Midwinter magic: Lussekatter or Saffron buns

Lussekatter or Saffron buns
A couple of years ago I used to dream about living in Sweden. I don’t really know how the idea of it came to me, maybe it was the music I used to listen to, with songs about the dark cold Nordic winters, mystic and deep relationship with the nature and celebration of its beauty. Soon I started learning Swedish language and I was enchanted by the sound of it. I learned about Swedish culture, customs and food and felt a strong belonging to the country I’ve never visited before.

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Lussekatter or Saffron buns-2In mid December, when the dark shadows come early and fall deep over the North, Sweden celebrates Saint Lucie or Sankta Lucia. On December 13th, Swedish girls put on their white gowns and one of them, wearing a crown of lighted candles represents Lucia, who’s name in Latin means lux, light, and represents light in the winter darkness.
Lucia is a Catholic saint of light, but the light celebrations at this time of the year go deep into the old times. Earlier in history Saint Lucy’s day coincided with the longest night of the year according to the Julian calendar. In paganism, the great feast of Yule falls at this time. Yule is celebrated on the longest night, when the full circle has been concealed and it is time for the sun to be reborn again and to prevail over winter darkness. I like to think of Lucia celebration as a remnant of the old, pre-Christian tradition, making the magic ever stronger.
It was at one of Saint Lucy’s celebrations that I tried lussekatter for the first time. These golden yellow buns in the form of a curled up cat, with raisins as eyes were initially called djävulskatter or devil’s cats. According to the old German legend, the devil would scare the children disguised as cat, while Jesus in a form of a child gave out bread coloured with saffron to a golden, sun-like colour in order to chase the devil away. I still remember how I loved the buns on the first bite: soft and sweet with a specific flavour so typical to saffron. I’ve been baking lussekatter regularly ever since. Eventhough in Sweden lussekatter are traditionally baked for December 13th they can be enjoyed throughout December. So why not celebrate winter solstice this year on December 21st with a batch of golden, warm saffron buns? The recipe is here.

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Saffron buns or lussekatter

Recipe adapted from the book Classic Swedish food by Carl-Jan Granqvist and Lena Katarina Swanberg.

Makes 20 (15 cm) buns

Ingredients:
1 g saffron powder*
550 g flour
1 sachet dry yeast
250 mL milk of choice
120 g light brown muscovado sugar
1 large egg**
1/2 tsp salt
120 g butter
1 tbsp dark rum
around 40 raisins for decoration
rum to cover the raisins
*If you are using powdered saffron, mix it in with warm milk. If using saffron threads, grind them in a mortar and pestle together with a tablespoon of sugar, then transfer to a small bowl and add 2 tbsp dark rum and leave for a couple of hours, preferably overnight
**leave a tbsp of egg, add to it a tbsp of water and use as eggwash insted of using another whole egg

Preparation:
Place the raisins in a bowl and cover with rum or a mixture (1:1) of water and rum.
Heat up the milk to around 37 °C. In a large bowl, combine half of the milk with yeast and 1 tbsp sugar. Mix, cover with a clean cloth and set aside at room temperature for ten minutes.
Dissolve the saffron powder in the rest of the milk. If using threads, strain the liquid of previously infused threads to the milk. Melt the butter and pour it to the milk and saffron, add the egg and mix to combine.
Place the flour in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle with salt. Make a well in the centre and pour in the milk with yeast and the mixture containing the egg and butter. Mix everything together using your hands to form the dough. Add a bit more flour if necessary and knead until the dough comes off the sides of the bowl and doesn’t stick to your hands. However, the dough should be elastic and a bit sticky – avoid adding too much flour during kneading.
Cover the dough with a clean cloth and leave it to rise in a warm place until it doubles in size. It will take around one hour.
When the dough has doubled, divide it into 20 pieces and roll them out to a 10 cm oblong shape. Cover with a cloth and let them rest for 10 minutes. In the meantime prepare the baking tray.
Take each piece of the dough, roll it again so it’s around 20 cm in length and then twist the ends of the dough forming number 8. Put one raisin in each half of the swirl. Place the buns on the baking tray, leaving some space between them and let them rise again for 45-60 min until they have doubled in size. Brush them with eggwash and bake them in a preheated oven at 190°C for around 10-12 minutes until they start to golden. Take them out carefully from the baking sheet since they will be soft and fluffy, and allow to cool before serving.

The buns are delicious the first day but become dry really fast. However, they freeze very well. If you decide not to freeze them and they start to become dry the next day, heat them up in the oven or put in a microwave for 10 seconds. Serve with hot glogg or coffee.

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