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Saint Lucia (Lucia ~ “light”) Day is a Christian holiday honoring a martyr named Lucia who died in the 3rd century. Her legend holds that she brought food — perhaps gluten free Saint Lucia Saffron Buns — and drink to Christians hiding in catacombs, lighting her way with a a candle-lit wreath she wore on her head, so her hands were free to carry her gifts.
The feast of Saint Lucia is always on December 13 (well into Advent, thus signaling the coming of Christmas), but it used to also be the Winter Solstice — the day with the least sunlight. In Scandinavian countries, this dark period would be particularly long. With the adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the date of the solstice was changed, but the tradition of Saint Lucia remained tied to December 13.
Festivals honoring Saint Lucia include the traditional procession of girls dressed as the Saint herself, all in white with a red sash and a wreath of candles on their heads, as they bear cookies and rolls and sing songs. Oddly enough, I remember taking part in just such a ceremony at my school when I was in 3rd grade. I loved dressing like Saint Lucia and learning the songs, but the treats must have left an impression too, as my memories of this activity so many years ago are still quite vivid. (And no, I’m not sharing a picture of my 3rd grade self!)
A friend at church shared a tattered Scandinavian cookbook with me a few years ago, which is where I found the base for what would become my gluten-free recipe. So you can feel quite authentic when you make them! The saffron in these iconic buns plays a very important part, lending flavor and smell as well as the distinctive yellow hue. Saffron has long been one of the world’s most expensive spices, used throughout history for medicinal/herbal treatments, perfume, flavor and even dyes.
The dough for these saffron buns is shaped by twisting into a unique flourish on either end, adding to their distinctiveness as a symbol of this Advent holiday. And while it may not be historically accurate to say that these buns were always gluten free, they’re equally delicious made that way in modern times, so why not?
Tradition holds that if you fully embrace the traditions of Saint Lucia Day, you will survive the long winter days with enough light. It seems to me that the best way to celebrate would be to bake these gluten free Saint Lucia Saffron Buns, don’t you think? Wreath of candles or not, they’ll certainly spread joy and warmth on a cold winter’s night.
To proof the yeast, dissolve the packets in ¼ cup warm milk.
Unless dried already, dry saffron threads by spreading on a baking sheet and placing in a warm oven until dry. Pound smooth into a powder. Dissolve in ½ tablespoon bourbon, brandy or apple cider.
In a large mixing bowl, combine remaining 1 cup milk, dissolved saffron, sugar, salt, egg white, butter and gfJules Flour.
Beat in the yeast-milk mixture until integrated. If dough is too dry, add more warm milk, one tablespoon at a time until the dough holds together well in a wet, but not drippy ball.
Divide into 2-inch balls and roll gently in just enough gfJules Flour to keep from sticking. The dough will become dry if too much flour is used. A bench scraper tool is helpful in sectioning off the dough and moving the buns around, but it’s not essential.
Gently roll into a rope to braid into buns — don’t push down on the dough while rolling or it will become flat; simply roll gently under your palms until a rope is formed. Curl the ends of the rope into “S” shapes. Brush off excess flour, if necessary, with a pastry brush.
Gently transfer each bun to parchment-lined baking sheets, cover and let rise for 30 minutes to one hour in a warm location like an oven preheated to 200° F and then turned off.
Preheat oven to 375° F.
Once risen, brush with slightly beaten egg or warm milk and sprinkle Demerara sugar and chopped almonds, if using. Place raisins in the spirals.
Bake for approximately 10 minutes, depending on size. Do not over bake.
Yield: ~15 buns