Around Christmas time in Sweden, and other Scandinavian countries, one of the biggest celebrations occurs on December 13th, Saint Lucia’s Day. Lucia is an ancient mythical figure with an abiding role as a bearer of light during the dark Swedish winters.
A popular food eaten on Saint Lucia’s Day are mildly sweet saffron-flavored buns, lussekatter (Lucia cats), shaped like curled up cats and with raisin eyes.
Traditionally, the eldest daughter in the family rose early, wearing a white robe, red sash, and a crown of lighted candles. She was to wake the family by singing Santa Lucia (several versions of the song are now familiar in many languages and countries) while serving them coffee and warm saffron buns to usher in the Christmas season. Nowadays boys and girls don white gowns and a wreath with electric candles to sing and celebrate the mythical Saint Lucia. I first learned about these traditional Swedish Christmas buns from a Swedish friend while I was living on the island of Guam many years ago. One December, she excitedly told me about this beloved tradition and then we celebrated by making warm and wonderful saffron flavored buns for Saint Lucia’s Day. The memory was as warm and sweet as the buns I made today.
Saint Lucia Saffron Buns “Lussekatter”
Slightly adapted from My Little Norway
Makes about 15 buns
1 packet active dry yeast (about 7 grams)
½ teaspoon salt
1 gram saffron (powder or threads)
1½ sticks butter
1½ cups milk
5.5 cups flour
¾-1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon cardamom
1 egg, beaten (for glazing)
In a bowl, combine dry yeast, salt and saffron. If using saffron threads, you can first break the threads a little by crushing in a bowl (or mortar) with a little sugar.
Melt butter in a saucepan, remove from heat then add the milk, stir. Add milk to bowl of yeast, stir. Combine flour, sugar and cardamom in a large bowl. Create a well and pour in the liquid mixture. Mix with a wooden spoon or mixer until the dough forms, adding more milk or flour until the dough no longer sticks to the side or your hands and has formed into a large ball. Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and leave to rise in a warm place until its double in size, about an hour.
Transfer dough to a lightly floured work surface. Knead dough and roll it into a large log. Cut dough into 15 pieces of equal size. Using your hands, roll each piece into a long and thick string about ½-inch wide. Shape them into double spirals, rolling both ends tightly in opposing directions. It should look like and S-shaped bun. Place buns on a parchment lined baking sheet and cover with a kitchen cloth and set aside in a warm place to rise again, for about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425F.
Using a pastry brush, glaze buns with egg or water and place a raisin in each eye of the circles/swirls. Bake until golden brown on top, about 5-9 minutes, depending on size. Allow to cool on wire rack, serve with tea, coffee or hot chocolate.
The saffron buns taste best fresh out of the oven, of course, but can be stored in an airtight container for up to a week.
Notes: The next time I make these I might add a little more yeast as that might make them a little lighter in texture.