Holiday baking traditions: St. Lucia Buns

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Have you crashed into the Sugar Wall yet?

You know, that point sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas when you’ve FINALLY had your fill of cookies and fruitcake, candy and rich pastries, and are ready for, oh, a piece of bread and butter, or a bowl of Rice Chex (preferably NOT in the form of Party Mix)?

I reach that wall very early; I always gravitate more towards the savory side, and December is no exception. A couple of cookies, a piece of candy – I’m good. Bring on the cheese and crackers.

And when I want something sweet, I’m perfectly happy with dried apricots, or one of those last Golden Russet apples from the local orchard.

Still, I realize Christmas is ALL about sweets – except when it’s not… quite.

As in the case of  St. Lucia Day, celebrated each year on December 13 – the shortest day (longest night) of the year, according to the ancient (Julian) calendar in force when Lucy/Lucia was martyred in 304 A.D.

Scotland and other northern European countries have a history of marking the year’s longest night with bonfires, built to encourage the return of the sun. Thus it’s no surprise that St. Lucia Day is celebrated in Scandinavia. This feast day is associated most strongly with Sweden; but Norway, Finland, Denmark, and Iceland also observe the day, as do Estonia, Latvia, Italy, Croatia, Bavaria, and Bosnia.

St. Lucia celebrations include a procession of young girls in white dresses carrying candles. Most of the girls carry a single candle, but the girl chosen to represent Lucia wears an entire crown of lit candles, and carries a tray of golden, saffron-scented St. Lucia Buns.

And boy, did we get in hot water when, 10 years ago, we pictured our own St. Lucia on one of our Baker’s Catalogue covers.

“How DARE you endanger that child for the sake of commerce!”

“WHAT were you thinking?!”

Well, we were thinking that Althea, the granddaughter of King Arthur’s long-time owners, Frank and Brinna Sands, would be perfectly safe under the very careful ministrations of our catalogue photographer, John Sherman.

In fact, Althea is now a college senior, has traveled the world and, like many a 21-year-old, has done WAY more outrageous things than wear a crown of lit candles – just ask her mom, who works at our Baker’s Store here in Vermont.

Ten years later… Althea (on the left), with her roommate, Hannah, and St. Lucia buns. As Brinna (her grandmother) says, “Still tempting fate:-)”

Ready to celebrate St. Lucia Day? While the candle crown is optional, these St. Lucia Buns are a must-have.

Saffron is a key ingredient in St. Lucia Buns – and it’s the world’s most expensive spice. Luckily, a little goes a long way.

And what exactly is saffron? It’s the little fronds inside the flower of a crocus native to southwest Asia. Its flavor is distinctive, but it’s often used more for the brilliant gold color it adds to baked goods.

You can usually find saffron in tiny little vials or packets in the spice section of better supermarkets.

1/4 teaspoon saffron threads is plenty to color and flavor our buns.

In a small saucepan set over medium heat (or easier, in the microwave), heat 1 cup milk and the saffron to a simmer.

Remove from the heat, and stir to combine.

Add 1/2 cup butter, cut into pats.

Set the mixture aside to allow the butter to melt, and for it to cool to lukewarm, 30 to 35 minutes. You can reduce the milk’s cooling time by about 10 minutes by refrigerating it.

104°F or thereabouts is just about right.

Place the followoing in a mixing bowl:

4 1/2 cups (19 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1/4 cup potato flour or 1/2 cup instant potato flakes
1 1/2 teaspoons salt*
1/3 cup granulated sugar

Add the lukewarm milk/saffron.

Add the 2 large whole eggs, and 1 large egg yolk; reserve the white for later.

Mix to combine.

Knead for about 7 minutes by mixer, about 10 minutes by hand, until the dough is smooth and supple. It’ll remain fairly sticky; that’s OK. The dough above has been kneaded for about 4 minutes.

When kneading sticky dough in a stand mixer, it helps to stop midway through, scrape down the sides of the bowl, then continue.

Here’s the dough after 7 minutes of kneading.

Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl or large (8-cup) measuring cup, cover it, and let it rise for 1 hour, or until it’s quite puffy, though not necessarily doubled in bulk.

The dough has risen to about half again its size; that’s fine. This dough, with its high sugar and fat content, isn’t a vigorous riser.

Gently deflate the dough, and divide it into 12 equal pieces. A scale makes this job easy; divide the dough in half, then in half again, then in thirds.

Each piece will weigh about 92g, or 3 1/4 ounces.

Shape the pieces of dough into rough logs; you can see the ones in the front have been shaped. Let them rest, covered, for about 10 minutes; this gives the gluten a chance to relax.

You’re going to roll one piece of dough at a time into a long rope. A lightly greased silicone rolling mat is a big help here.

Start by flattening the log, and folding it over on itself.

Flatten again, and fold it over again. As you go through this process, the dough will elongate on its own.

Put the seam side on the bottom, and set the log aside while you work on the others.

Once you’ve got all 12 this far, it’s time to roll them out to their final length.

Why not just roll each one to the desired length right away, without this interim step? Because it’s a lot easier to stretch and roll dough if you’ve given its gluten a chance to relax.

Gluten needs to be coaxed; it can’t be bullied. If you’ve ever rolled a pizza crust that kept shrinking down smaller and smaller the harder and harder you rolled it, you know what I mean!

Roll each log into a 15” to 18” rope; your final goal is around 13”, and the ropes will shrink down to that once you stop rolling.

Shape each rope into an “S” shape by curling the ends in opposite directions.

Like this.

Space the rolls in a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.

Tuck a golden raisin into the center of each of the two side-by-side coils, if desired.

Cover the buns, and let them rise for about 30 minutes, until they’re noticeably puffy, but definitely not doubled.

While they’re rising, preheat the oven to 375°F.

Notice how puffy they’ve gotten – rich yeast rolls, those high in fat and sugar, have a difficult time rising, so this is good!

Mix the reserved egg white with 1 tablespoon cold water, and brush on the buns.

Here’s a nice crowning touch for these Scandinavian buns: Swedish pearl sugar, a bright white, coarse sugar that doesn’t melt in the oven.

Sprinkle the buns generously with pearl sugar, if desired.

Bake the buns until they’re golden brown, about 18 to 20 minutes.

If you’ve used raisins, tent the buns with foil for the final 3 minutes, to prevent the raisins from burning.

Remove the buns from the oven, and cool them right on the pan; or transfer to a rack.

See what I mean about saffron? Amazing color!

Imagine these as they’re served in Sweden – on a platter, being carried through a candle-lit room by a lovely young girl wearing a crown. Happy St. Lucia day!

Read, rate, and review (please) our recipe for St. Lucia Buns.

And, 10 years later…

PJ Hamel
About

PJ Hamel was born in Wisconsin, grew up in New England, and graduated from Brown University. She was a journalist in Massachusetts and Maine before joining the King Arthur Flour Company in 1990, where she's been ever since. Author or co-author of three King Arthur ...

comments

  1. kkkkim

    Do you have a recipe for a glaze, as shown on your crazy child-endangering-stunt catalog cover? ;) (Don’t worry, I’m only kidding. I got my boy a creme brulle torch for his birthday…)

    Cool about the creme brulée torch… or, hot? Anyway, thanks for not reporting us… :) PJH

    Reply
  2. Brittany

    Since Kirsten was my favorite American Girl as a child, of course I learned about St. Lucia! My mother has a picture of me holding a tray of buns, crowned with a circle of christmas tree lights! I didn’t get very far from the plug, but it was probably safer than a wreath of candles around my four little siblings. :) These would make a wonderful beginning to the week!

    Reply
  3. myniyer

    My daughter’s first-grade class studies Sweden for the month of December. As the oldest girl in the class, my sweetie gets to be Santa Lucia, complete with flaming wreath (and hyperaware teacher’s-assistant spotter). Thanks for posting this recipe – so very timely, I’m just going to HAVE to make them :)

    Reply
  4. myniyer

    My daughter’s first-grade class studies Sweden during the month of December. As the oldest girl, she gets to be Santa Lucia, complete with flaming wreath (and hyperaware teacher’s-assistant spotter). Thanks for the delicious-looking, timely recipe; I’m just going to HAVE to make them :)

    I’m sure your daughter’s teacher would appreciate you providing the buns for the procession! PJH

    Reply
  5. vibeguy

    Yum! Lussekatter! BUT WAIT! In this modern age, picking the wrong Lucia Girl could be DANGEROUS! YOU COULD BURN DOWN YOUR HOUSE!

    There’s absolutely no danger in wearing the burning candles, *so long as the girl in question is pure*, and I don’t mean lacking bleach or bromates. Per hagiographies, St. Lucia was a very good girl who did not burn on a pyre set due to her refusal to compromise her virtue in marriage. Thus, since one traditionally uses the oldest unmarried girl in the family for a Lucia procession, one best consider the use of battery-powered candles if she’s … friendly. There’s your fire safety and history lesson for the day. ;0)

    Back to baking; I make mine with brioche dough and add saffron. If you don’t use the parlsocker garnish, a glaze of vanilla, confectioner’s sugar and heavy cream/milk/water is quite tasty.

    Always a pleasure, vibeguy… :) PJH

    Reply
  6. lisa_m

    Thanks for a highly-detailed explanation AND highly-accurate description of the holiday.
    I will be at a Swedish Christmas Fair, complete with real candles for Lucia and her attendants, tomorrow and can’t wait to taste lussekatter. Haven’t tried a recipe with potato flour yet, but may this year. Most illustrations show raisins in the nooks of the buns, but yours with sugar look beautiful!

    FYI, my boys were in Lucia pageants for years and no harm came to anyone. The younger kids use battery-operated candles and Lucia herself often has a hankerchief tucked between her crown and her hair (to keep the wax out of her hair, not out of fear of burns!)

    These days, every school class, office, sports club and bar in Sweden seems to crown a Lucia. On December 13th and 14th, google images of Santa Lucia or check on the Aftonbladet dot se or Svenska Dagbladet websites, and look for the Nobel prize laureates at a special Lucia ceremony!

    Reply
  7. Denise Michaels @ Adventurous Foodie

    You’re so right about hitting “the sugar wall” in December sometime. You just want a break from it all. I like the idea of something mildly sweet to dip in my tea.

    I discovered King Arthur Flour last year and I just feel good about everything I make with it.

    Thanks for connecting here, Denise – and with our flour. Happy holidays- PJH

    Reply
  8. Kim

    SOOOOOOO excited to see a Scandinavian recipe on this blog!!!! I made Lucia buns with my grandma years ago and we put the raisins in the middle like you show. Now that I’m all “grown up” and have my own kitchen, I’d like to try my hand at making these on my own. I know I can count on KA to provide me with a great recipe! Thanks, KA!

    Reply
  9. vibeguy

    My buddy Shon made an excellent point – it’s one way to deal with a potential spinster problem…”Oh dear, we’ll never get rid of *THIS* one – let’s create a situation with a folksy backstory and a high risk of immolation!” ;0)

    Reply
  10. Ricardo Neves Gonzalez FMP-FASE - Petrópolis, R.J.- BRAZIL

    This bread and it´s variations are pretty tasty, softly and i love it.
    Well here in Brazil, we used to add curcumine powder instead of saffron, due to the high prices of saffron here. It´s an acceptable substitutive, but of course not the same!

    Reply
  11. deancorley

    Would love to make these, but it’s just my husband and I. Was wondering if this dough would freeze OK? At what point would I freeze it? Wonderful pictures! Thank you for your help!!!
    Hello, I think you can successfully freeze this dough just after mixing, just be sure to wrap it tightly. When you are ready to use it, thaw and allow to rise, shape and allow to rise again just as the recipe instructs. Good luck! -Amy

    Reply
  12. @DomesticBecky

    I can’t wait to make these. My family has Swedish ancestry and we always celebrate St. Lucia Day. But we usually just do cinnamon rols. I’m totally going to attempt these. Thanks for such a wonderful how-to! Hoping I can find pearl sugar at a kitchen store near me since I don’t have time to have you guys ship it to UT.
    If you can’t find pearl sugar, you could try breaking up sugar cubes. Not quite the same, but close. ~ MaryJane

    Reply
  13. Amy L

    So the vanilla… when does that go in? I’m guessing with the wet ingredients? Or is it for a glaze? Thanks so much! (The dough smells amazing without it too!!)

    Yes, with the other liquid ingredients – sorry about that, I’ll fix it. Thanks for catching it – PJH

    Reply
  14. milkwithknives

    Oh thanks, Ricardo! I was just wondering if I should spring for some saffron, but we’re trying to stick to a budget right now and turmeric is something I already have in the cupboard. I’ll try these with the substitution, and then make them for real when I can afford saffron. Can’t wait to taste them!

    Reply
  15. EMK

    The buns look delicious, and I will enjoy making them.

    As for the cover for the infamous catalog of 10 years ago, I can indeed verify that being St Lucia is one of the safest things that my daughter has ever done in her life. Her middle name should have been Adventure.

    Now to get some saffron.

    I can vouch for that! Althea was also one of the catalogue’s first models – she was pictured sitting in a big dough mixing bowl when she was around 2 years old… :) PJH

    Reply
  16. SoupAddict Karen

    Ahhhh, these bring back memories! In college, I studied Swedish and was lucky enough to participate in a local celebration of Sankta Lucia. We sang traditional Swedish songs (in Swedish, of course) for the peeps, and even wore the crowns of lit candles (fortunately, this was before the mulled wine was served!) I’m making these today to celebrate tomorrow. Thank you for helping me remember these lovely buns!

    Reply
  17. Carolyn

    My Swedish-American Lutheran church (now ELCA) still celebrates St. Lucia day on the closest Sunday to December 13. We always had hot coffee and cider, Lucia Buns and pepperkakor, a thin and crispy, highly spiced ginger cookie. My gram and the other older ladies would wear their ethnic costumes and the children would dress up and enter in a procession with one of the senior high school girls who would dress as St. Lucia, white robe, red sash, and burning wreath of candles.

    My sister didn’t get around to making these buns this year, but to get in the mood she decided she might have to put their advent wreath on her head of a while :)

    Reply
  18. Lucía

    Hello!

    I made these for my saint day yesterday, they were absolutely delicious and they all got eaten by my coworkers! Nary a crumb was left. Unfortunately I couldn’t find King Arthur flour or potato flour anywhere (not very common ingredients here in Spain) but the buns turned out fabulous anyway. These are great buns, just sweet enough without being too sweet, and the saffron scent that filled the apartment was amazing. Thanks for the great recipe and especially for the step by step instructions.

    Lucía

    And thanks for reporting your successful results here, Lucia. Happy Lucia feast day, and Feliz Navidad! PJH

    Reply
  19. Sheryl D

    My daughters had a Swedish babysitter when they were little, and she always put a washcloth, wrung out but still wet, on her child’s hair before putting on the wreath with lighted, real candles.

    Reply
  20. Ann-Marie

    In Sweden we don´t have potatoflour and vanilla in our saffron buns, just saffron but I guess there are several versions of the dough in the world.
    You can make just plain round buns, no egg on before baking. When serving dip them in melted butter and then sugar (not pearl sugar or confectioners sugar, just “plain” sugar), that´s my favorite way.

    Sounds excellent, Ann-Marie – what’s not to like about extra butter and sugar, right? :) Thanks for sharing. PJH

    Reply
  21. Tiffany W.

    I lived in Sweden for many years and have to say that potato flakes, vanilla, and pearl sugar aren’t used in or on authentic Lussekatter in Sweden. Generally pearl sugar is used on cinnamon buns.

    So if you really want to be authentic leave off the pearl sugar and enjoy the buns for what they are, perfect and delicious. Real Swedes don’t go over the top with sugar.

    Thanks for the advice, Tiffany – from one who’s literally “been there.” :) PJH

    Reply

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