The holiday season is here! No, please don’t go after me with a frying pan! I don’t usually start it this early, but you see, a couple of fantastic friends are coming to visit me next weekend from over-the-puddle England, and I won’t have time to decorate 4 weeks before Yule, so we’re starting to prepare and decorate now. Also in preparation to that, I’ll be awol for the remainder of this week and possibly early next week, so I figured that I ought to leave you with something wonderfully festive and lovely that Swedes munch on during the holiday season, and which is (sadly and unfortunately!) little-known outside Scandinavia – a situation I wish to remedy: lussekatter or St. Lucia buns – yeasted beautiful saffron-scented golden creations which are the thing you want to eat with your afternoon tea or coffee when by said time the sky outside is pitch dark. Or at least, I do. And I recommend them. A lot.
Saffron is known as the queen of spices for a reason – it is the singularly most expensive (per unit weight) spice in the world (or was last I heard). But, don’t let that put you off because the reason it’s so expensive is that 1 – a little goes a really long way! and 2 – the spice itself is the stamens of a flower, Crocus sativus – and as such, is both, difficult to cultivate and even more difficult to harvest. Why bother then? Well, because the flavor – and the gorgeous deep golden color it imparts – are more than worth it. And as I’ve mentioned, you really don’t need a lot! So, if you’ve baked with saffron before, you can probably imagine how lovely these are, but if you’ve never baked with saffron, you should.
And I don’t just mean these buns – later, when I’ve had a chance to bake and photograph it, I’ll post a saffron cake recipe as well – but in the meantime, to start the holiday season up right, you should absolutely make these. They are soft, moist, amazingly aromatic from the saffron, marzipan and the optional cardamom (only if you like it!), and they just tend to fly off and disappear off plates. I’ve not actually met anyone who didn’t like them – in quantity! They are also moderately easy to make – that is to say, a bit more complicated than things I call “easy”, but still entirely doable and by no definition difficult – and entirely, entirely worth the effort! And – and this bit is not to be underestimated in its value! – they scent your home with the most amazingly delectable luxurious holiday scent as they bake. The sort that no scented candles can compare to, no matter how much the manufacturers try. Not that I am putting the scented candles down, you know – I love candles! – but in this case, both are better than one. And very few things compare to baking saffron buns in the scent department.
Before I get to the recipe – a note about saffron. You should buy it in threads rather than the powdered form, as it keeps better, and you will need a small stone or ceramic mortar and pestle to grind it. If you don’t have a small smooth mortar (those huge granite ones won’t work, you’ll just hammer the safron into the stone grooves), then buy it powdered, but only as a compromise. Better powdered saffron than no saffron, after all! Saffron threads you buy should be a deep red color, not pale yellow – which is why I buy mine in clear boxes. But to be frank, supermarket-sealed foil packets have good quality saffron as well, and I am no snob. Another thing to know is that saffron tends to absorb water from the air, and should be kept in airtight containers – but even then, it should be dried before use (directions follow).
Note about yeast – in Sweden, you can buy specialized yeast for sweet doughs. It’s a different strain of yeast which can tolerate more sugar in the dough and still rise well. However, if you can’t buy yeast that is specifically sugar-tolerant, the recommendation is to use more of the regular yeast (I have done so myself when I lived in USA), and it works well. If you use regular yeast, use 1.5-2x the amount specified.
This recipe is translated and adapted from a Swedish baking magazine “Hembakat”, which is not available on the net (nor in English at all afaik). Adaptations include more instructions on saffron, swapping types of nuts, and halving the recipe because I’m not a mother of a huge brood and unless I am throwing a large party, I don’t think I need fourty saffron buns in one go. Or, I wouldn’t mind eating that many of them, but my mirror… In any case, you can double the recipe if you want more of them, after having tried and gotten addicted!
So what do you need? (makes about 20 buns, but the number depends on how large you slice them!) Zoe at Dare to Eat a Peach has done an excellent adaptation of this – and posted the recipe in American measures if that is what you prefer.
- 8-9 dl of flour – plain, or a mix of 1/2 bread flour and 1/2 plain. I used plain. Possibly a bit more, depending on moisture levels of your flour (and kitchen air… you know how that goes).
- A generous pinch of saffron threads – approximately 0.5g (check how many grams are in your package and gauge from there)
- 50g unsalted butter, melted on hot water bath
- 2.5 dl milk, warmed to 37°C (finger-warm)
- 25g fresh yeast for sweet doughs, or ~40g regular fresh yeast (or equivalent measure of dry granulated yeast)
- 125g 10% fat quark cheese (like Kesella), sieved ricotta, or 10% fat yogurt
- 75ml caster sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
- 1 teaspoon finely ground cardamom (optional but very nice)
- Filling and Topping Ingredients:
- ~150g marzipan or almond mass, shredded on a coarse cheese shredder. If yours is too soft to shred, open it and place in the refrigerator for a while – it will harden. Store shredded mass in the fridge until needed to avoid it getting sticky.
- ~100g chopped blanched almonds, pistachios or other nuts of choice.
- Pearl sugar (if you can get it) to decorate
- 1 egg yolk and 2-3 tablespoons milk, beaten together into egg wash (boyfriend is allergic to egg whites – you can just beat a whole egg with a drop of water if you aren’t)
- (Skip this if you have powdered saffron.) Place your saffron threads in mortar and heat the oven to 75-100°C. Dry saffron in the mortar placed in oven for about 5 minutes, until mortar is very warm to touch and saffron crackles a little when you mash it. Pound the saffron till it’s powdered.
- Melt the butter in a small bowl half-immersed into boiled water. Add the saffron powder, mix and allow to sit on the water bath.
- Crumble the yeast into the warm milk and blend to disperse. Let stand for 5 minutes.
- Mix all the remaining dry dough ingredients together (flour, sugar, salt, optional cardamom powder) in a bowl.
- Add the saffron-infused butter to the milk, and mix the milk+butter and quark cheese (or alternative) into the dough. I use a handheld electric mixer here, but I imagine it can be done by hand as well (with a bit more effort).
- Continue to knead the dough with the mixer until it is soft but elastic and releases from the bowl with not too much effort. The dough will be somewhat wet, but do add a little flour if necessary. Note that sweet, fatty dough tends to take longer to develop gluten so don’t rush with adding the flour, but it may be needed towards the end.
- Transfer the dough ball into a clean and very lightly oil-brushed bowl, cover with cling film and a towel and leave to rise in a warm place for 40-90 minutes (depending on how warm your kitchen is), until about doubled in size. I did a couple of stretch-and-folds throughout that time to help with the gluten development a little, but if your dough is well-behaved, this is not necessary.
- Preheat your oven to 190°C, and prepare 2 baking sheets with baking parchment or those silicone non-stick mats on them.
- Turn dough out onto a floured surface (you may want to prepare a sheet of lightly floured baking parchment to place it on once rolled), and stretch and then roll it out into a large (rough) rectangle. Place on parchment if using, sprinkle the filling (chopped almonds or other nuts and shredded marzipan) evenly over it, then carefully roll the dough up along the longer side into a sausage and pinch the seam shut.
- Slice crosswise into 2-3cm thick slices and lay them gently on the baking parchment-covered sheets, leaving at least 4cm between the slices (to give space to rise). Allow to rise under a kitchen towel for about 30-40 minutes (again, depending on the temperature in your kitchen), brush with beaten egg wash, sprinkle with pearl sugar and bake for ~10-12 minutes until beautifully golden on top. I baked one sheet then the other, rather than risk burned tops/bottoms from having 2 sheets in the oven and the awkward swapping of them to boot. The baking process is short enough for it to not be worth it – to me.
- Take out of oven and cool on a rack.
These keep for a couple of days in an airtight container or bag in the fridge, and I’ve heard they freeze reasonably well but I’ve never had enough of them left over to freeze, you know…