Santa Lucia saffron bread, Sweden

Santa Lucia saffron bread / buns or as the Swedes call them, Lussekatter.
Text and Photo © JE Nilsson and CM Cordeiro 2012

In Sweden the 13th of december is called the night of Lucia. The name is connected to the Sicilian saint of St Lucia through the Catholic past of Sweden however the actual celebration itself is that of the longest night of the year, the antipode of the Midsummer Night celebration.

In its Nordic context it was thought that this, the longest and darkest night of the year was filled with so many spirits and generally unholy workings that one had better stay awake. And to this end, till this day the night is often spent partying and in the morning, white clad girls with candles in their hair with friends visit teachers and elderly relatives. The girls with the candles in their hair signify the coming of light and the lengthening of the days again till Midsummer’s.

Today, Swedes around the world delight in celebrating Lucia on 13th December with song and dance, much like Christmas caroling in churches of the Roman Catholic faith. A beauty contest of sorts to find the year’s “Santa Lucia” queen often begins in early December across various regions of Sweden, a girl who heads the choir specifically for this celebration, crowned with a ring of lit candles on her head.

On the culinary front, a golden yellow saffron bread with the most delicate of aromas, made out in various shapes familiar to Nordic folklore is baked for this occasion, one where I find difficult to resist not in the least because of its aroma or colour, but in its lightest of texture of breads dotted with raisins.

Different types of flours have different gluten properties. Bread should have high protein and cookies low protein. Check the bag for this. Adding the flour slowly to the dough will help you to get to the right consistency when the dough comes together and stops sticking to the kneading board.

Light and fluffy saffron bread

Baking your own saffron bread is not difficult. It also just takes a few ingredients and a few minutes of work. Most recipes wrestle with the problem that saffron bread easily go dry, where there are several Swedish discussion boards addressing the topic, so they try to add more fat and even cottage cheese to get around that. But here in our home, we got around the problem in a natural and better way. We just use good quality high protein flour and less fat.

To try this you’ll need

50g yeast
70g butter
500 ml milk
0,5g saffron
150 ml sugar
I tsp salt
less than 1,5 liter of high protein (10 – 12% protein) baking wheat flour
1 egg
+ 1 egg and raisins for decorating

An egg glaze gives the buns an even gold at the top when done.

This is how to do it

1. Prepare one 5 liter bowl for dough. Shred one package of fresh yeast in the bowl. Add 1 tsp of salt.

2. Pound the saffron (0.5 gram is enough) with 1 tsp of sugar in a mortar to make it powdery.

3. Melt 70 grams of butter in a pot. Add the saffron! Now, gradually add 500 ml of milk into the butter and let it warm up. Check with your finger and take the pot off the fire when it is exactly 37 centigrades or – exactly when it does not feel warm or cold any more – as in, not even luke warm. Baking yeast is a live organism and if it gets to warm it dies and it won’t raise.

4. Pour the saffron + butter + milk mixture over the yeast and stir until the yeast dissolves.

5. Add in the 150 ml of sugar, then add and stir in flour until you have a really sticky and gluey dough paste in the pot. Stir and enjoy the sensation of watching the formation of the gluten strands that will give these buns their fluffiness. No kneading needed as yet. When after a few minutes, you are happy with the sticky gluiness of the dough you should have added about 1 liter of the flour. Now give the dough a light dusting, tidy up the bowl and leave it as it is under a clean towel to raise for about 30 minutes or until it is at least double its size.

Here comes the magic

When the dough has risen to at least double in size, scrape it out on a baking table. Stretch it out the best you can and crack one egg onto the dough, then fold, knead and add flour as needed until you have the best, the most sensuous and easiest to handle dough you have ever seen. Roll it out to strings and have fun.

The most classic Swedish bread shape is the ‘S’. In Swedish mythology this is the thunderbolt of Thor.

Even scarier – a double thunderbolt. This, should keep you safe during the night of the Lucia. You can top these buns with icing sugar, coarse sugar or have them as is.

In Sweden, they would enjoy this together with a big cup of black coffee however a solid mug of Chocolate Caliente is an even better choice in the wee hours of the Lucia morning.

Other bread shapes include anything from hearts to harps and the Nordic Yule Goat or Gävlebocken. The latter is the world’s largest Yule Goat inaugurated every first day of advent in the town of Gävle in Sweden and has since 1996, been burnt down 25 times. Today, everyone can keep an eye on it via webcam.

The Yule Goat that goes back to pre-Christian days when goats were connected in folklore to the Norse god Thor, who rode the sky in a chariot drawn by two goats. The curled up ‘C’ can be said to represent the shape of the horns of the Yule Goat. The basic overhand knot, is the tail of Saerimner and some other shapes are far more graphic than that.

Enjoy!

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