldn't know where to get them. Maybe from eBay Sweden if there is such a thing? Best of luck, MC

    2. Hello Dusty in Regina:
      My husband & I just made 54 cakes to distribute to friends and family. My grandmother emigrated with her family from Jamtland in 1904 and taught daughters, to the 4th generations this great skill.
      What a coincidence that you are right here in Regina. We too have been searching for the rolling pins. There is a company in Sweden. Check the net Dusty. - - - - MK

  14. It warms my heart to see that my own family tradition of making Swedish Thin bread is done by others. My Grandmother Evelyn Campbell(married name)made Thin bread all the time, a childhood memory I will always cherish. My Mother (her daughter in law) and I have carried on the tradition now at Christmas for over 25 years. I am now passing this tradition on to my daughter. What a wonderful feeling I have to keep this delicious bread in my family, to keep that past generations traditions alive. Merry Christmas.

  15. Hello Debbie, I too find it heart-warming to see traditions passed down from one generation to the next. Especially at this time of year when we remember with love and longing those who are no longer with us to celebrate. Merry Christmas to you too!



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