Friday, December 13, 2013

Kirsten's St. Lucia Buns

A tasty breakfast snack!

As I mentioned in an older post, although I'm not Swedish, St. Lucia Day is something that thanks to Kirsten and American Girl has been a part of my life from the time I was very small. Picking a recipe to feature for Kirsten was incredibly easy, and it's been one of the ones I've been most looking forward to doing. According to my mom, I've actually had Lucia buns before thanks to my kindergarten teacher (who was apparently the one to suggest that I represent Sweden during our children around the world concert), but I can't remember eating them, so I was definitely excited to see how these would taste.

The recipe comes from Kirsten's Cookbook and is the first one I've ever tried to make from it. Historically speaking, I'm not a huge fan of Swedish food - I remember being horribly disappointed by Swedish meatballs at a historic farm in Massachusetts that was hosting a Kirsten themed event - but I'm always willing to try new things in the name of the blog, so expect to see us working our way through the rest of the recipes listed in here sometime in the future!

Unlike many of the other holiday books from American Girl, Kirsten's Surprise didn't focus on what traditions the Larsons held for Christmas. There's some discussion of it - Kirsten and her mother bake Christmas bread and Kirsten tries to convince her that they need to pick up their trunk from town before winter sets in so that they can hang up their Christmas decorations - but the primary focus of the story is on Kirsten wanting to celebrate St. Lucia Day, a tradition her cousins Anna and Lisbeth have never celebrated. Kirsten becomes determined to find a way to bring this custom to them and to her family.

St. Lucia - or Lucy, as she's sometimes known - is a Sicilian martyr who is said to have died around 310 AD. The most commonly cited story of her martyrdom is pretty standard for a female martyr, in that she apparently refused to marry a man she was promised to because she was such a devout Christian, and was horribly murdered for it. There's some fairly horrific variation on this, but the version of the story that most closely relates to the tradition Kirsten would have been familiar with is the idea that St. Lucia was helping smuggle food to Christians hiding in the catacombs during the terror brought on by the Roman Emperor Diocletian, and as she needed both hands free to carry the food, she wore a wreath of lit candles on her head to help light her way.

St. Lucia Day is celebrated on December 13th which was commonly believed to be the longest night of the year, and there are several variations on how the holiday is celebrated amongst different cultural groups. The Swedish tradition involves the eldest daughter waking up around four in the morning to dress in a white gown with a red sash (the symbol of martyrdom) and a wreath of lit candles on her head. She then wakes up the other members of her family and brings them treats like cookies and breakfast buns. This holiday is still celebrated in Sweden fairly similarly to how Kirsten and her family do in Kirsten's surprise, although since 1927, there have been public Lucia processions, too. The tradition is thought by some to have adapted from the much older Scandinavian custom of Lussinatta, celebrated on December 13th where families would stay up all night to keep evil spirits away. Although there isn't too much in common between the two customs, there's definitely enough to see where one evolved from the other.

The tradition was also featured in one of my favorite holiday specials: Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree. It features Muppets and Robert Downey Jr., which is definitely a little surreal now that I'm more familiar with him outside of just being Mr. Willowby. I was really happy to discover that it's available to watch on YouTube, since I'm not sure a DVD has ever been released, and our VHS copy is from my parents recording it when it first aired in 1995, so it's pretty old and every time we play it, I worry the tape will snap.

In Kirsten's Surprise, they actually eat Christmas bread as the St. Lucia Day treat because Kirsten and her cousins want to keep the celebration a surprise for their parents and Kirsten's brothers, but Lucia Buns or Lussekatt are the traditional food to have, alongside other cookies and treats. They are mentioned in the book, and were included as part of an accessory set for Kirsten until 2007, two years before her official retirement. They are saffron buns with raisins, and are different from their British relatives because there is no nutmeg or currants involved. Although most Kirsten fans will be familiar with the buns appearing as curled crosses, they also can just be one backwards S shape and several other traditional shapes based on personal preference.

Now I'm going to say right off the bat that the recipe was kind of misleading, which led to a fair amount of frustration and confusion while making the buns. We actually had to make two batches of them because I thought the first one was going to be a disaster, and largely because of that, this was probably not my favorite recipe to make, even if the results were very tasty. Most of the pictures are from the second attempt because the buns turned out much prettier and delicate, while the first batch sort of... didn't.

Like most all bread recipes, the first thing to do is get the yeast started.

While you leave that to sit, butter and milk need to be combined on the stove. The milk needs to be warmed first, and then the recipe recommends chopping a half stick of butter into tiny pieces and throwing it in with the warm milk. Stir this until the butter melts, and take it off the heat before it starts really boiling.

You'll know that your yeast is active when you can smell it, and there should be little bubbles forming on the surface of the water. We're pretty sure the first batch of yeast we used might have been dead in the package, or at least didn't activate properly, because as you'll see below, there aren't too many bubbles to be seen, and the smell wasn't that strong. The second batch we used was a lot more successful.

Once that's set, the butter and milk are added, quickly followed by the saffron, sugar and one egg. I've never cooked with saffron before, and I have to say, it made a tasty bun and all, but since ours wasn't ground, I was worried there wasn't good enough distribution throughout all the buns. The other problem is that saffron is super expensive, so it's not a spice you really want to get overenthusiastic with, so I was hesitant to add more in.

To help combat the distribution issue, I tried to break up the sprigs in my hand so it was at least a little more powdery than it would have been otherwise.

Then comes the flour. It was a pretty easy dough to combine and work with, so that was pretty nice.

Kneading the dough is a pretty decent work out, but it's a nice, soft dough that didn't get too sticky when the flour was incorporated into it. I kneaded the second dough longer than the first, but both got just as springy once I was finished.

Once that's finished, you coat the dough lightly in oil...

And put it in a warm place with a damp towel over it to let it rise!

This is where things got a little frustrating. The recipe said that the dough was supposed to double in size. I'm really not sure that's true, because like I said, I had to do this twice, and neither time resulted in a ball of dough that was twice the size from what we'd started out with. The first round barely looked like it had risen at all, but we're pretty sure that's because the yeast we used might not have activated correctly, but the second round dough seemed like it only rose to be maybe a quarter or a half larger than the size of the ball we'd started out with, and that yeast was definitely alive and active.

And believe me, we tried everything to get this dough to rise. I looked up suggestions on how to encourage dough to rise online, we tried different spots on the stove, we even gave it gently heated up heating pads to try and encourage it to rise a little more because the house was a little drafty. We coddled it, and still it was basically refusing to get any higher than what we ended up with.

So at this point, we decided to just finish the recipe and see what we ended up with. My mom even rescued the first round of dough so that we could bake that too and see what happened, because evidently either we'd done something incredibly wrong that the recipe just wasn't warning us about, or the recipe itself was very wrong.

What did I ever do to you, dough?

Once the dough has risen, you punch it down and form six evenly sized balls. These are then divided in half, rolled out into little dough snakes and placed over each other. You then curl the edges in to make pretty little spirals.

I was actually surprised at how easy this was to do. When I made my bagels, the dough really didn't want to hold any shape I tried to force it into, and I had to fuss a lot to make sure that the bagel's holes didn't completely morph back into a solid ball of dough. These were pretty good about holding their shape, and it was easy enough to coax them back if they started to unfurl.

You're left with six decently sized buns that will hopefully hold their shape for you while you let them rise again.

Or at least, that's what the recipe said they were supposed to do. Once again, we left them covered with a damp paper towel as instructed and let them sit for about half an hour, and this time, they didn't move at all. The recipe says they were supposed to double in size again, and honestly at this point, I just don't believe it. According to the recipe, you're supposed to end up with dough that's four times the size of what you started out with, and both times we did this, we ended up with nothing even close to that. Maybe we just did something terribly wrong or there was something wrong with our ingredients, but I really don't think so, especially when you look at the plastic buns that were a part of Kirsten's holiday collection.

Admittedly, a doll accessory set probably isn't the best judge of size, but considering how well researched that stuff is, especially when going back to the older characters and their accessories, I'm more inclined to trust that than a recipe that keeps promising me things that just aren't happening, even when I'm doing everything it's telling me to.

Once the buns "rise" again, you give them an egg wash coating so they'll turn all nice and brown in the oven. Ours did not turn nice and brown even though we used the same technique that made our bagels look all pretty, so again, no idea what went wrong there, but overall, it didn't bother me aesthetically too much. Overdoing an egg wash can be pretty gross, so I wasn't going to do that.

With the egg wash on, you can add on the raisins. It also acts as a binding agent to make sure they don't just roll off, but it also helps to tuck them into the loops a little to make sure they stay secure.

And that's about all you have to do before they go in the oven.

While the buns bake, it's time for Kirsten to get dressed!

While the egg wash didn't really do much to help the color of these buns, I still think they came out of the oven looking really nice. The second batch in particular looked like something I'd pay money for in a bakery.

So, how did they taste? Both doughs tasted pretty much exactly the same before they were baked - I can't say the better dough tasted more yeast-y - but the second round was considerably fluffier, while the first batch was very tough. Overall, they tasted like a sweet bagel, and I won't lie, I'm a little disappointed the recipe only made six buns. I ended up devouring two of them before running into New York to meet a friend, and between giving one to her, my sister's best friend, my grandparents, my mother and my ravenous younger brother, they were pretty much gone in no time at all, so I think it's pretty safe to say that even if they didn't turn into properly risen, four times the size of what you started out with Lucia buns, I still think this recipe was a success.

The thing is, like I said before, the buns do actually look like they're about the right size if we're using the plastic ones that came with Kirsten's holiday set as an example of how the buns should look when they're finished baking. Admittedly, Kirsten's hands might be a little smaller than mine if she were an actual ten year old, but this still seems about right.

Also featured are some non AG pepparkakor cookies, which we are totally making sometime in the future.

Overall, I'm a little torn on what to make of this experience. I'm disappointed by the bad directions the recipe gave, especially considering we followed it to the t twice and both times ended up with dough that wouldn't rise, even when we tried methods to rescue it with the help of the internet. I'd imagine that if I was making this with my mother when I was younger, or had a younger chef in the kitchen with me, I'd be pretty frustrated to find out that things weren't working even when we were following the instructions perfectly. It's discouraging to see that you're putting in all this time and effort only for things to not work out the way you're told it should be, and considering saffron isn't a cheap spice, it definitely is frustrating to think you might have wasted the ingredient.

That being said, most of the recipe is pretty kid friendly. There's no knife work involved, minimal time on the stove or with other heat sources, and while it does require some patience and focus since you need to let the dough sit twice, I still think an interested kid could take the reigns on this with minimal adult help if they wanted to.

If you decide to make these yourself using Kirsten's Cookbook, be prepared for some minor frustration from the dough not rising, but rest assured that even if the dough doesn't rise much, or doesn't rise at all, you're still going to end up with some tasty snacks. While our first batch made buns that were a little too tough for my tastes, the second one produced something I'd be totally happy eating for breakfast or as a snack, and the first batch was definitely still edible and tasty, especially right out of the oven. Don't be discouraged, and don't be afraid to just take a risk and pop the buns in to bake and see what comes out. Considering the dough is genuinely tasty on its own anyway, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

St. Lucia invites you to breakfast!


  1. The dough didn't rise for you too? Years ago my mom and I tried making a recipe from Kirsten's cook book, some kind of bread I think, but we gave up because the dough wouldn't rise at all. Maybe it's just the recipe itself?

    1. Yeah at this point, I'm pretty sure the recipe was just badly written. I mean like I said above, the buns look like they came out to be about the right size/shape when compared to the plastic ones, they had good texture and tasted good, so I really think the recipe exaggerated how much they were supposed to rise. Thanks for the head's up that we might run into trouble with the other bread recipe though, since that's one I was definitely planning on making in the future. I would love to know what's up with the inconsistency of these AG recipes since they're allegedly test run by a fair amount of people before publication!

    2. Weird... I made this recipe all growing up and still do and the dough has always risen fine for me, making gorgeous fluffy HUGE buns. Maybe your yeast is old??

    3. Possibly! My old house's kitchen was also always very very cold, which probably didn't help. This was six years ago though, so who knows. :)

  2. Do you have the recipe? I had this book as a little girl, and always wanted to make these buns! Never did. Now I live in a Scandinavian neighborhood and am going to my first St. Lucia parade on Saturday complete with Lucia girls. I was hoping to make Kirsten's St. Lucia buns this year, opposed to some random googled ones. Thanks!

    1. Sorry to get back to you so late! It's been a busy week for me. Here's the recipe:

      1/3 cup milk
      1/4 cup butter
      1/4 lukewarm water
      1 package dry yeast
      1/4 cup sugar
      1 egg
      1/2 teaspoon salt
      1/4 teaspoon saffron
      2 3/4 cups flour
      1 tablespoon cooking oil
      1 egg
      1 tablespoon water
      24 raisins

      1. Warm the milk in the small saucepan over low heat. Cut the butter into small pieces. Add the butter pieces to the warm milk and stir, then turn off the heat.
      2. Measure the lukewarm water into the large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the yeast over the water. Stir well. Set the bowl aside for 5 minutes.
      3. Add the warm milk and melted butter to the saffron. Stir in the sugar, egg, salt and saffron. Then add 1 1/2 cups flour and stir until smooth.
      4. Add enough of the remaining flour so that you can shape the dough into a ball. Save some of the remaining flour for kneading the dough.
      5. Put the dough on the floured cutting board. Dust your hands with flour and knead the dough. Add flour when the dough gets sticky.
      6. After 5 to 10 minutes of kneading, you will have a smooth ball of dough. It should spring back when you poke it with your finger. Cover the dough with the towel and let it rest while you wash and dry the mixing bowl.
      7. Spread cooking oil in the large bowl. Roll the dough in the oil until it is coated. Cover the bowl with the towel and set in a warm place to rise. After 45 minutes, the dough should be twice as large. If not, check it again in 15 minutes.
      8. Punch down the dough. Then divide it into 6 sections. Take one section and divide it in half. Roll each half into an 8 inch rope. Cross the two ropes in the middle. Then coil the ends in tight circles. Shape 5 more buns in the same way.
      9. Place the buns 2 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Cover with the towel. Let the buns rise for 30 to 45 minutes until they double in size. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees while they are rising.
      10. Mix the egg and water with the fork in the small bowl. Brush this mixture lightly over the top of each bun. Decorate the buns with raisins.
      11. Bake the buns for 15 to 20 minutes. When the buns are golden brown, have an adult move them to the wire rack to cool.

      It makes six buns!

  3. Hi Gwen, I don't know if you'll see this because it's an old post but I was wondering how you get so little glare on the background scenes. I'm definitely not a good photographer but there always seems to be a blatant glare from a window or light when I use my scenes and settings book in the background. Yours always turn out great.

    1. Honestly, I'm not sure! I'm by no means an expert on photography or lighting. I tend to photograph them in a well lit part of my house that's close to some windows, but not too close, and isn't directly under an overhead light. I also don't use my flash ever, so there's no light from the camera to reflect off the boards. Have you tried shopping around for a different photography spot? It took a little time to find a good one for me, too.

  4. I make St. Lucia buns every year and it's hit or miss as far as the yeast is concerned. Look up "turn your oven into a proofing drawer." Yeast needs warmth and humidity. You know the dough is proofed when you punch it down and it poofs back up. Also, the saffron should be ground up. I usually try to grind it with the back of a spoon. It gives the buns a nice yellow color.

    1. This was several years ago, so I've had a lot more success with yeast since then! But thanks for the advice, hopefully it will help people who are just coming to this post now. :)