Crimson saffron and delicate sifted sugar combine in true Santa fashion to give this delicious Swedish holiday favourite. Despite living in Sweden for almost seven years, it wasn’t until just before leaving Scandinavia that I tried my hand at these much-loved yuletide classics. My friends Colin and Jenny walked me through the creation of my first lussekatter – bright yellow from the inclusion of saffron, but only mildly sweet in sticking with the Swedish penchant for flavourful pastries unburdened by a sickly surplus of overpowering sugar. It has taken me ages to reproduce the delicious exemplars that made my evening at their home in Stockholm so memorable, but two years later I have come as close as I believe is possible.
Saffron is one of the world’s most distinguished spices – due as much to its price as to its deep red colour and characteristic flavour. Bundled within each tiny thread of saffron is a fantastic palette of chemicals. Zeaxanthin is a type of molecule called a carotenoid that gives saffron its characteristic colour. Stepping away from the plant world, it is notably found in the human eye, where it has a role similar to that in plants – namely protection against energetic light. The second most defining characteristic after its remarkable yellow colour, is the incredibly powerful, intensely aromatic, slightly medicinal flavour. Picrocrocin is the chemical responsible for this, and it is abundantly available through a wondrous transformation of zeaxanthin. A word on the use of saffron – it is extremely easy to use too much! The glorious red provides such a celebration of colour in otherwise bland tableaus such as rice or breads that it is easy to wield a heavy hand when adding it. As a result you obtain as much a beautiful visual symphony as an awkward cacophony of mouth twisting flavour.
250 mL milk
60 g unsalted butter
60 g granulated sugar
1 tsp instant yeast
500 g white flour
1/2 tsp coarsely ground salt
5 tbsp greek yoghurt
1/2 g saffron threads
1 large egg
This recipe begins with a proving of the yeast and an extraction of the bright, delicious components of the saffron. I scald my milk, heating with regular stirring to around 80ºC and then removing from the burner to cool. Before the days of high-temperature pasteurisation this ensured that microorganisms such as bacteria and yeast present in the milk would be killed off, preserving the flavour of the baker’s yeast. Even though filtration and sterilisation techniques nowadays have rendered this a bit pointless, there is still an advantage to be had by scalding. The main component of whey protein, β-lactoglobulin, is turned into an inactive form (denatured) at temperatures over 70ºC to 75ºC. It has been found that addition of whey protein to breads can decrease the volume of the overall loaf and make the crumb (inside) softer. Soft is great, but I find that my lussekatter rise perfectly and become extra moist when I scald the milk. The greek yoghurt is already strained to remove whey, so it is mostly casein and should not interfere with the rising of the buns.
As the milk is cooling, add the butter and saffron. The heat required to melt the butter will cool the milk faster, and the fatty oil produced will assist in pulling out the colourful zeaxanthin and a host of other aromatic flavours. When this mixture has cooled to below 35ºC you can add the yeast, stir briefly and then let stand for 5 minutes. The smell of saffron should be quite strong, and the yeast will be developing nicely. It is time to prepare the dough.
In a large bowl, mix the flour, sugar, and salt by hand. Form a well in the middle and pour the warm milk mixture into it, then follow by working the dough together by hand, gradually pulling more and more dry ingredients into the dough. Add the yoghurt and continue to work until all ingredients are incorporated. I like to form a rectangular shaped mass now, since this will assist in rolling together the lussekatter later. At this point it is time to let the dough rise, so place a cover over the bowl and leave until the dough has doubled in size, which should take from 1 to 2 hours.
Your dough should now be ready to roll into the distinct shapes associated with the buns. Place on a clean, but unfloured work surface and gently press the yellow mass into a rectangular block, approximately 4 cm thick and two to three times as long as wide. Use a dough knife to cut the rectangle in half lengthwise, then take the two halves and gently press them down until they are 2 cm thick and maintain roughly the other proportions. Cut in half again so that you have 4 large strips that are approximately 30 cm long. At this point you can cut strips that are 2 cm thick and then individually roll them by hand, pulling slowly outwards so that they are slightly longer and slightly thinner. Now roll them into shape, place them on a lined baking tray and leave them to proof at room temperature for approximately 20 to 30 minutes. Place a raisin in the middle of each end and brush the top and sides with a beaten egg in order to finish them and ready for the oven.
Bake at 400ºF for 10-15 minutes until the tops are brown. Remove to a baking rack to cool then dust with icing sugar.