“Who made these?” she asked, sitting across from me at the dinner table the other night, a golden swirled saffron bun in her hand.
“They’re good,” she replied, her face in a slight grimace of satisfaction. It’s been nearly two years since the strokes tangled the words and ideas in my grandmother’s mind. I didn’t expect to necessarily receive such a compliment from her again. But there we were, sharing a meal in the company of extended family, still connecting over baked goods, the things that have brought us together time and time again each Christmas season.
Each fall and winter my grandma, mom, and I would get together, often weekly, to bake lefse, Norwegian waffles, and a variety of cookies. It was our pre-Christmas tradition, one that marked the season with a time of festivity and love. We don’t do it anymore, not since the strokes. For the past week I’ve been thinking about how it doesn’t feel like Christmastime yet–I think the loss of a tradition has a lot to do with that.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be like that, maybe it’s not necessarily gone. Maybe we’re just doing it differently. I’m still trying to bake as much as I can this month, still trying to infuse my home with the Scandinavian aromas of hot butter, sugar, and spice. And even if Grandma is not here baking alongside me, I can still share with her the products, perhaps sparking sweet reminiscences with each familiar flavor and bite.
Grandma used to make airy round buns scented with cardamom. They were golden on top and slick, and they really didn’t need to be spread with any butter, probably thanks to all the butter in the dough. Those buns were on the list of things I had wanted to learn to make in my baking sessions with Grandma. Over the years, as she downsized homes and eventually moved into a retirement home–and as she stopped cooking much independently–I think she forgot which recipe she used. I have a thing about lost recipes; I regret their loss and want to recreate them, but then the task itself becomes daunting.
When I baked a batch of St. Lucia saffron buns the other day, however, I bit into the yeasty, buttery dough and savored a taste and texture reminiscent of so many of the breads of Grandma’s that I grew up eating. Don’t get me wrong, these saffron buns are distinct and quite different from cardamom buns. But if you’ve tasted either, Scandinavian style, then you might understand what I mean when I say that these contained enough of the essence of Grandma’s old baking to bring me back to a place where a taste conjured up a wealth of memories. I hope that for Grandma they did too. At least, these saffron buns have inspired me to try recreating Grandma’s cardamom buns. Maybe the task won’t be as challenging as it might seem.
In the meantime, I’ve been eating saffron buns for days and have a large bag of them in my freezer waiting to serve with the morning coffee on St. Lucia Day, December 13. The day is marked, in Scandinavia, with light and the image of children wearing long, flowing white robes tied with red sashes and carrying candles. One wears a crown of candles. (Read more about the tradition here and here.)
As most celebrations are accompanied by good food, saffron buns are traditionally enjoyed on December 13. Saffron, a very special and expensive spice, is used in a variety of Scandinavian baked goods, especially during Christmastime. It’s the single showcased flavor of these traditional buns, which are soft and buttery and perfect with a cup of coffee, gløgg/glögg, or hot chocolate.
Lucia buns, commonly known as lussekatter, can be formed in a variety of shapes (there’s a great illustration of some of them here). One of the most common and simplest is the S shape, which–as Magnus Nilsson points out in the new The Nordic Cookbook—is really called the julgalt, or Christmas boar. The real lussekatt shape has four curls, which I suppose could be interpreted as paws, each curling outward.
The recipe I’m sharing with you today is quite traditional, flavored simply with saffron and decorated with only a couple of raisins or currants each. If you don’t mind playing around with tradition, you might want to try tossing a handful of currants into the dough, as does Anna Brones, coauthor of Fika: The Art of the Swedish Coffee Break. I tasted her lussekatter recently at an event, and it’s definitely worth a try. Signe Johansen adds cardamom and replaces the currants with sour cherries in her book Scandilicious Baking. No matter how you choose to make them, do be sure to wrap up a package of them to share with a Scandinavian (or anyone, for that matter) in your life. Fresh or toasted, with butter or plain, they’re sure to bring a smile to their face.
St. Lucia Saffron Buns (Lussekatter) There’s no shortage of ways to shape these buns. I’ve included instructions for the simplest version, the S shape, also known as julgalt. But feel free to get as creative as you’d like. Lucia buns are best served on the day that they’re made, as they have a reputation for drying out quickly. If you’re not going to eat them that day, freeze them immediately, recommends Anna Brones. Then when you’re ready to serve them, just defrost them for 10-15 minutes, wrap them in foil, and pop them back in the oven to reheat. If you happen to have extra buns that have begun to dry out, toast them for breakfast the next day or make them into French toast, she suggests.
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 cup sugar
1 tablespoon whiskey
1 cup unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups milk
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
1 teaspoon salt
About 8 cups flour
64 currants or raisins
The night before baking, crush saffron with a tablespoon of the sugar in a small bowl. Pour in whiskey, give it a quick stir, cover with plastic wrap, and let the whiskey draw out the saffron’s color and flavor.
The next day, melt the butter in a medium saucepan. Pour in the milk and bring to lukewarm over medium heat. Scoop out a half cup or so and place in a bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over, cover, and let sit until bubbles form, 10 to 15 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, beat one egg. Stir in the rest of the sugar, salt, the milk and yeast mixture, and the saffron. Take note of the brilliant color the saffron has added, almost like a dye. Pour in the rest of the milk mixture and mix well with a wooden spoon. Gradually add flour, thoroughly mixing as you go; it should still be sticky and moist. Turn dough out onto a lightly-covered surface and knead for about five minutes until light and elastic. Take care to not add too much flour, either when mixing the dough or flouring the work surface, otherwise you’ll end up with dry buns; this is a very sticky dough, and a bench scraper can help pull it from the surface while you work. Return the dough to the mixing bowl. Cover with a tea towel and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
Line baking sheets with parchment. Cut the dough into 32 equal sized pieces. Roll each into a log, working from the center out, until they’re about the thickness of a finger. Form into simple S shapes by simultaneously rolling each end in opposite directions. Place the buns on the baking sheets, then cover with a damp tea towel and let rise again for 30 minutes.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Beat the remaining egg and brush it onto the tops of buns. Press raisins or currants into the crevices, two per bun if you’re making the s shape. Bake until golden yellow on top and cooked through, taking care not to overbake them or they’ll be too dry. Time will depend on size, but it should take 8 to 12 minutes. Transfer to the counter and place another damp tea towel over them while they cool to keep them from drying out.