(this post is partially recycled from one posted on the predecessor blog of The Belfry in 2003)
In Sweden, the Christmas season begins on 13 December, the feast of Saint Lucy. If one accepts the story from the Legenda Aurea, that she was a fourth-century Sicilian martyr, then how she became so integral to the Christmas celebrations of a Scandinavian country is anyone's guess. I think, though, that when we talk of Lucy, we are in the realm of myth, not history. Before the calendar reforms in the 16th century, the winter solstice fell on 13 December, and Lucy, of course, is lux, light.
The Gregorian calendar has moved the solstice back a week, but the feast of Lucy is still celebrated in Sweden with processions of girls in white robes, candles, song, and a breakfast of saffron buns, called lussekatter (Lucy's Cats, from a traditional reversed-S shape), served with coffee.
Why Lucy's cats? Why not Lucy's eyeballs? Or Lucy's some-other-thing? There's no definitive answer, but it's been suggested that Lucy's buns are shaped like cats because Lucy has been conflated with golden-haired Freyja, who drove a chariot pulled by cats.
There are a mind-numbing variety of recipes for lussekatter. Raisins and almonds are optional garnishes. The universal ingredient is saffron, which turns the buns golden. That's important. The day is about the patroness of light, the solstice, the sun returning to the dark north.
Here is how I make lussekatter:
1 cake fresh yeast or 1 package active dry yeast (not rapid rise yeast)
1/2 c warm water, divided
1/2 c sugar
big pinch dried saffron threads
1/2 c butter, melted
1 c light cream
2 eggs, room temperature
4 to 4 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour
egg wash: 1 egg, 2 tbs milk
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water. Add 1 tbs of the sugar and let stand until the yeast foams.
Toast the saffron lightly in the bottom of a small saucepan, then pour over the remaining 1/4 cup water. Bring the water to just scalding, then cover the pot and remove from the heat. Allow to steep until the water is golden.
Add the saffron water, remaining sugar, butter, cream, and eggs to the yeast. Beat well.
Stir in the flour, 1 cup at a time, beating well to incorporate it all. If you're using a stand mixer, you may want to switch to the dough hook after the first cup or so of flour is beaten in. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 12 to 24 hours. A long, slow, rising time gives the bread a finer texture than a 2-hours-in-a-warm-place rising, and the slow rising is typical of many Swedish coffee breads.
An hour before you bake the buns, preheat the oven to 375 F. Lightly grease your baking sheets Make an egg wash by beating one egg with 2 tablespoons milk.
Turn the dough out onto a floured board and roll it gently into a log. Cut the log into 24 pieces. Roll each piece between your palms into a long skinny roll, and then twirl up the ends to form a reversed 'S' shape. (Alternatively, you can roll each piece into a round ball). Place the buns about an inch apart on the prepared baking sheets. Cover the buns with clean linen or cotton kitchen towels and set aside for 30 minutes to let the dough come to room temperature. Just before putting in the oven, brush the tops of the buns with the egg wash. Bake for 20-30 minutes or until done. If desired, the tops of the rolls can be decorated with raisins or sliced almonds before baking.
Serve with coffee in the morning, or glögg later in the day. Singing is optional, but probably inevitable if you're drinking glögg.