The feast day of Santa Lucia, St Lucy, is celebrated on 13 December. Her name derives from the Latin lux, as in “Fiat lux!” – “Let there be light!”. We also have a cat called Lux. She’s not divine in any way, she’s a needy, bony scrag, but we still love her.
Lucia was supposedly born into a wealthy family in Syracuse, Sicily, in 283AD, a time when the Roman Empire was still officially devoted to Zeus, Apollo and co. Christianity only won out a century later. The Emperor Diocletian was old-school, and she was killed during his reign, in 304AD. Medieval accounts of her death are grim, and involve her eyes being gouged out before she was burned at the stake. She remains the patron saint of the blind. As well as salesmen, oddly.
The facts are, of course, uncertain, but her veneration spread to Rome by the 6th century, and had even reached Britain by the 8th century. Today, she’s mostly celebrated on her home island and in Sweden. Her namesake role as a bringer of light was particularly important in the mid-winter gloom and her feast day may previously have been celebrated on the solstice, the shortest day of the year: now 21 December and more bound up in Christmas itself.*.
Anyway, this is based on another recipe from Cooking with the Saints by Ernst Schuegraf, “The Most Unique Catholic Cookbook Ever!”. It’s purportedly based on a traditional Swedish bake, but I can’t guarantee that. I’ve made Swedish inspired Santa Lucia buns before, which feature a similar enriched dough with saffron. And in the book Scandinavian Baking, Trine Hahnemann has a saffron bread recipe and recounts a Swedish legend about a man being woken by beautiful singing on the long, solstice night, 13 December 1764. It was St Lucia, bringing light, food and wine, and adding herself to the pantheon of Swedish annual traditions.
125g full-fat milk
A few sprigs of saffron
6g active dried yeast
250g plain (all-purpose) flour
250g strong white bread flour
120g caster sugar
50g butter, softened
1 extra egg to glaze
100g icing sugar
30g milk, possibly more
3g vanilla essence
Candied fruit, lightly toasted flaked almonds, nibbed sugar or sprinkles to decorate
1. Combine the milk and water, warm slightly, add the saffron and leave to infuse for at least 20 minutes, even overnight.
2. Warm the liquid again then add the yeast and leave to froth up.
3. In a large bowl, combine the flours, sugar, salt, softened butter and two of the eggs.
4. Add the yeast mix and bring everything together to form a rough dough.
5. Turn out onto a lightly greased surface and knead to combine and create a smooth dough.
6. Form the dough into a ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl.
7. Leave to prove until doubled in size. This will depend on the temperature. I don’t have a prover or warm cupboard, and our kitchen was about 19C; the doubling took a couple of hours.
8. The total dough should be about 1030g. Cut off a piece weighing about 350g, leaving the other at about 680g. Form these into balls, rest them for 10 minutes or so.
9. Stretch the balls slightly then slice each one into three equal sized pieces.
10. Roll the small pieces into snakes around 40cm long, and the larger ones into snakes about 80cm long.
11. Braid the three longer pieces, then form into a circle, pinching the ends together. Put this circle on a greased baking sheet.
12. Braid the three smaller pieces and go through the same process. Put this smaller circle on top of the larger circle.
13. Cover with a clean cloth then leave to prove again until doubled in size.
14. Preheat the oven to 190C.
15. Whisk the final egg, then brush over the dough to glaze.
16. Bake for about 15 minutes then turn down to 180C. Keep an eye on this bake as the glaze can brown then burn easily. If it does, cover with foil. Bake for another half hour or so.
17. Cool on wire racks.
18. Sieve the icing sugar, then add the milk (adding more as necessary) and sugar to create a basic icing.
19. Drizzle the icing over the crown and decorate as you wish – you could use glace cherries, I suppose, but they’re the Devil’s work. The kids like sprinkles, so I’m using vermicelli and nibbed sugar.
20. Serve the crown with birthday candles for Lux, Lucy, Lucia, light.
Enjoy in the pre-Christmas mayhem of Advent, close to the solstice.
* I’m talking about the northern hemisphere of course. The shift from the old Julian calendar to the new Gregorian calendar involved removing between 10 and 13 days, depending on when the transition took place. Strongly Catholic countries like Italy, Spain, Portugal, France and Poland made the switch in 1582. Britain, Canada and most of the US didn’t until 1752.