In the weeks preceding Christmas, luxurious saffron is both celebratory and fragrant, bestowing a beautiful golden hue to treats and sweets. Saffron bread or Santa Lucia bread is a delicious Swedish sweet bread, which celebrates the return of light during the dark winter solstice. The decorative buns are traditionally made to celebrate the Feast of Saint Lucia on Dec. 13 by forming billowy, saffron-scented dough into various shapes (lussekatter) and buns. It's a wonderful family-friendly tradition, as everyone can help to shape the buns and, of course, eat them, still warm from the oven and slathered with butter.
You don't need to be Swedish to enjoy these fragrant golden treats. I have been making saffron bread with my Danish husband since we first met. In the early years before our children were born, we made a point of inviting friends with children to help us make the bread, since this holiday tradition is not complete without little fingers rolling and tasting the dough. While the bread rose, we would take long walks in the nearby forest before returning home to a crackling fire to shape and bake the breads, which we enjoyed with a glass of mulled wine or tea. Now we have our own children to help, but we continue to share this tradition with our friends.
Active time: 1 hour
Total time: 2 hours and 45 minutes
Yield: makes about 24 buns
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 teaspoon sugar, plus 2/3 cup
2/3 cup unsalted European-style butter
2 cups whole milk
2 envelopes active dry yeast
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 1/2 to 7 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins, plus extra for garnish
1 large egg, lightly beaten
In a small bowl, crush the saffron and the 1/4 teaspoon sugar with a spoon.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, add the milk and heat over medium-low until warm to the touch (about 110 degrees).
Place the yeast in a large bowl, add 1/4 cup of the warm milk, and stir to dissolve. Let the mixture stand until it foams, 5 to 10 minutes.
Add the remaining milk and the saffron, the 2/3 cup sugar, and the salt, and stir once or twice to blend. Add 6 1/2 cups flour to the bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to combine. The dough should be sticky but not too wet; add more flour, a little at a time, until you reach the desired consistency. Stir in the 1/2 cup raisins and then knead the dough until it pulls away from the bowl and is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes.
Cover the bowl with a kitchen towel and place in a warm, draft-free spot, such as the oven with the pilot light on. Let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour. Punch the dough down and let stand at room temperature for 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Form the dough into shapes by grabbing a small handful and, with light hands, rolling into a 1/2-inch-thick rope. Roll the rope into an "S" shape, or braid 2 ropes together. Place the shapes on a baking tray.
Lightly brush the breads with the egg and garnish the folds and corners with a few raisins. (Add the raisins after you glaze the bread to prevent them from burning.)
Bake until puffed and golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly on wire racks. Repeat with the remaining dough. Serve warm with butter.
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