One of the things I love most about keeping this blog is the conversations it sparks with people I’ve never met. There are so many people out in the wooly wilds of the internet who are just as passionate about food as I am, and swapping ideas with them is nothing short of intoxicating.
Veronika was the first person to comment on my blog who wasn’t already a friend of mine (and therefore obligated to be nice to me). We started commenting back and forth on each other’s blogs, and now I feel like I know her a bit. I so enjoy reading her blog, Eat The Roses, because she pulls no punches–body image, indiscriminate “liking” of blog posts, brussels sprouts, pizza, are all treated with the same honesty and straightforwardness. Plus, she’s constantly tickling my creative-cooking nerve with recipes for beautiful foods I’ve never seen before.
Like lusekatter, or St. Lucia buns. I’d never heard of them before, but I knew I had to try them–and holy mackerel are they tasty.
In Veronika’s words, these are “yeasted beautiful saffron-scented golden creations which are the thing you want to eat with your afternoon tea or coffee.” Apparently nearly unknown outside Scandinavia, these little buns are a welcome change of pace from the usual drumbeat of cookies and quickbreads.
Here in the U S of A, holiday baking seems to rely uniformly on the same collection of three or four spices: cinnamon, cloves, allspice, maybe ground ginger. Chocolate and peppermint seem to have a hammerlock on the season. But here’s a pastry that gives that same ol’-same ol’ a kick in the pants. A yeasted dough, moistened with milk and cheese, is tinted with ground saffron and scented oh-so-gently with cardamom, then wrapped around sticky shards of marzipan and nuggets of almond or pistachio.
I was expecting the resulting buns to be heavy and rich–butter! cheese! marzipan!–but they’re really not. As a California native, I adore Mexican pan de muerto at Halloween-time, and for me these buns hit the same spot: chewy and bready, just barely sweet, fragrantly spiced and topped with a drift of crunchy sugar.
I converted this recipe from Veronika’s super-authentic one, and made a couple of adjustments. Where she uses fresh baker’s yeast, I substituted active dry yeast. Where she recommends pearl sugar for decoration–a Scandinavian staple–I used coarse raw sugar. Her recipe calls for a curd-based, ricotta-like cheese called quark, most often marketed in the US as farmer cheese. When I studied abroad in St. Petersburg, I knew this stuff as tvorog; the Russians mix it with fresh raspberry jam to make a breakfast fit for gods. Veronika suggests subbing in strained ricotta or Greek yogurt; I used fat-free yogurt, and my buns were a little on the dry side. So no matter what dairy product you use–quark, ricotta or yogurt–use the full-fat stuff. It is the holidays, after all.
If, like me, you’ve been cookie-munching your way through the holidays, these treats are almost certainly unlike anything you’ve had. But they’re beautiful, exotic and delicious, and they’d definitely make a splash in any baked-good-sharing context.
Thank you, Veronika, for bringing lusekatter into my life.
Lusekatter (Saffron-Marzipan Buns) (makes about 20 buns, give or take)
Adapted from Eat The Roses
5 oz. marzipan, kept cold (ideally frozen)
18-20 saffron threads
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup milk, plus more as needed
2 (7 g) packets active dry yeast
1/2 cup farmer cheese, strained ricotta or Greek yogurt
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cardamom (optional, but highly recommended)
1/4 cup chopped almonds or pistachios (I skipped these, but they are traditional)
1 large egg
1 tsp milk
Coarse sugar for sprinkling (I used turbinado sugar)
Grate the marzipan on the large holes of a cheese grater, then refrigerate the grated marzipan until needed. The colder it is, both pre- and post-grating, the less sticky it’ll be.
Crush the saffron into small pieces, using your hands or a mortar and pestle. In a small skillet, toast saffron over medium-low heat for about 30 seconds, or just until it becomes fragrant. Add butter to the skillet and melt it, then turn off heat and let the saffron steep in the butter while you prepare the rest of the ingredients.
Use a saucepan or the microwave to warm the milk to about body temperature. (I like the baby-bottle test: put a couple drops of milk on the inside of your wrist, and if you can’t feel it, it’s the right temp.) Stir the yeast into the warm milk, and let stand for 5 minutes.
In a large mixing bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt and cardamom (if using). Combine the saffron-infused butter with the milk and yeast, then stir in the cheese or yogurt. Add this mixture to the dry ingredients and mix until a stretchy dough forms. If the dough seems too sticky, add a little more flour; if it seems too dry, add a splash of milk.
Lightly oil a large, clean mixing bowl. Transfer the dough to the bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let rise in a warm place for 90 minutes, or until doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 425º F, and line two baking sheets with parchment (or, if you don’t have parchment, grease them lightly). Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and stretch or roll it into a rough rectangle. Sprinkle the shredded marzipan over the dough, and distribute the nuts (if using) evenly over the marzipan.
Roll the dough lengthwise into a log and pinch the seam shut. Slice the log of dough crosswise into 1-inch-thick rounds, and lay the rounds on the baking sheets about 1 1/2 inches apart. Cover the baking sheets with clean towels and let the buns rise another 30-40 minutes.
Beat the egg with 1 tsp milk to make an egg wash. Brush the tops of the buns with the egg wash and sprinkle with sugar. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until golden, then remove from oven. Let cool on the baking sheets for 5 minutes, then transfer to a rack to finish cooling.
These will keep for two or three days in an airtight container at room temp. Make sure you let them cool completely before packing them up, or the residual moisture will melt the sugar topping.