Butter and spice for Sankta Lucia Day
Saffron Buns (Lussekatter) are a delight on December 13 and beyond
Taste of Norway Editor
The month of December, perhaps more than any other time of the year, is when I crave traditions. They have a way of keeping me rooted in time—helping me to be present as I savor the season and also to remember my place in a family with generations who have come before. With Norwegian heritage, my favorite food-related Christmas traditions are the syv slags kaker—or seven sorts of Norwegian Christmas cookies—baking lefse, and making elements of the Christmas feasts that my grandparents used to serve. More recently I learned to make lussekatter, buttery saffron-scented buns traditionally served on St. Lucia Day, December 13.
The day is marked in Scandinavia with light and children wearing flowing white robes tied with red sashes and carrying candles (see story at www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/victory-light-winters-dark-gloom/). As most celebrations are accompanied by good food, saffron buns are traditionally enjoyed on St. Lucia Day. Saffron, a very special and expensive spice, is used in a variety of Scandinavian baked goods, especially during Christmastime. It’s the showcased flavor of these traditional buns, which are soft and buttery and perfect with a cup of coffee, gløgg, or hot chocolate.
Lucia buns, commonly known as lussekatter, can be formed in a variety of shapes. One of the most common and simplest is the S shape, which—as Magnus Nilsson points out in the new The Nordic Cookbook—is really called the julgalt, or Christmas boar. The real lussekatt shape has four curls, which I suppose could be interpreted as paws, each curling outward. There’s no shortage of ways to shape these buns. I’ve included instructions for the S shape, but feel free to get as creative as you’d like.
The recipe I’m sharing with you today is quite traditional, flavored simply with saffron and decorated with only a couple of raisins or currants each. If you don’t mind playing around with tradition, you might want to try tossing a handful of currants into the dough, as does Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. I tasted her lussekatter recently at an event, and it’s definitely worth a try. Signe Johansen adds cardamom and replaces the currants with sour cherries in her book Scandilicious Baking. No matter how you choose to make them, do be sure to wrap up a package of them to share with a Scandinavian (or anyone, for that matter) in your life. Fresh or toasted, with butter or plain, they’re sure to bring a smile to their face.
St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter)
Lucia buns are best served on the day they’re made as they have a reputation for drying out quickly. If you’re not going to eat them that day, freeze them immediately, recommends Anna Brones. Then when you’re ready to serve them, just defrost them for 10 to 15 minutes, wrap them in foil, and pop them back in the oven to reheat. If you happen to wind up with dried-out buns, toast them for breakfast the next day or make them into French toast, she suggests.
½ tsp. saffron threads
1 cup sugar
1 tbsp. whiskey
1 cup unsalted butter
2 ½ cups milk
3 tsps. active dry yeast
1 tsp. salt
About 8 cups flour
64 currants or raisins
The night before baking, crush saffron with a tablespoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Pour in whiskey, give it a quick stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let the whiskey draw out the saffron’s color and flavor.
The next day, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the milk and bring to lukewarm over medium heat. Scoop out a half cup or so and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over, cover, and let sit until bubbles form, 10 to 15 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, beat one egg. Stir in the rest of the sugar, salt, the milk and yeast mixture, and the saffron. Take note of the brilliant color the saffron has added, almost like a dye. Pour in the rest of the milk mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, thoroughly mixing as you go; it should still be sticky and moist.
Turn dough out onto a lightly covered surface and knead for about five minutes until light and elastic. Take care to not add too much flour, either when mixing the dough or flouring the work surface, otherwise you’ll end up with dry buns; this is a very sticky dough, and a bench scraper can help pull it from the surface while you work. Return the dough to the mixing bowl. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Line baking sheets with parchment. Cut the dough into 32 equal sized pieces. Roll each into a log, working from the center out, until they’re about the thickness of a finger. Form into simple S shapes by simultaneously rolling each end in opposite directions. Place the buns on the baking sheets, then cover with a damp tea towel and let rise again for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400° F. Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the tops of buns. Press raisins or currants into the crevices, two per bun if you’re making the S shape. Bake until golden yellow on top and cooked through, taking care not to overbake them or they’ll be too dry. Time will depend on size, but it should take 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to the counter and place another damp tea towel over them while they cool to keep them from drying out.
Makes 32 buns.
A version of this story originally appeared on Daytona’s blog, Outside Oslo: www.outside-oslo.com/2015/12/10/st-lucia-saffron-buns-lussekatter.
Daytona Strong is The Norwegian American’s Taste of Norway editor. She writes about her family’s Norwegian heritage through the lens of food at her Scandinavian food blog, www.outside-oslo.com. Find her on Facebook (www.facebook.com/OutsideOslo), Twitter (@daytonastrong), Pinterest (@daytonastrong), and Instagram (@daytonastrong).
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.