Today, the 13th of December, is St Lucia's day. In most parts of Scandinavia, these saffron buns - also known as Lussekatter or Lussebullar - are made to celebrate.
Lucia of Syracuse was one of the earliest Christian martyrs, killed by the Romans in AD 304. Lucia - Lucy in English - is the patron saint of the blind and her celebration is one of light and hope at the darkest point in the year.
Each country has a different St Lucia song about light and darkness. Here's the first stanza of the Swedish song in English (from Sweden.se, which also has more information and photos of the celebrations):
"The night treads heavily
around yards and dwellings
In places unreached by sun,
the shadows brood
Into our dark house she comes,
bearing lighted candles,
Saint Lucia, Saint Lucia!"
John Donne wrote about Lucia's day and light too:
Lucy’s, who scarce seven hours herself unmasks;
The sun is spent, and now his flasks
Send forth light squibs, no constant rays;"
A Nocturnal Upon St. Lucy’s Day – John Donne, c.1627.
Having looked at some more pictures of Lucia buns today I've realised that I should probably be shaping them by coiling the ends round to give a curlier 's' shape. Having said that, I've become rather fond of the way I've been tucking the ends underneath and their slightly awkward shape once they've been baked.
There isn't enough saffron in my recipe to turn the colour of the dough more than a creamy pale yellow but I didn't want to add more (it's so expensive and I don't like a strong saffron flavour) or use food dye. I tried cranberries and raisins to stud the bread but I loved dried cherries the most (as suggested by Signe). The cherries plump up from the moisture in the dough and have a spicy flavour that works beautifully.
I really love these buns - they're soft and tender inside, with a delicate sweetness and a crisp, shiny crust. They've warmed my cold hands and brightened many of my dark December mornings.
St Lucia Saffron Buns
(inspired by Scandilicious Baking by Signe Johansen, Trine Hahnemann and The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas)
10 strands of saffron
60g unsalted butter
10g fresh yeast/4g instant yeast
300g plain flour
30g caster sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 egg + 1 for eggwash*
16 dried cherries (or raisins, cranberries etc)
Heat the milk and saffron in a small saucepan until the milk starts to steam and bubble. Pour into a bowl/jug to steep and cool. Place the butter in the milk pan and heat until melted - leave to cool in the pan. If you're using fresh yeast, when the milk has cooled to body temperature crumble the yeast into the milk and stir. Place the flour, sugar and salt into the bowl of a stand mixer and stir together with a spoon. Stir the instant yeast into the dry ingredients at this point if you're using it. Pour the milk, butter and one beaten egg into the bowl and stir together until it starts to form a dough. Put onto the machine and knead on medium-high (I use 6 on my KA) for 5 minutes (do time this). The dough should be slightly shiny, elastic and coming away from the sides of the bowl - it's quite a wet dough. Cover with cling film and leave to rise for 75 minutes or until doubled (you can also leave it in the fridge overnight to rise).
Scrape the dough out onto a floured surface and give it a few gentle folds to knock out some of the air. Divide the dough into 8 (around 75g each) and place the dough pieces under a clean tea towel. Take one out and roll and shape it into a rope about 7"/18cm long then put it back under the towel to rest while you shape the others. Get a baking sheet and line it with baking parchment. Take the rope you formed first and shape into an S by curling each end round. Place onto the baking sheet and cover with another clean tea towel. Repeat with the other seven. Leave to rise covered in the tea towel for 15 minutes and preheat the oven to 180C/350F.
When they've risen, push a cherry into the middle of the swirl at the top and bottom of each bun, pushing deep into the bun (or they pop out). In a small bowl, beat the other egg with a pinch of salt. Brush the buns with the egg wash, carefully covering all of the sides and down into the dips. Place into the oven and bake for 16-20 minutes (mine are usually perfect at 18), turning half way if your oven bakes unevenly - they're ready when they're risen, deep golden brown and sound hollow if you tap them on the bottom.
Remove to a wire rack to cool for a few minutes - eat while they're still hot. They keep for 3-4 days in a sealed bag or box - reheat for 5 minutes in a hot oven before eating after the first day. They also freeze well.
(Makes 8 buns)
*I know using egg wash is a pain as you don't use much but these buns look so much better shiny and brown - I tend to use the remaining egg in scrambled eggs or something similar.
Three more recipes that include milk:
Coconut Cream Cake
Pancakes with Lemon & Thyme Sugar
Vanilla Ice Cream