Santa Lucia Crown Bread
Saffron bread makes for a stunning presentation that’s easy to prepare
Christy Olsen Field
Taste of Norway Editor
Santa Lucia is on my mind this time of the year, and I often find myself humming the melody throughout the holiday season.
Like many kids growing up in the 1990s, I was first introduced to the tradition of Santa Lucia through my beloved American Girl doll, Kirsten Larson. One year I saved up my money and gift certificates so I could buy her Lucia gown and crown of candles.
It’s also a tradition that I participated in over the years: at my church in Idaho Falls, and in the luciatåg at Pacific Lutheran University.
The crown may have never been mine to wear, but I love the idea of celebrating light in the darkest weeks of the year, especially served with treats.
The recipe for my Santa Lucia Crown Bread falls in the “Scandinavian Inspired” category, since I couldn’t find an equivalent in Scandinavian baking. (If I’m mistaken, please send me a note at firstname.lastname@example.org!) I found the recipe on a few Catholic homeschooling blogs, but I adapted it to add in some Scandinavian flavor.
This saffron-orange scented loaf makes a beautiful presentation but is actually quite easy to make. It’s best when freshly baked, but you can prepare it the night before, let it rise overnight in the fridge, and bake in the morning. The bread itself is barely sweet, so my taste testers drizzled their slices with extra icing. I’m sure the leftover slices would make an excellent French toast!
Santa Lucia Crown Bread
By Christy Olsen Field
Adapted from karenedmisten.blogspot.com
pinch of saffron threads
1 tbsp. hot water
1½ cups milk
¼ cup + 1 tbsp. sugar
2 packages active dry yeast (4 ½ tsp.)
6 tbsp. unsalted butter
2 large eggs, room temperature
zest and juice of one orange
1 tsp. table salt
5 ½ to 6 ½ cups all-purpose flour
Icing and garnish:
2 cups powdered sugar
2-3 tbsps. orange juice
pinch of salt
¼ cup dried currants or cranberries
candles (I used birthday candles)
In a small cup, crumble the saffron threads with your fingertips and cover with 1 tbsp. hot water. Set aside for 15 minutes to bloom the saffron, to maximize its color and flavor profile.
In a small saucepan, warm up the milk until it reaches 105°F to 115°F. Pour ½ cup of the warmed milk into a mixing bowl, and set the saucepan aside. Add 1 tbsp. sugar to the mixing bowl, and sprinkle the yeast on top. Set aside for 5 minutes to let the yeast bubble and get frothy.
Meanwhile, add the butter to the remaining milk in the saucepan and stir to melt. Add milk-butter mixture to the mixing bowl, and whisk in the eggs, juice, saffron liquid, orange juice, orange zest, and salt until combined. Then incorporate the flour, one cup at a time, until it comes together into a ball of dough. Start with 5 ½ cups of flour, but you can add in more, ¼ cup at a time, if your dough seems too sticky. Turn out the dough onto a floured surface, and knead by hand for 8-10 minutes until it becomes a smooth ball of dough (you can also use the dough hook on a stand mixer if you prefer). If you poke the dough with your finger, the dough should spring back right away.
Lightly grease the mixing bowl, and put the dough back in to rise. Cover the bowl and set in a warm part of your kitchen to rise for 1 hour or so, or until doubled in size. Punch down the dough and divide into three equal sections. With your hands, roll each section to a 30-inch-long log. If the dough contracts, don’t worry: the gluten might need to relax a little. Let it sit for 10 minutes, and then proceed to roll it out to its full length.
Pinch together the three sections and make a braid. Pinch the braided ends into a circle, and place on a parchment lined baking sheet. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and let rise for 30-60 minutes in a warm place while you preheat the oven. You can also let it rise overnight in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Bake the braided loaf for 25 minutes until golden brown. The internal temperature should be at 190°F or higher. Let cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack.
Prepare the glaze by stirring together powdered sugar, orange juice, and a pinch of salt. Drizzle over the cooled bread, and garnish with the dried currants or cranberries. To go for the whole Lucia crown effect, add several candles when serving.
Note: If you find it intimidating to work with yeast, grab an instant read digital kitchen thermometer and try this recipe! My thermometer of choice is the Thermapen (I use mine every single day), but I also really like the $25 Thermapop version.
This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.