Lussekatter are saffron buns traditionally baked and served aroud St. Lucy’s day in Sweden and Norway. They are made of a yeast dough very similar to cinnamon buns, but flavoured with ground saffron. The saffron makes these buns bright yellow in colour, and it also gives them its distinctive taste. The saffron bun is a typical food connected to St. Lucy’s day. That occurrence is a big calendar celebration in Scandinavia, and its roots are actually pre-Christian.
Once upon a time in the forests of Scandinavia there was an evil creature, a female demon named Lussi. Once a year, on the longest night of winter, Lussi would set off on a Wild Hunt punishing those who had not finished their work before the festive time of Yule. People in the villages would stay awake on that long night, clutching their axes, ready to protect their houses in case Lussi came down the chimney. Children were especially frightened because Lussi was known to capture those that had misbehaved.
Once upon a time in the Sicilian town of Siracusa there was a young girl known to be of help to persecuted Christians hiding in the darkness. Betrothed to a Pagan man, she refused to marry him choosing to give all her wealth away and devote her life to Christ. Tortured and killed for her belief, she died a martyr and was later canonized. Her name was Lucia.
Lussi’s Wild Hunt coincided with the winter solstice, that in the Gregorian calendar occurred on December 13th. December 13th is also the day that the Syracusan saint is celebrated. Lucia’s own name derives from the Latin word for light, and the Sicilian virgin is also known as the bearer of light. In a land cursed with winter darkness, the promise of the return of longer days after the winter solstice clearly deserves a celebration. Dating back to the days of Lussi and her Wild Hunt, later replaced by the festival of the light in the darkness, St. Lucia celebrations in Scandinavia have something magical that transcends Christian traditions.
There are several traditions that revolve around this saint up in Scandinavia that are commonly observed. The simplest way of summarising it is: a girl dressed in white with a wreath of candles on her head leading a procession singing traditional tunes in the candle light. This occurs in every church and in every school and it is a fairytale-like moment in the dooming darkness of days with 2PM sunsets. As in every festivity, there is a food linked to this day and that food is a saffron bun named lussekatt (plural lussekatter). The leading girl in the procession, the one that impersonates Lucia, offers saffron buns to the people.
Lussekatter (or Lussebullar) recipe
- 30 g margarine
- 100 ml milk
- 10 g yeast
- 25 g sugar
- 0,25 g crushed saffron
- 160 g flour
- 1 egg
- raisins for decoration
A clarification about the saffron quantity. Here in Sweden saffron is sold in every store during Advent because saffron bun baking is extremely popular. It comes crushed in small packets that weigh 0,5 g. When the Swedes bake their lussekatter they don’t just use such small amounts of flour and margarine but make a way larger yield. A “regular” batch of lussekatter Swedish style calls for two packets of saffron, 1 g total. Since I have rescaled my quantities, I have used half a packet, so something around 0,25 g.
In a small pot combine the margarine and milk. Set it over low heat and stir until melted. Add the saffron and let the mixture cool down until lukewarm. When this mixture reaches body temperature, add the fresh yeast and stir to melt. In a bowl, combine flour, sugar and salt, and pour in the yeast mixture. Work the dough into a nice yellow ball and leave it in the bowl. Cover the bowl with cling film to prevent the dough from drying, and throw a kitchen cloth over it to keep it in the dark. Leave the dough to rise for no less than 40 minutes. The dough should be very soft but not sticky, so a little more flour may be needed to properly work it with the hands.
Cinnamon buns are a regular baked good found in every supermarket and gas station all across Sweden. During Advent the main bun on display will be the lussekatt. Lussekatter may take up several shapes, but the most common is a reversed S. The size varies, but the buns are generally around 10-12 cm long. For my first ever batch of lussekatter, not only did I reduce the quantity of the ingredients, but I also reduced their size, making a batch of 16 small two-bite versions of the traditional buns.
When the dough has been sitting for some time, it is time to make the buns. Preheat the oven to 250°C. Take a small amount of dough and roll it into a sausage about as thick as a pencil. Swirl both ends to create the reversed S-shape (see pictures throughout the post) and place the buns on an oven tray lined with baking paper. The buns need some extra time to rest before they go into the oven, but I figured that when making such small versions even that waiting time can be reduced. By the time I was done making them, brushing them with eggwash, and adding the raisins, they were ready to bake.
So after shaping up the last lussekatt, lightly beat the egg and brush every bun with eggwash. Lastly, press a raisin into each swirl. As I wrote before, traditionally the buns would need an extra 30 minutes before going into the oven, but even if baked right after I noticed no difference in the outcome. (Why did I rush it? I was trying to see if I could squeeze the whole procedure in one hour and a half in order to be able to bake those with my students at school. And I managed!)
Bake the buns at 250°C for 5-6 minutes. They will still considerably grow as they bake, so make sure to leave enough room on the baking tray to avoid them from touching one another. Enjoy with a glass of mulled wine in the light of candles.