I have been making saffron bread with my Danish husband since we first met and lived in Geneva, Switzerland. It’s a charming and delicious tradition passed down from his mother, Else, which celebrates the festival of light during the dark winter solstice, Swedish-style, by forming billowy saffron scented breads into various shapes (lussekatter) and buns. In those early years, before our children were born and since my husband and I lived far from our own families, we made a point of inviting friends who had children, since this holiday isn’t complete without the help of little fingers assisting in shaping and nibbling the dough. While the bread rose, we would take a long walk in the vineyards beneath the Jura mountains overlooking Lake Geneva, before returning to form and bake the breads, which we would enjoy with a glass of glogg or tea before the fire. Later, we had our own children to help, but we continued to invite our friends to join making Else’s saffron bread, even as we moved from country to country in Europe. No matter where we lived, this was a lovely holiday celebration enjoyed by everyone, no matter their nationality, impossible not to share with our extended family of friends.
This year, we are a half empty nest, with our oldest away at college. We continue the tradition, once again inviting friends of my daughter to help. After all, the more hands the merrier. Needless to say, we’ll also be making an extra batch of Else’s saffron bread when our son arrives home next week – but we couldn’t wait until then.
Else’s Saffron Bread
Makes about 24 buns
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1/4 teaspoon granulated sugar plus ⅔ cup
⅔ cup unsalted European-style butter, softened
2 cups whole milk
2 envelopes dry yeast or 2 (.6 ounce) fresh yeast cakes
1 teaspoon kosher salt
6 to 7 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup raisins, plus extra for garnish
1 large egg, lightly beaten
In a small porcelain mortar or bowl, crush the saffron and a pinch of sugar with a pestle or spoon until finely ground.
Melt the butter in a large saucepan, then add the milk and heat over medium-low heat until warm to the touch, but not hot. Place the yeast in a large bowl, the add 1/4 cup warm milk. Let stand until the yeast dissolves, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the remaining milk and the saffron, then add the ⅔ cup sugar and the salt. Stir once or twice to blend.
Add 6 cups flour to the bowl and stir with a wooden spoon to blend. Add the 1/2 cup raisins. The dough should be sticky but not overly wet – if necessary add a little flour. Knead the dough until it pulls away from the bowl and is smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes, sprinkling with a little extra flour if too sticky. 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 about 45 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 450°F and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Roll the dough into shapes by grabbing a small handful and, with light hands, rolling out into a ½-inch thick rope. Shape the rope into an “S” shape, or braid 2 ropes together. Place the shapes on a baking trays lined with parchment paper.
Lightly brush the breads with the egg and garnish the folds and corners with a few raisins. Bake in the oven until puffed and golden, 10 to 12 minutes. Cool slightly on wire racks. Serve warm with butter.