Sunday, December 13, is Santa Lucia Day in Sweden and for Swedes here in Maine, too. Dressed in white with a red sash and wearing a crown of candles, a young lady wakes up her household to offer them sweet buns and coffee.
My maternal grandmother, Victoria Swanson Curtiss, was born in Sweden and came to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century, when she was six, the oldest of three immigrant children who were joined by three more born in the States. Even though she might have qualified as the eldest daughter to be Santa Lucia for her family, as far as I can recall, she never mentioned the holiday.
Perhaps the observance fell by the wayside along with the Swedish language that my great-grandfather Peter insisted not be spoken in the home. Still, I have a recipe for Santa Lucia buns written in my mother’s hand. Grandma was a great cook but not much of a baker — that was her sister Lee’s talent — so I don’t recall Grandma-made buns, and I don’t recall mom ever making them either. Curiosity about the recipe, though, prompted me to give it a try.
First off, why St. Lucia and why December 13?
St. Lucia was an early Christian, martyred in 304 CE, who hailed from Sicily, Italy. She was reputed to carry food to prisoners, lighting her way in dungeons with candles she wore on her head to leave her hands free to handle food. And even though Christians in Sicily at the time were allowed to worship, they were sometimes scapegoated when something went awry. Lucia, who swore to live as a celibate, deprived an arranged-for-husband of her dowry. In revenge, she was turned over to authorities who killed her. How St. Lucia came to be revered in Sweden is a bit murky, attributed sometimes to Viking visits to Sicily, but the celebration seems not to have been widely observed until the past couple hundred years.
December 13 under the ancient Julian calendar occurred on the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, which now under the Gregorian calendar occurs later in the month. One tradition reports that a thousand years ago, King Canute declared Christmas celebrations would begin on December 13. As part of the far northern latitudes, Sweden certainly would welcome any celebration of the coming of the light just as we in Maine do when it begins to get dark by 4:00 in the afternoon.
St. Lucia buns need saffron. My mom’s recipe reflects her concern with cost when it calls for one sixteenth of a teaspoon of the pricey seasoning. At that anemic amount, the saffron is undetectable and the range of amounts in other recipes varies from half a teaspoon up to a whole teaspoon. I suppose you ought to add whatever you can afford.
I used my mixer for this recipe, which shortened kneading time. Brushing the tops of the buns with beaten egg white gives them a charming glossy look and anchors sugar sprinkled on them.
The buns are pleasant, and like all yeasted breakfast cakes and breads in the brioche family, have butter, eggs, sugar and milk; are best eaten when warm and spread with more butter or jam; and perfect with coffee or tea, whether or not they are served by a candle-crowned family member.
Santa Lucia Buns
Makes 18 buns, about 9 servings
3/4 cup milk, scalded
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup, half a stick, butter
½ to 1 teaspoon powdered saffron
2 packages or 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
4 cups flour
1 egg white slightly beaten
¼ chopped blanched almonds, optional
Granulated sugar for sprinkling, optional
To the scalding milk in a mixer bowl, add sugar, salt, butter and saffron, let the butter melt, and allow the mixture to cool to lukewarm.
Put the lukewarm water in a small bowl, and sprinkle the yeast on it, allow to foam up, stirring it a little bit.
Add the dissolved yeast, egg and 2 cups of flour to the milk and butter mixture in the mixing bowl and all beat together for a couple of minutes, scraping down the sides and gradually adding the remaining 2 cups of flour.
Continue to beat until the dough that forms cleans the sides of the bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead until it feels silky and springy.
Put into a lightly oiled bowl, turning it so all sides are very lightly oiled. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double.
When doubled, turn out, knead lightly for a minute then divide into 18 balls. Let rest.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and grease a baking sheet or line it with parchment paper.
Roll each ball into a 12-inch rope, and cut in half.
Coil in each end of the 6-inch piece. Place the 2 coiled pieces back to back on the baking sheet.
Brush the tops of the buns with beaten egg and put one raisin in the center of each coil.
Sprinkle lightly with sugar and optional almonds.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool slightly on a rack, but serve warm.