Not many staples of the Scandinavian diet are common to American kitchens or eateries, in part because popular dishes like pickled herring, lye-cured lutefisk, salted licorice, and reindeer stew are all quite strongly flavored and must be acclimated to. But ask any Finn or another Scandinavian (neighboring Sweden, Norway, and Denmark share overlapping cuisines) which food tastes most like home, and they’ll likely say vetebullar, which literally translates to “wheat bun.” It’s a pastry traditionally spiced with cinnamon and cardamom to the point where it can be called either a kanelbullar or kardemummabullar, respectively. Cinnamon rolls might be a staple of American breakfast, but it’s not a fika without cardamom buns.
Fika means “coffee break,” but in Scandinavia, it isn’t just an excuse to ditch your desk for 10 minutes—it’s as ritualistic as happy hour, if you swap out wine glasses for coffee cups and fried bar snacks for those delicious buns. These are the buns that inspired the most beloved offering at Sparrow Bakery in Bend, Oregon.
Whitney Keatman, Sparrow’s founder, grew up with a Finnish grandmother who used cardamom liberally in her baking. For Keatman, the buns have evolved into the Ocean Roll, Sparrow’s cardamom and vanilla spiced signature menu item.
Built on a foundation of croissant dough that is coaxed into a large swirl, Ocean Rolls have existed since Keatman founded Sparrow Bakery in 2006 and have grown to become Bend, Oregon’s pastry equivalent of a New York bagel or Florida’s key lime pie. Competing bakers, take note: You cannot use the name “ocean” in your cardamom rolls. It’s trademarked.
Both Sparrow Bakery and the Ocean Roll are so popular that Keatman opened a separate production bakery to supply the myriad markets, cafes, and restaurants that serve Sparrow’s breads, buns, cakes, and treats. I would say I refuse to go to a coffee shop that doesn’t serve them, but it seems like every coffee shop in Bend carries them (until they sell out). Sparrow’s bakery and café location typically has a line of customers that extends out the door, many of whom are tourists from Portland, close to a four-hour drive away, though Sparrow recently opened a new bakery there as well.
David Boyer, manager at Sparrow, spilled the beans (or rather the cardamom) on Ocean Rolls. While the bakery offers a chai latte, and chai is an amalgam of warm spices like those found in a kanelbullar or kardemummabullar, the menu also includes a cardamom latte prepared with house-made cardamom syrup. In addition to the grinders it uses for coffee beans, Sparrow has a dedicated turbo-action grinder with heavy-duty precision burrs for grinding desiccated cardamom pods. The machine happens to be made by the brand Bunn, so yes, they have a cardamom Bunn.
The result is uniformly ground spice that evokes flavors of rose water, white pepper, minerals, and anise. When those notes are combined with sugar and vanilla, the resulting rolls are nothing short of divine.
Boyer says that both Bend locations bake 250 Ocean Rolls each weekday and double that on weekends. The delicacies account for a solid 20% of the business, which is impressive since Sparrow’s almond croissants, sourdough breads, and coconut oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (C.O.C.C., also the acronym for nearby Central Oregon Community College) are also incredible.
One of the Ocean Roll’s most striking features is how delicious it is, not to the last bite, but from the first. With a traditional cinnamon roll, the last bite—the center—is the moistest, most spice-laden part. In many cases, though, the outer layer is just dry and less flavorful. The Ocean Roll is different. It’s made from loftier dough, and the entire top is brushed with egg wash for perfect crispiness. Its cardamon-vanilla sugar caramelizes during baking, meaning that every bite is equally decadent.
Sparrow also occasionally plays with new twists on its signature sweet. There was the Ocean Roll crème puff, and an orange cardamom crème puff. And, as unimaginable as it sounds, not every Ocean Roll finds a home with a hungry soul; as such, Sparrow began upcycling the leftovers into Ocean Roll bread pudding, which is as rich as it sounds. In fact, it’s become so popular that the bakery now finds itself making extra rolls specifically for that menu item.
This is where Ocean Rolls started, but it’s not where they’ve ended. Nearby brewery Boss Rambler Beer Club collaborated with Sparrow and San Diego–based Horus Aged Ales to create the pastry-themed stout the world needs most, Ocean stRoll. Brew day saw dozens of whole Ocean Rolls added to the mash. It tasted like Sparrow’s cardamom latte dialed up past 11, all the way to 15. Actually, make that 15.5—the beer’s alcohol content.