The slogan of the world's foremost purveyor of cinnamon buns Cinnabon is, "Life needs frosting."
To that I say, "No. No. NOOO." You're wrong, Cinnabon. I don't care if you have over 750 locations in over 30 countries around the world and are worth millions of dollars. ...Oh, alright, you probably know what you're doing. But your buns haven't won me over, even if I've been momentarily paralyzed with bun lust by your sweet, freshly baked scent in many a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike.
And it's not just Cinnabon that failed to win me over, but pretty much any cinnamon bun. I'm not against them—I like pretty much any sugar and fat-enhanced baked good—but they've never captured my devotion as much as other members of the breakfast pastry family, like scones, croissants, and doughnuts.
Yet during my trip to Norway in February I ate more cinnamon buns in one week than I'd eaten in all my life before then. Why? They weren't ooey, gooey, frosting-laden behemoths. (Not that every cinnamon bun in the US fulfills that profile, but they seem to be the majority.) The buns were frosting-less and just sweet enough, a nice snackable pastry for any time of the day.
I wouldn't be surprised if some people just dropped off thinking, "Wait, I want the ooey, gooey, frosting-laden behemoth. Why am I reading this?" I'm not saying those aren't delicious—The Pioneer Woman's cinnamon buns can't not be awesome—but for those who prefer something a bit more restrained, read on.
The first thing I noticed while looking at Norwegian cinnamon bun recipes was that they include cardamom. Cardamom, a spice native to India, is a common spice in Scandinavian cuisine—baked goods, mostly—but my American self had never cooked with cardamom before. (Admittedly, my American self doesn't cook often. My fridge doesn't "preserve" as much as "increase the time it takes for food to rot.") According to Chemistry of Spices, the Scandinavian countries—Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland—account for about 16 percent of the world's consumption of cardamom, while the rest of Europe accounts for 14 percent, and the USA, just 2.5 percent. The world's biggest consumers are India and Saudi Arabia, who account for more than 50 percent of the world's consumption, according to Cardamom: the genus Elettaria.
Why is cardamom so popular in Scandinavia, compared to other non-Western or South Asian countries? Stick this question in Google and one sentence repeatedly repeatedly pops up: "Vikings came upon cardamom about one thousand years ago, in Constantinople, and introduced it into Scandinavia, where it remains popular to this day." ...Al...righty. That's not really the in depth information I was hoping for, but as I don't have the time to write a research paper on how viking history and trade routes influenced the spices used in Scandinavian cuisine—this post is just about cinnamon buns, or something—that's as far as I'm going (although I welcome insight any Serious Eaters can give me). If you want to learn more about cardamom, check out this post from our resident spice expert Max Falkowitz.
Cinnamon buns in Norway are a specialty of Bergen, where they're called skillingsboller ("penny buns"), named so for when they used to cost a shilling (these days one skillingsbolle can run you from 8 to 25 NOK, about $1.50 to $4.75). The name varies in other parts of the country; for example, kanelboller (a direct translation of "cinnamon buns"), kanel i svingene ("cinnamon in the bends"); and kanelsnurr ("cinnamon swirl"). Bergen-based bakery chain Baker Brun says they've been making skillingsbolle ever since their founder Ferdinand Brun started the bakery in 1893. Baker Brun celebrates their famous bun with the yearly Skillingsbollensdag (Cinnamon Bun Day) in Old Bergen where they bake cinnamon buns in a traditional wood-fired oven and hand them out for free to kids.
Traditional Norwegian cinnamon buns aren't frosted or glazed, but are usually topped with pearl sugar or regular granulated sugar. According to my Bergen-based friend Morten Båtbukt, who currently blogs about food at Restaurant Komfort, sticky bun-esque cinnamon rolls topped with chocolate frosting or caramel frosting have only popped up the last five to ten years and aren't as common as plain ones.
But there is such a thing as a princess bun, which won second place in a contest to determine Bergen's favorite bun, right behind cinnamon buns. Princess buns are like cinnamon buns with raisins and egg custard added to the swirl (or with the egg custard plopped in the middle of the bun) and drizzled with frosting (like a variation on pain aux raisins)—sweet inside sweet topped with sweet. It was too much sugar for my liking, but it's surely a hit with the kids.
This recipe for cinnamon buns came from Aslaug Sandvik, a woman of important Norwegian culinary influence to me since she's the mother of my Norwegian boyfriend, Kåre. In turn, she got the recipe from the cooking show Fjernsynskjøkkenet hosted by "the Julia Child of Norway," Ingrid Espelid Hovig. But the recipe Aslaug used is actually for fastalavnsboller, cardamom-flavored buns most commonly eaten during Lent (you can read more about the Swedish version on Serious Eats), which she modified into cinnamon buns. The resulting recipe is very similar to one for traditional skillingsboller. During my visit, Aslaug made a huge batch of these buns, some drizzled in a bit of frosting and some naked. Kåre and I took a huge bag of the naked buns and kept them in the freezer. You can revive them in the oven, or do what Kåre does and leave them out to defrost (assuming you have the foresight to not end up with an ice-cold cinnamon bun).
These cinnamon buns are about half the size of what you'd get at Baker Brun. I think the size is just right. Admittedly, I have sometimes popped two in the oven thinking one is too dainty because my eyes are larger than my stomach, but I've learned my lesson: It's better to savor one bun at a time.