I‘ve shared before that Advent is my absolute favorite liturgical season. I love the joyful anticipation, the hope-in-darkness glow, and the cozy hygge atmosphere of a slow-unfolding Christmas. But if I had to pick one day of Advent as my favorite of the season, it would be the Feast of St. Lucia (or Lucy), hands down!
Both my husband’s family and mine are a pretty even mix of British and Scandinavian ancestry, and my Swedish heritage is definitely the one my family cultivated and cherished the most in my growing up years. That said, I never actually celebrated Lucia Day until I was an adult. Although, I was definitely smitten with the book Kirsten’s Surprise when I was Sugar’s age. Oh, who am I kidding? I still love that book.
In college, I spent a lot of time reading Scandinavian cookbooks, keeping in mind what my grandfather had told me about his favorite Swedish dishes and what my aunt and uncle had told me about their years living in Finland, which is actually a culinary blend of Russian and peninsular Scandinavian cooking. I found it so rewarding to bake up special treats for my roommates featuring cardamom and gravlax and capers – tastes that were completely new to some of them – and proudly proclaiming that these were the flavors of my heritage.
Food is such an important way that humans ground themselves in time and place. It’s no arbitrary coincidence that the Bible speaks so specifically and intimately of foods, from the preparations for the Passover Seder to the mystery and miracle of the Eucharist. Food defines us and connects us. By connecting myself to the foods of my heritage, I was able to learn more about myself and my ancestry in a visceral way that was simple and gratifying to share with my husband, children, and friends.
It took several years of false starts before I found an authentic Lucia Bun recipe that was also very, very easy to work with. My requirements were (1) no fussy ingredients, other than the saffron, which is essential, (2) has to be able to be made in advance, (3) a pliable dough that is easy for the kids to help me shape. I know a lot of families choose to pop a can of Pillsbury cinnamon rolls in the oven and call it good, and I am never one to knock easy when it comes to holiday celebrations – but if you want to try your hand at an authentic St. Lucia bun, then this is the recipe for you!
Although this recipe is admittedly a bit more time consuming than the Pillsbury alternative, it is a very simply bread dough. I mean like really easy. The consistency pretty much makes it fool-proof; even my two-year-olds have had no problem handling and shaping the buns. And since they rise in the refrigerator overnight, they can be made the day before and baked up hot on Lucia Day morning. Because don’t nobody need to be making no bread dough before dawn.
A special note on saffron: Do. Not. Skip. The. Saffron. I know, I know – saffron is a really pricey spice. I have found it available seasonally at COSTCO in our area for a fantastic price, and Trader Joe’s used to sell a small bottle of it very reasonably. Asian food markets often carry it. Here are a few well-reviewed options if you’d like to order online (1) (2) (3). Saffron is an investment, and I don’t often use it except for very special occasions, but there is literally nothing else that tastes like it. Without it, the recipe won’t have that beautiful golden color, and it won’t taste right at all. The lussekatter just won’t be lussekatter. So, please don’t break the bank. But, please don’t skip the saffron!
P.S. Our family of 7 doubles this recipe to have plenty for snacking throughout the day. This year, we’ll be quadrupling it so that we can share with friends and Sugar + Spice’s American Heritage Girls’ Troop! Note: If you want to make the double-coil (two overlapping s-shapes) as depicted in the book Kirsten’s Surprise, this recipe will make 8, not 16, buns.
Lussekatter (St. Lucia Buns)
slightly adapted from The Swedish Table by Helene Henderson
makes 16 buns
This recipe can be made ahead through the shaping step and left in the refrigerator to rise overnight. Do not put the egg wash on until you are ready to bake. You must use fresh (i.e. plump) raisins. If you use hard, dried out ones, they won’t stick to the dough as well, and they may fall off in the baking – ask me how I know. If all you’ve got is dried out raisins, though, simply soak them in boiling water for 10 minutes to plump them up before you shape the buns, and you’ll be good to go. Oh, and whatever you do: don’t. skip. the. saffron!
1 T sugar
¼ c. warm water
2 ¼ t. dry yeast
½ c. salted butter
¾ c. milk
1 t. saffron threads (1/2 gram), ground in a mortar and pestle
3 c. flour
½ c. sugar
1 T vegetable oil (to grease bowl)
2 egg yolks, beaten with 1 T water
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine the tablespoon of sugar, yeast, and warm water. Let stand 10 minutes.
In a small saucepan, heat the butter, milk, and saffron until the butter has melted, but do not let it boil. Remove from heat and allow to cool about 8 minutes, or until the temperature falls below 110F. Add the milk mixture to the yeast mixture. Then, add the flour and remaining ½ c. sugar.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 1 minute. Transfer to an oiled bowl, cover loosely with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for 1 hour. The dough will be dense and will not rise much.
Divide the dough into 16 pieces. Roll each piece into a 6’’ long strip. Coil ends in opposite directions, forming a tightly curled S-shape. Place on parchment lined baking sheet, covered with plastic wrap, and let rise 1 hour more. Refrigerate overnight.
In the morning, allow the buns to rest on the counter while you preheat the oven to 400F. Brush buns with beaten egg yolk mixed with water and place 1 raisin in the center of each curl, 2 per bun. Bake buns 10-15 minutes until golden brown. Serve warm with coffee, hot chocolate, and pepparkakor.