December 13 is St. Lucia Day in Sweden and other Scandinavian countries. St. Lucia (who was martyred by the Romans in A.D. 304), is considered the patron saint of light, and in Sweden her day marks the beginning of the Christmas season. It is also a day to celebrate hope and the return of light, as days start getting longer at the winter solstice.
Tradition holds that on St. Lucia Day, the children in a family present their parents with breakfast in bed. The procession is usually led by the oldest daughter dressed in a white robe and wearing a crown of candles to represent St. Lucia.
One of the highlights of the breakfast is St. Lucia buns, which are colored and scented with saffron to make them golden in color. (Sometimes the dough is braided into a wreath rather than individual buns.)
I began making these buns years ago in homage to my great grandmother, who emigrated from Sweden to the United States when she was about 16 years old, making the journey with two other young women about her age. After passing through Ellis Island, she made her way to Chicago, where she became a house servant to a wealthy family. She later married my great grandfather, and they spent the remainder of their lives raising a family and farming in northwest Indiana. To my knowledge, she never saw her family in Sweden again.
St. Lucia Dough
¼ cup warm (but not hot!) water
2 packages active dry yeast
A pinch of sugar
¾ cup sugar
1 can evaporated milk (1 2/3 cups)
2 tsp kosher salt
¼ tsp saffron, powdered or crushed in a mortar and pestle (alternatively, you can use 1 tsp ground cardamom, ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg, and ¼ tsp turmeric)
¾ cup (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
7 to 7 ½ cups bread flour (all-purpose flour also works)
½ cup light raisins (plus more for decorating)
Egg Wash Glaze
¼ cup milk
Proof the yeast. Combine the water, yeast, and a pinch of sugar in a bowl and stir until dissolved. Let stand until bubbly, about 5 minutes. If the mixture does not bubble, start over with different yeast.
Add the sugar, evaporated milk, 3 eggs, salt, and saffron (or mixed spices) and mix well. Stir in the butter and 3 cups of flour and mix well. Gradually add the remaining flour until a soft dough is formed. Cover and let stand for 30 minutes.
Turn out the dough onto a floured surface and knead well, about 10 minutes. Knead in the ¼ cup of raisins. Place the dough in a greased bowl, turn to coat well, cover, and let rise until doubled, about 1 hour.
Prepare the egg wash glaze mixture by whisking together the ¼ cup milk and egg.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
Shaping the Dough
Now comes the fun part. Turn the dough out onto a lightly oiled surface. Divide the dough into three equal parts. Keep covered to prevent drying.
At this point you can opt to make a braided wreath from one part of the dough and buns from the remaining two parts, or you can make all three parts of the dough into buns (or make three wreaths! The possibilities are almost endless!)
The different shapes of St. Lucia buns all rely on the same technique. Divide one part of the dough (remember, you should have at least 2 parts of the dough recipe left if you opted to make a wreath) into two equal pieces, then divide one of those pieces into 12 equal pieces. (Set the other piece aside, covered to prevent drying, to be divided into 12 pieces later.)
Lucia Cats (Lussekatter): Roll each of the 12 pieces into a rope about 8 inches long. Form each rope into an S shape, coiling the ends in opposite directions.
Golden Oxen: Shape each bun by folding the rope in half to make a vee and gently pressing the halves together from the fold upward. Now coil each end downward and to the outside to form a horn on each side.
Golden Chariots: Chariots are made by combining two cats. Form two cats, then crisscross them at their centers. Just remember that chariots take twice as much dough, that is, 24 cats to make 12 chariots.
Regardless of the shape, place the buns on a greased or parchment-covered baking sheet. Brush with the glaze mixture and press a raisin into the center of each coil. Cover and let rise until doubled. Brush again with the glaze and place in the oven (375 F) for 15 minutes or until golden. Optional: Sprinkle lightly with coarse-grained sparkling sugar after brushing with the glaze and just before baking.