In the Bleak Midwinter, There's St. Lucy's Day
I first encountered St. Lucy’s Day like I assume all little girls who grew up in the 1990s did; which is to say that I read about her in Kirsten’s Surprise, the third American Girl book featuring Kirsten Larson, an immigrant from Sweden to Minnesota in 1854.
Okay, maybe you didn’t discover St. Lucy via the greatest book and doll series of the late 20th century but for many, St. Lucy (or Lucie or Lucia) is synonymous with winter in Scandinavia. When I was in high school, I was still Protestant and attended a church that was part of the Evangelical Covenant Church. This denomination traces its roots back to Swedish immigrants, so every three years, the congregation held a Lucia pageant where all the boys dressed as starboys and tomte, and all the girls wanted their name to be drawn out of the hat to play Sankta Lucia herself. The rest of us got to be Lucia maidens. It was the only time I’ve ever witnessed Protestants get all excited about a saint, and it was fabulous.
Dressed in white robes with red sashes, hair meticulously braided in crowns round our heads, all haircare products sworn off for a week before the pageant so that none of us accidentally caught fire, we processed down the center aisle of the church singing in Swedish while the Lucia of the year followed us wearing her crown of candles. The whole church gathered afterward for afternoon tea, called fika, with traditional Swedish cookies, rolls, coffee, and punch. Years later at my college, which was also part of the Covenant, we’d repeat the tradition annually, but with a much larger fika and a lot more mischief from our resident tomten. (A rather quaint part of Scandi folklore, a tomte—also called a tonttu in Finnish or a nisse in Norwegian—is the resident spirit creature which protects a homestead and also causes mischief. With their pointy hats and long beards, you can probably find your very own tomte doll at your local TJ Maxx since they’ve become something of a decorating trend lately, to the confusion of lots of Scandinavians who’ve had a tomte sitting on our mantels at home for years.)
Those snowy afternoons spent in candlelight and the smell of cardamom are some of my most cherished memories. I am a third generation descendent of immigrants from Norway who were too proud to be American to pass down many of their traditions. I grew up desperately wanting to connect to my Scandi roots, and these afternoons of fika and tomten were how I found my own way of celebrating my ancestors. They were also, I later discovered, a way of connecting with a beloved saint.
Now that I have children of my own, St. Lucy’s Day is one of our favorite days of the year. It is the one day that my daughter is happy to rise before dawn. She quietly dresses in the white robe and red sash that we laid out together the night before, not-so-quietly scoots into the hallway, picks up the tray of buns and rolls that we made together the previous day, and wakes up each member of our family wearing her own crown of (LED-powered) candles—a tradition that recalls how St. Lucy lit her way through the Roman catacombs to bring food to Christians in hiding. We sit in bed together eating breakfast and drinking hot chocolate, and all I see are smiles.
Sometimes, especially since the pandemic made going to church so much harder, I wonder if I’m catechizing my children well enough. Will they grow to know and love and serve God? Will they care for others and learn to be brave like St. Lucy? Will they take comfort in marking their hours and days and weeks in the holy rhythm of the Church’s time?
On the dark and snowy mornings of St. Lucy’s Day, I don’t worry about this so much.
To celebrate St. Lucy’s Day this year, I’d like to share my recipe for lussekatter, Lucia Rolls. This recipe is gluten free, but if you’d like to make a wheat-filled version, I adapted my recipe from the one found here.
Gluten Free Lussekatter
Adapted from Call Me Cupcake’s Buttermilk and Saffron Lussekatter
Yield: 12 buns
For the buns:
1 tsp saffron
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
1 Tbsp vodka
1 envelope instant yeast
2/3 c buttermilk (or whole milk)
1/3 c + 1 ½ Tbsp heavy cream
1 large egg
1/3 + 1 ½ Tbsp granulated sugar
1 scant stick salted softened butter
3 ¼ cups gluten free all-purpose flour mix (see note below)
½ tsp salt
About 20 raisins
Enough of your favorite liquor (see note below) to cover the raisins
For the egg wash:
Pinch of salt
1 Tbsp heavy cream
Sparkling sugar or other coarse sugar for decorating (trust me)
Regarding flour mixes: gluten free baking is all about the flour mix. There is no single flour that will be a magic substitute for glutinous flour, no matter what the coconut/almond/millet/sawdust flour enthusiasts tell you. I’ve been eating gluten free for over 10 years now, and I can tell you that it is absolutely worth your time and effort and money to just buy a good premade flour mix. I tested this recipe with King Arthur’s Gluten-Free All-Purpose Baking Mix. (DO NOT BE FOOLED, this is different than the King Arthur “Measure for Measure” or GF “All-Purpose Flour Mix”, which do not include xanthan gum. If you’re an experienced baker who knows how much xanthan or guar gum you like in your GF bakes, then by all means use one of those. If you’re trying to make something for your GF cousins for Christmas but you’re not sure how to bake gluten free, save yourself and them and get the All Purpose *Baking* Mix, which has the optimal amount of xanthan gum already in it. Trust me. I took an actual class at the King Arthur Flour headquarters once and the instructor waxed poetic about their different GF flours for a full 45 minutes. It matters.) I also tested the recipe using Pamela’s Bread Mix. Both those flour mixes make a final product with good moisture and texture.
The liquor in this part of the recipe is used to soak and rehydrate the raisins, so choose something you won’t mind having a little taste of in the final product. The alcohol all bakes off in the oven, but the essence will remain. I used Jägermeister because I wanted a deep, herby note in the raisins and it was de-light-FUL.
There are two key tips I’ve found in gluten free baking: First, follow each step of the recipe to the letter. Really. GF baking isn’t like jazz; improvisation does not help you. Second, make sure all your eggs and butter are at room temperature. I don’t know why, but it is the universal rule of GF baking that this needs to happen and it creates some sort of baking magic that makes everything lovely and not dry.
These buns do tend to dry out fast. Microwave leftovers for about 15 seconds before eating and they’ll be good as new!
Grind the saffron and 1 Tbsp granulated sugar in a mortar and pestle, then put in a small bowl and mix with the vodka to infuse it. You can do this about 20 minutes before you start the dough, or up to a month in advance. I left my mixture sitting on the counter for about 4 days (on accident) and it had a lovely depth of color and flavor by the time I was ready to bake!
Pour the yeast packet into a large bowl (you’ll be adding things to it soon) or even the bowl of your stand mixer.
Heat the buttermilk and cream in a saucepan until it’s about 98.5 degrees. Test it by putting a finger in the mixture—if it feels about the same as your body temp, you’re good. If probing your milk mixture freaks you out, you could also just watch for little bubbles to start forming at the edges of the pan.
Add a little of this heated liquid to the yeast (let it cool to body temp if you accidentally let it get too hot or you’ll kill your yeast!) and stir until it has dissolved completely (this is key), then add the rest of the liquid, the saffron mix, egg, and sugar. Stir until sugar is dissolved.
Slowly add half of the flour while working the mixture in a stand or hand mixer. Add the salt and the softened butter and work until they’re well incorporated.
Scrape down the sides and bottom of your bowl, then add the rest of the flour and beat the mixture on High for 4 minutes. (Really, 4 minutes.) Gluten free bakes don’t rise in the same way as glutinous ones, so getting all this air into your mixture is key for a fluffy final product.
When your mixture looks like a smooth, well aerated batter (we’re aiming for “the nicest cake batter you’ve ever seen” consistency here), pour it into a piping bag with a 1-inch opening (or, you know, a Ziploc that you’ve cut the corner off of if you’re like me).
Pipe out your mixture onto parchment-lined baking sheets into “S” shapes that almost look like “8” shapes. Gluten free bakes don’t rise as much, so you won’t see a ton of movement as they bake, and you need somewhere to put your raisins! I made my buns about 4 inches long, if that helps you envision size.
Let your piped buns rest somewhere warm to rise. I let mine rise for about an hour, and they’d risen about 20-30%. You’re not going to see a dramatic rise like in glutinous bread. Be grateful for your little 20% and ask the spectre of Paul Hollywood to forgive you.
Meanwhile, put the raisins in a small bowl and cover them with whatever liquor you want to taste in them after they’ve baked (see note above). You can also do this step a few hours or days in advance when you start to infuse your saffron mixture and just keep it in the fridge. Preheat the oven to 480 degrees F.
Once the buns have risen as much as you’ve convinced them to rise (you can give them a pep talk if you think it’ll work), place a (now plump) raisin in the curve of each “S” shape. Brush with the egg wash, sprinkle with your sparkling sugar, and bake for 5-8 minutes or until golden brown. Don’t underbake.
Let cool under a clean kitchen towel. They will fall back a bit as the steam from their cooking time escapes, and you will be really glad you trusted me and used the sparkling sugar to make them look nice.
Enjoy, and Glad Lucia!