These light and airy buns make an appearance in Scandinavian kitchens throughout December but especially on the 13th to celebrate Santa Lucia, the patron saint of light. It’s believed they were served by Santa Lucia herself early in the morning, her wreath of candles lighting up the dark December skies with the promise of sunnier days.
Fragrant saffron, from the crocus flower, is the key ingredient here and brightens the enriched dough while raisins offer a hint of sweetness. Although saffron is a pricier ingredient, keep in mind that a little goes a long way. The deeply-colored spice enhances other baked goods as well as savory dishes like a classic risotto Milanese and seafood stews. Some recipes call for grated cardamom or the addition of quark cheese. Although not traditional, I’ve included a wee bit more butter and yogurt — or sour cream — for a tender, rich dough. These buns have just a hint of sweetness; if you like more, top them with Swedish pearl sugar before baking.
Winter saffron buns
Makes 12 to 14 buns
1 cup whole or 2% milk
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads, lightly crushed
12 tablespoons (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 heaping tablespoon active dry yeast (check expiration date)
1/3 cup sour cream or yogurt
2 large eggs
4 1/2 to 5 cups (540 to 660 grams) all-purpose flour
1/3 cup (67 grams) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon fine salt
24 to 26 golden raisins soaked just to cover in rum, brandy or orange juice
1 large egg, lightly beaten with 1 teaspoon cold water
Optional: Swedish pearl sugar
1. Combine milk and saffron threads in a small saucepan set over medium heat (or in a microwave-safe bowl in microwave); heat milk and saffron just until milk comes to a light simmer. Turn off heat and stir in butter; allow to melt and cool slightly (to 110-115 degrees). Check that yeast is not expired and sprinkle yeast over milk mixture; let sit five to 10 minutes or until frothy. Note: If the mixture is too hot, it can kill the yeast, so make sure it’s lukewarm or at about 110-115 degrees.
2. Place lukewarm yeast-butter-milk mixture in bowl of stand mixer — or place in a large bowl if not using a stand mixer). Add sour cream and two eggs; mix just to combine. Weigh or measure flour (gently scoop into measuring cup and level off with a knife); place in a medium bowl and whisk in sugar and salt. If using stand mixer, use dough hook attachment set to medium-low speed (or in a large mixing bowl), add 3 cups of flour, a little at a time, and mix until dough starts to pull away from sides of bowl, adding more flour 1/2 cup at a time just until dough pulls away from sides of bowl. The moisture level in your kitchen will determine how much flour you’ll need, so add a little at a time until the dough forms a ball and pulls away from sides of bowl. Knead dough in mixer five to six minutes or roll dough out onto a clean surface (have a bit of flour at the ready if needed but try not to add more than necessary) and knead by hand eight to 10 minutes. Dough should be soft, smooth and supple. Place dough in a lightly greased bowl; cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel and let rise in a warm spot until puffed up and almost doubled in size, about one hour.
3. Soak raisins in rum, brandy or orange juice. After one hour, gently deflate dough and tip out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide dough into 12 to 14 equal-sized pieces (a kitchen scale is helpful here). Shape dough pieces into rough logs about 4 to 5 inches long and let rest five minutes. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) a baking sheet. Roll each log, gently stretching as you work, into a 12-inch rope. Shape each rope into an “S” or figure-8 shape, curling ends into opposite directions toward the center. Drain raisins and tuck a raisin into center of each coil, with two raisins per bun. Place buns onto prepared baking sheet. Try to space them out evenly but if some are touching, that’s OK. Cover and let rise another 30 minutes or until puffed up. While buns are rising, preheat oven to 400 degrees. After the second rise, when ready to bake, brush each bun with egg glaze. If desired, top buns with pearl sugar. Bake just until golden, 11 to 15 minutes, tenting with foil the last few minutes if raisins begin to burn. Let cool on pan five minutes before serving at once. Best made and enjoyed the same day. Leftovers can be stored in an airtight container on kitchen counter a few days. If starting to dry out, warm a few seconds in microwave or toast in a skillet. Enjoy plain or with butter, sour cream or jam.