Sunday, December 13 is Santa Lucia Day in Sweden and for Swedes here in Maine too. Dressed in white with a red belt and wearing a crown of candles, a young woman wakes up her household to offer them brioches and coffee.
My maternal grandmother, Victoria Swanson Curtiss, was born in Sweden and came to the United States at the turn of the 20th century when she was six years old, the eldest of three immigrant children joined by three United States. Although she could have been called the eldest daughter to be Santa Lucia for her family, as far as I remember she never mentioned the holidays.
Perhaps observance fell by the wayside with the Swedish language that my great-grandfather Peter insisted not be spoken at home. However, I have a recipe for Santa Lucia buns written by my mother’s hand. Grandma was a great cook but not really a baker – that was her sister Lee’s talent – so I don’t remember any buns made by Grandma, nor do I remember Mom making any . Curiosity about the recipe, however, prompted me to try it.
First of all, why Saint Lucia and why December 13?
Saint Lucia was an early Christian, martyred in 304 CE, from Sicily, Italy. She was renowned for carrying food to prisoners, lighting her way around the dungeons with candles she wore on her head to leave her hands free to handle the food. And even though Christians in Sicily at the time were allowed to worship, they were sometimes scapegoats when something went wrong. Lucia, who has sworn to live in celibacy, deprived an arranged husband of his dowry. In revenge, she was handed over to the authorities who killed her. How Saint Lucia was venerated in Sweden is somewhat obscure, sometimes attributed to Viking visits to Sicily, but the celebration does not appear to have been widely observed until the last two hundred years.
December 13 under the old Julian calendar was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice, which now under the Gregorian calendar occurs later in the month. A tradition relates that a thousand years ago, King Canute declared that Christmas celebrations would begin on December 13. As part of the northernmost latitudes, Sweden would certainly welcome any celebration of the coming of light, much like we do in Maine when it starts to get dark at 4:00 in the afternoon.
Saint Lucia rolls need saffron. My mother’s recipe reflects her concern for cost when she calls for a sixteenth of a teaspoon of expensive seasoning. At this anemic amount, saffron is undetectable, and the range of amounts in other recipes range from half a teaspoon to a whole teaspoon. I guess you should add whatever you can afford.
I used my mixer for this recipe, which shortened the kneading time. Brushing the tops of the buns with beaten egg white gives them a lovely shiny look and anchors the sugar sprinkled on them.
The buns are nice and, like all yeast breakfast cakes and breads in the bun family, contain butter, eggs, sugar, and milk; are best eaten warm and spread with more butter or jam; and perfect with coffee or tea, whether or not served by a candle-wreathed family member.
Santa Lucia Buns
Makes 18 buns, about 9 servings
3/4 cup milk, scalded
1/3 cup sugar
1 teaspoon of salt
¼ cup, half a stick, butter
½ to 1 teaspoon saffron powder
2 packets or 2 tablespoons active dry yeast
½ cup lukewarm water
4 cups flour
1 egg white lightly beaten
¼ chopped blanched almonds, optional
Granulated sugar for sprinkling, optional
To the boiling milk in a mixing bowl, add the 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, sprinkle yeast on it, let it foam, stirring a little.
Add the dissolved yeast, egg and 2 cups of flour to the milk and butter mixture in the mixing bowl and beat together for a few minutes, scraping the sides and gradually adding the remaining 2 cups of flour.
Continue beating until the dough that forms cleans the sides of the bowl.
Place the dough on a lightly floured board and knead until it is silky and elastic.
Place in lightly oiled bowl, turning so that all sides are very lightly oiled. Cover and let rise in a warm place until doubled.
Once doubled, unmold, knead lightly for one minute then divide into 18 balls. Let stand.
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 at each end of the 6 inch piece. Place the 2 rolled up pieces back to back on the baking sheet.
Brush the tops of the buns with beaten egg and place a raisin in the center of each roll.
Sprinkle lightly with sugar and possibly almonds.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown.
Cool slightly on a wire rack, but serve hot.