Every December 13, across the snowy towns of Scandinavia, families rise early in the dark to begin preparing for a centuries-old winter solstice celebration, a festival of lights. The eldest daughter of each household wakes first. Donning a white gown with a red sash and a candle-lit wreath crown, she carries a tray of brilliant golden St Lucia buns from room to room, singing carols and serving the sweet saffron-scented buns to family and friends in honor of St. Lucia. Soon they will take to the streets for a processional, where a girl—nominated by her town as “Lucia”—carries a basket of St. Lucia buns, handing them out to the merry masses. She is accompanied by girls in white dresses and boys with star-coned hats. They twirl and sing along the streets. This is St. Lucia Day.
You can’t talk about St Lucia buns without mentioning the shapes. The soft, supple dough allows for a variety of them—from a braided wreath to the wilder prästens hår (“priest’s hair”). The classic S shape, with each end of the dough rope curling up in an opposite direction, is the most common and easy to execute. The origin of the S shape and its connection with St. Lucia is fairly unknown, but there are several theories. The most prevalent is that the S is supposed to resemble curled-up cats, hence the name lussekatter. In his new cookbook, The Nordic Baking Book (Phaidon Press, 2018), Magnus Nilsson asserts that the real lussekatt shape has four curls, and the common S shape is actually called jugalt, which means “Christmas boar.”
No matter the shape, St Lucia buns are vibrant enough to bring warmth to even the coldest of Scandinavian winters. In the spirit of this season, do as the Swedes and take to the kitchen to bake out the dark. Rest assured, St Lucia buns will bring the light.
These Swedish ST Lucia Buns are made with sour cream and vodka. The traditional version requires the saffron to infuse in vodka overnight so it can develop an intense color, but our method is much faster.
- ⅓ cup (67 grams) plus 1 tablespoon (12 grams) granulated sugar, divided
- ½ teaspoon saffron, lightly crushed
- 1 tablespoon (15 grams) vodka
- ⅔ cup (160 grams) plus 1 tablespoon (15 grams) whole milk, divided
- 1 tablespoon (9 grams) active dry yeast
- ⅓ cup (80 grams) sour cream, room temperature
- 2 large eggs (100 grams), room temperature and divided
- 4 cups (480 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1 tablespoon (9 grams) kosher salt
- ½ cup (113 grams) unsalted butter, softened
- Garnish: Swedish pearl sugar*
- Using a mortar and pestle, grind together 1 tablespoon (12 grams) granulated sugar and saffron. Place in a small bowl, and add vodka. Let stand for at least 20 minutes.
- In a small saucepan, heat ⅔ cup (160 grams) milk and remaining ⅓ cup (67 grams) granulated sugar over low heat, stirring occasionally, until mixture registers 110°F (43°C) on an instant-read thermometer. Remove from heat. Whisk in yeast; let stand until mixture is foamy, about 10 minutes. Whisk in sour cream and 1 egg (50 grams); whisk in saffron mixture.
- In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment, place yeast mixture. With mixer on low speed, gradually add half of flour mixture, beating until incorporated, 2 to 3 minutes. Add butter, 1 tablespoon (14 grams) at a time, letting each piece incorporate before adding the next, about 5 minutes total, stopping to scrape sides of bowl as needed. Gradually add remaining flour mixture, beating until incorporated. Continue beating until dough is smooth and elastic, about 16 minutes.
- Spray a large bowl with cooking spray. Shape dough into a smooth round, and place in bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) until doubled in size, about 1½ hours.
- Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper. Punch down dough, and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide dough into 19 (50-gram) pieces. (Keep dough covered while shaping so it does not dry out.) Roll each portion into a 12- to 13-inch rope, letting ends taper. Roll each end into a tight spiral in opposite directions, meeting in the middle to create an S shape. Place at least 3 inches apart on prepared pans. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft-free place (75°F/24°C) for 45 minutes.
- Preheat oven to 400°F (200°C).
- In a small bowl, whisk together remaining 1 egg (50 grams) and remaining 1 tablespoon (15 grams) milk. Brush top and sides of each bun with egg wash. Top with pearl sugar, if desired.
- Bake until golden brown, 7 to 10 minutes, rotating pans halfway through baking. Let cool on a wire rack. Buns will keep for 3 to 4 days in an airtight container.