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In Scandiland, St Lucia arrives on the 13th of December. This is when our Yuletide begins, and it is a day that calls for extra mys, which may be why I love it so much. We have lussekatter, pepparkakor, coffee, glögg, julmust and risgrynsgröt. Rich, colourful, and fragrant food and drinks that make everything a little bit better and a whole lot brighter.
Lussekatter, Lucia cats, are a type of saffron buns that we only eat in Yuletide. This recipe is based on my cinnamon buns, just with a little extra everything as that’s what the season calls for. If you have kids of your own, or some you can borrow, this is a great activity to do with them.
In my guesstimation, I’ve made over 20,000 of these little buggers so far, so the recipe sits in my fingers. I used to make 150-300 of these at a time and stick some in the freezer, but here’s a version that I’ve scaled down to suit a normal household.
LINN’S LUSCIOUS LUSSEKATTER
Depending on how you shape them, this batch will yield somewhere between 20 to 30 buns, and it will take about an hour and a half (two at most) to make them. That’s accounting for the time it takes for the dough to rise, and cleaning the kitchen/doing the washing up afterwards.
- 50 g/1.75 oz fresh yeast, or the equivalent in dry yeast (check the package for instructions/conversion)
- 1 dl/0.5 cup sugar
- 5 dl/2,1 cups milk
- 250 g/1 cup/2 sticks butter
- 1 kg/4,5 cups white flour
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 egg
- 1-1.5 g ground saffron
- a pinch of turmeric, optional
- 2 tbsp spiced rum or any full-strength alcohol, optional (don’t try something silly like wine, beer, liqueur etc. – it’s just gross)
- raisins, optional (these you can soak in silly drinks if you like)
- Start with the saffron. Mix 1-3 sachets ground, or 1-2 tbsp loose threads, saffron with 2 tbsp rum or vodka, and 1 tsp of the sugar. Ground them together and let sit for half an hour. This is not essential but it gives the buns a more intense flavour.
- For fresh yeast, break it into pieces in a large bowl, cover with a couple of tbsp of the sugar and watch the yeast melt into the sugar. It will take a few minutes to dissolve. If you have dry yeast, just follow the instructions on the packet.
- Melt the butter on medium heat in a saucepan. Add the milk and heat until you can stick your finger in there and feel that it’s warm, but not burning hot.
- Pour the warm milk mixture over the yeast and add salt, the rest of the sugar, the saffron, and the pinch of turmeric if you want a more intense colour. Stir until the sugar is completely dissolved.
- Now for my favourite part, working the flour into the liquid. I know some people like to use a machine for this, but I love working a dough with my hands. When you have a smooth, non-sticky ball you’re done. Leave the dough ball in the bowl, cover it with a clean towel and let it rest for 30 minutes. Make yourself a cup of tea, fortify it with a splash of rum and read a good book while you’re waiting.
- Put the dough on a ‘floured’ surface and knead the dough back into a squishy ball. Heads-up: Use extra flour sparingly or, ideally, not at all. Lussekatter can easily get dry and we don’t want that. Now, cut your ball into four quarters and preheat the oven to 200C/400F. NB! The exact temperature depends on your (type of) oven.
- Put three of the quarter balls to the side and cover them with the towel. Take the last one and cut it into 6-8 pieces, depending on your size preference, and roll each piece into a little ball.
- Pick a ball and roll it into a, roughly, 35 cm/14 in long rope. To form a lussekatt, turn the rope into the letter ‘S’ and curl the ends up. Place the bun on a papered baking tray/sheet, cover with a towel and pick a new ball. Keep going until you have turned all the dough into lussekatter, then let them rest and rise for 30 minutes.
- Time to make the eggwash. Crack the egg into a cup and add a tbsp of water. Whisk until it’s a bit frothy and paint all the lussekatter on your first tray. Now get the raisins and stick one or two like an eye into the middle of each swirl, then pop the tray into the oven and bake until they are a beautiful, golden brown. In my current (electric fan) oven it takes about 8-10 minutes at 220C.
- Prepare the second tray while the first one is baking. Go back to your book and leave the yellow delights to cool while you read. Serve with a hot beverage or two. They taste even better if you share the moment with family and/or friends.
VARIATIONS & SUBSTITUTIONS
First of all I would rather not make lussekatter at all, unless I’m baking with kids. Instead, I like to roll the dough out to a rectangular shape and treat it the same way as I do my cinnamon rolls. Spread a layer of soft (not melted!) butter over the dough and get creative. What would you like? Cinnamon? Raisins soaked in Baileys? Or spiced rum? Mincemeat? (The UK kind! I highly doubt pirogi in sweet saffron buns would be a hit.)
Both cinnamon and mincemeat are nice, but my favourite is an almond, marzipan or pistage filling. With or without raisins. Roll the dough up, cut in slices, paint with eggwash, decorate them if you want and bake them like cinnamon rolls as in the picture above.
Alternatively, you can place several rolls in a spring form and bake them together. They will raise and turn into a big wheel that you can either cut like a cake or pull the pieces from. Option three is to make smaller, as in thinner, rolls and form them into different styles of stuffed braids.
Keeping Things Moist
Lussekatter can easily get dry, and no one likes dry bread that wasn’t meant to be dry. To avoid this, make sure all cold ingredients are warm (not hot!) before they go in the mixing bowl. Room temperature is fine, but I prefer to heat them up on the stove. Another important point is to give the dough a good old kneading to give the wheat proteins a chance to mingle and make gluten together.
I’ll take my hands over machines any day, and especially when I’m baking. A soft, sweet dough should feel silky and slightly wet to the touch without sticking to your fingers. When you hand knead you can add the flour little by little and feel when it’s just right. The perfect dough doesn’t really need any extra flour when you roll it out either. The more flour, the higher the risk of getting dry bread. If you are planning to save lussekatter for later, make sure to pack them up as soon as they are cold. The best way to store them, in my not-so-humble opinion, is in a bread bin. The worst way is out in the open.
Now, if you have a batch of dry lussekatter on your hands, you can still do nice things with them. We don’t throw away food if we can help it. One option is to nuke them for a few seconds in a microvawe oven. Not my preferred method, but it’s better than eating dry bread. A much better option is to cut them in half and stick them in the toaster. Put butter and cheese, (pea)nut butter, jam/marmalade, or chocolate spread on it and enjoy a scrumptious Yuletide Deluxe Sammich. Finally, if none of these options appeal to you, there’s always dunking.
Make a nice cup of hot chocolate or whatever you fancy and dunk your dry lussekatt in it. Give it a chance to soak up some wetness and enjoy. Some people like to break them up in pieces, stick them in a bowl and pour hot milk over them. If warm, luxury cereal/porridge sounds good to you, this is well worth trying. Eat it with a spoon for breakfast, as a snack, or as a dessert. You can thank me later… =)
Some Like It Dry…
Now, in case you’re like Bella Swan and really hate things that are moist, this one might be for you. The Scandi version of biscotti is called skorpor, and you can make delightful ones using this recipe. Just follow the description up to where we cut the dough in four. Now, instead of making small ropes, you want to shape each of the four balls into a log, same length as before. Put two on each tray, cover them with a towel and let them rise as the recipe says.
After half an hour, paint the logs with eggwash, or melted butter, and pop them in the oven for 12-20 minutes. The time depends on the thickness of your logs and what type of oven you have. Keep an eye on the colour. You want a light, golden brown. Take them out when they are done and leave them to cool off on a rack. When they have reached room temperature, cut them in halves, length-wise, so you have 8 half logs, then cut each half diagonally in roughly 1-2cm/0,5-1in slices.
Put the slices on baking sheets/trays and heat the oven to 250C/480F. What you want to do now is, essentially, to toast these slices until the three freshly cut sides get a nice golden surface. When they feel like, well toast, it’s time to lower the heat to 100C/210F and make them intentionally dry. In a normal oven, this will take up to three hours depending on where you live, but if you put something that keeps the oven door ajar (a foil “cigar” or a pebble will do) you’ll speed up the process.
Alternatively, you can let them sit for about 45 minutes, then turn the oven off and leave the skorpor in overnight. My grandmother kept them on a tray in the oven instead of sticking them in a biscuit/cookie jar. Like biscotti, a skorpa should be hard and dry, but we’re not talking sand and broken teeth here. The perfect result is a light and brittle little piece of joy.
But I Don’t Drink!
You do not have to use alcohol to make lussekatter, but it helps. Saffron costs an absolute fortune and steeping it in alcohol will help bring out the flavour and colour so you don’t have to use as much of the red gold. If you are using the cheaper saffron, it’s a good idea to ground it in a mortar with a little bit of sugar. It helps with the ground saffron as well.
It doesn’t really matter what kind of alcohol you use. I like spiced rum, but you won’t be able to taste it so a plain vodka will do. If you really don’t want to use alcohol, go for boiling hot water just like when you make tea. But still, no more than two tablespoons!
- Yes, you can use different types of milk, including oats.
- Yes, you can use unsalted butter or baking margarine. Having said that, a little salt acts as a flavour enhancer. If you need to control your salt intake, you can use unsalted and add the salt yourself so you know exactly how much you have in there.
- Yes, you can use dry yeast. Just check your brand and make sure you have the equivalent of 50g fresh/baker’s yeast. If you live in a country where you can buy yeast for sweet dough – yay! – but seriously, any kind will do.
- Yes, you can use loose saffron. For half a gram of powder you need half a tablespoon of threads.
St Lucia arrives with her maidens, stable boys, tomtar etc. They come with news of spring and another cycle of rebirth and harvest again. Photo: Claudia Gründer, CC BY-SA 3.0.
- In Scandiland, the Lucia celebration is a much-loved tradition even among us heathens. At home, children dress up to “lussa” for their parents. In schools, the Lucia rehearsals have been going on for weeks and families are invited to come for a fika and see the Lucia train. Hospitals, workplaces, shopping centres, churches – you name it and I’m pretty sure a Lucia is stopping by. And just in case you missed her for some reason, you can watch it on TV.
- It is often the oldest daughter who’s Lucia, and in schools, she is either appointed or there is a vote. St. Lucia wears a white gown with a red sash and a crown of candles. She leads a procession of maidens, stable boys, gingerbread people, tomtar and other more obscure beings. They sing traditional Yuletide and Christmas songs, wish everybody a peaceful midwinter season and treat family members and guests to lussekatter, pepparkor, glögg, coffee, julmust and risgrynsgröt. It may vary from place to place, but those are the most common treats.
- The tradition of baking and eating lussekatter is centuries old. Saffron was introduced from Asia in the 1300s and it was a precious spice back then as well. If you had the means to get hold of some rare spice, you would save it for a special occasion. The lussekatt came from Germany 300 years later. It would take 500 years for saffron, and the lussekatt, to be common even among ordinary people.
- Lussekatter, also known as “Lucia buns” or “Saffron buns,” are associated with the celebration of St. Lucia’s Day on December 13th. Although St. Lucia is a Catholic saint, the celebration warms the hearts of people from all backgrounds, faiths and walks of life. I guess we could all do with a little extra mys, candlelight and hope in our lives.
- Fun fact: Even though we celebrate Lucia and the saffron bun is called a lussekatt, etymologists and historians will tell you that the sweet treat was not named after the saint of Syracuse, but a certain fallen angel. Lucifer. See, in Germany, the bun was gifted to well-behaved children as a gift from Jesus. It was said, and maybe they truly believed, that Lucifer – the Devil himself – could take the shape of a cat and whip the children with his tail. For some reason, they thought the Lightbringer was scared of light, so the yellow buns were meant to symbolise the sun and scare him off.
- When the lussekatt was introduced in Sweden in the 1600s, it was called a döbelskatt. Döbel is an old word for devil and katt… Well, a katt is a cat, so it was called a devilcat.
- Lussekatter can be shaped in any form, but there are some old, traditional shapes that are still in use and they have symbolic meanings. Many are related to the sun.
- Fun fact: The bun that is commonly called a lussekatt – you know, the one that is shaped like an ‘S’ – is actually not a katt at all. It has the shape of half a sun cross and is actually called a julgalt (Yule boar).
- The lussekatt remains a beloved part of Swedish Christmas celebrations. They are also enjoyed in other Nordic countries and by people worldwide who appreciate their rich, saffron-infused flavour and cultural significance.
- Top Tip: Bake your saffron dough into filled braids and wreaths and decorate them with red ribbons and some embellishments. Now you have some lovely Yuletide gifts to hand out to visitors, or to take or send to family and friends. My great-aunt made huge wreaths of them and gave them away to the people she cared for.
- Tradition bids that you must give Yuletide visitors something to eat or the julfrid – the Yule peace/calm, – may leave with them when they go back home.