Celebrate St. Lucia Day

Sweden’s Christmas season begins on December 13th - Santa Lucia Day. No one is quite sure why Lucia, a 4th century Sicilian saint, came to be so revered in Sweden, but each year a celebration is held to thank the Queen of Light for bringing hope during the darkest time of the year. Her story is that in the days of early Christian persecution, Lucia carried food to Christians hiding in dark underground tunnels. To light the way she wore a wreath of candles on her head. Eventually, Lucia was arrested and martyred hence her saintly status.

Following Swedish tradition, the eldest daughter in each family dresses in a white dress with a red sash, and wears an evergreen wreath with seven lighted candles on her head. She carefully carries coffee and buns to each family member in his or her room. One mandatory element of the celebration is a saffron-flavored bun, called a "lussekatt," or a "Lucia cat."

Lussekatter (St. Lucia Buns)
2 packages active dry yeast
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (divided)
1 1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup sugar plus more for sprinkling
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter or margarine
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground saffron or 3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
2 eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup blanched almonds, ground
1 tablespoon finely shredded lemon zest
1 slightly beaten egg white

In a large bowl, stir the yeast into 2 cups of the flour; set aside. In a medium saucepan over low heat, stir the milk, 1/2 cup sugar, butter, salt and saffron until the butter is almost melted and the mixture is warm (120 to 130 degrees). Add to flour mixture along with the eggs. Beat with electric mixer on low speed for 30 seconds, scraping bowl. Beat on high speed for 3 minutes. Stir in the almonds, lemon zest and as much of the remaining flour as you can.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough of the remaining flour to make a moderately soft dough that is smooth and elastic (3 to 5 minutes total). Shape into a ball. Place in a lightly greased bowl, turning once to grease the surface. Cover and let rise in a warm place until double, 1 to 2 hours. Punch dough down and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 4 balls. Cover and let rest for 10 minutes.

Grease baking sheets. Divide each quarter of dough into 12 equal pieces (making 48 rolls in total.) Roll each into a 10-inch rope. Place 3 inches apart on prepared baking sheets. Form each rope into an S-shape, coiling ends like a snail. Press one raisin into center of each coil. Cover and let rise in a warm place until nearly double, 30 to 40 minutes. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Stir 1 tablespoon water into the egg white and brush over buns. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake about for 10-12 minutes or until golden brown. Serve warm (dark tunnel optional.)