she who keeps this diary

03 December 2003 - 3:53 PM


The Duchess asks about holiday traditions.

My daddy was a Midwestern MultiNordic (from Chicago, not Minnesota, thank you); the family was mostly Swedish with a few Danes and Irishmen thrown in for variety. My family's holiday traditions are mostly Swedish, too, and never mind that Maman and her kin are neither MultiNordic nor Midwesterners.

The Swedes, like the rest of the Scandinavians, are great bakers. The most cherished heirlooms I have from my father's family are not objects but recipes. The weeks leading up to Christmas are not Advent, they are the days of the annual Scandinavian Bakefest. I won my Viking with a batch of mandelflarn shipped to Calontir one December. I have worn out my feet and scorched my fingertips making krumkake (say kruhm-kah-k@ where @ = a schwa; it is not, Lord deliver us, 'crumb cake'). Daddy died too young, but he lived long enough to see both his daughters bake julkaka from his grandmother's recipe.

In Sweden, the Christmas season begins on 13 December, the feast of Santa Lucia. How a fourth-century Sicilian saint became so integral to the Christmas celebrations of a Scandinavian country is anyone's guess, though there are lots of theories. You can read about some of the background here and here.

I am no longer blonde (my hair started darkening when I was about 6) and Daddy was always nervous about me wearing incendiary hats, so you can wipe any images of me in the white dress and candles from your mind. Picture instead the traditional breakfast of Santa Lucia: saffron buns, usually called lussekatter (Lucy's Cats, from a traditional shape) or saffransbullar, served with coffee.

Right, I hear you saying. So what the heck do lussekatter or saffransbullar look like anyway? There are pictures of some of the traditional shapes here. There are other shapes, too. I've messed around with several shapes over the years. Sometimes, I just make little round buns and call myself successful.

There is a mind-numbing variety of 'traditional' recipes for these little gems as well; however contrary to what I have seen on certain 'Christmas Around the World' web sites, I don't know of any which call for cinnamon. Some do call for cardamom. Raisins are optional, as are almonds for garnish. The universal ingredient is saffron, which turns the buns golden. That's important. The day is about the feast of the patroness of light, the solstice, the sun returning to the dark north.

Here is how I make lussekatter:

1 cake fresh yeast (preferred) or 1 package active dry yeast (not rapid rise yeast)
1/2 c warm water
1/2 c sugar
1/2 c melted butter
1 c light cream
1/4 to 1/2 tsp saffron
2 eggs, room temperature
4 to 4 1/2 c unbleached all purpose flour

glaze: 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. In the remaining water, steep the saffron 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. All of the flour should be moistened. Cover and refrigerate for 2 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). Shape into 24 buns, brush with glaze, and bake at 375 F for 20-30 minutes or until done. If desired, the tops of the rolls can be decorated with raisins or sliced almonds before baking.

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