A friend of mine, QuirkyKnitGirl, invited me and a few other friends over to greet the rising sun on St. Lucia Day, December 13th. She’d made these traditional Swedish saffron buns called Lussekatter (Lucy’s cats), called such because they ostensibly look like a curled up sleeping cat. Lucia comes from the latin root meaning “light,” (the same as Lucifer does, so in some places the buns were called Lucifer’s cats), and they were eaten on what was believed to be the shortest day (winter solstice), with Santa Lucia bringing the returning light. Nowadays girls dress in white robes and wear a wreath with lighted candles on their heads, parading through town or at festivals to celebrate the light and Santa Lucia. There’s a whole lot more history and legend surrounding Santa Lucia, and you can find some of it here (I haven’t tried her recipe). Lussekatter are also made in Finland, Norway, and Denmark; in Cornwall they’re known as “revel buns” (I love that) and would traditionally be baked on sycamore leaves.
I’m a fan of saffron and a fan of festive traditions, so I immediately fell in love with them and was inspired to make a batch that very day!
As per usual, I adjusted and combined a couple recipes to get it just to my liking. My daughter jokes that I’m incapable of following a recipe exactly and I guess that’s partly true. I used to diligently follow recipes with obsessive precision (especially when baking) when I was a newbie to this whole thing, but now I have lots of opinions and I exercise them regularly.
My recipe sources are here and here (this latter one has great pictures).
Note: pearl sugar is usually used in Sweden for sprinkling on top because it doesn’t melt in the oven. I didn’t have any so I tried sanding sugar once and crystal sugar once; neither melts in the oven and both give a sparkly look that I like (sparkles!). Also, raisins or currants are typically placed in the center of each coil, but my daughter doesn’t believe in fruit in bread, so I omit that part.
- 1 cup milk
- 1/2 tsp saffron threads, finely crumbled
- 1 cup butter (2 sticks)
- 2 pkgs active dry yeast (4 1/2 tsp)
- 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (up to 6 cups, but less is better)
- 3/4 cup sugar
- 1 tsp salt
- 2 eggs + 1 egg yolk, well-beaten
- 1 egg white, reserved aside, mixed with 1 Tbs cold water
- coconut oil, for greasing bowl and cookie sheets
- Sanding or crystal sugar for sprinkling on top
In a small saucepan over medium heat, heat milk and saffron to a simmer; remove from heat and stir in the butter. Set the mixture aside to let the butter melt, stirring occasionally, and for it to cool to lukewarm, approximately 30 minutes. We’re looking for the temperature to be between 105-110°, warm enough to activate the yeast, cool enough not to kill it.
Add yeast to the milk mixture, stir and let sit for 10 minutes.
Mix together in large bowl 3 1/2 cups flour, sugar, and salt.
Add milk-yeast mixture and 2 eggs + 1 yolk to dry ingredients and mix until the dough is smooth but still sticky. I usually add 1 more cup of flour. Also, if you don’t have an electric mixer with a dough hook or paddle, you may start out mixing with a spoon, but will have to switch to using your hands before you’re done. It’s good, use your hands! Just wash them first.
When the dough is elastic and smooth (~7 minutes of mixing/kneading), put it in a large, clean, lightly greased bowl. Cover with a clean dish towel and place in a warm, draft-free place for 1-2 hours (in your oven with the pilot light on is a good spot). It should double in size or at least get quite puffy. Since the dough is a heavy one with lots of butter and eggs (yum!), it may not completely double in size.
Gently punch down the dough and divide it into ~24 roughly log-shaped pieces. One at a time, take the pieces and flatten them out, then fold over toward you, flatten again, fold again. Put aside, seam down.
Working in the same order as you did before (to give the gluten in the dough a little chance to rest), take each piece of dough and roll it out into a long snake, ~15 inches. (It’ll shrink up a bit and we want a finished length of ~12 inches.) Coil one end toward then middle, then coil the other end in the opposite direction, ending up with a coiled S-shaped bun (in art history it’s called a “mammary motif”). Place buns on lightly greased cookie sheets as you go (or use Silpat mats instead of grease, if you have them. They’re awesome), leaving about 3/4 inch between them. I can generally get 12 to a sheet.
Cover the buns with clean dish towels and set in a warm, draft-free place for another hour to rise again. They probably won’t double, but again, they should become nice and puffy. While they’re rising, preheat the oven to 375°. (I usually let the buns rise on top of the stove because heat from the warming oven tends to be beneficial to the rising.)
When the buns are puffy, mix together the egg white and cold water and brush the mixture gently over them, then sprinkle them with sugar.
Bake for 18-20 minutes, trading places of the cookie sheets once after ~10 minutes to ensure even baking (since no oven actually heats evenly ever).
Remove from oven and enjoy! And just try to keep your family from eating them all at once.