Local Baker Celebrates St. Lucia Day with bread

By Joie Hyde
Posted 11/29/23



December 13 has special significance for Scandinavians, as it celebrates Saint Lucia, the patron saint of light and sight, at the approach of the year’s shortest days.

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Local Baker Celebrates St. Lucia Day with bread




December 13 has special significance for Scandinavians, as it celebrates Saint Lucia, the patron saint of light and sight, at the approach of the year’s shortest days.

An early Christian martyr, St. Lucia brought food to believers hiding from Roman persecution in dark catacombs. According to Sicilian tradition, she is also the patron saint of wheat. Among the miracles attributed to St. Lucia was the unexpected arrival in Sicily on Dec. 13, 1646, of ships carrying grain, ending a famine.

The observance of St. Lucia Day is a ritual reminder that light will follow darkness, and hunger will be assuaged. In 18th century Sweden, a tradition began to mark St. Lucia Day with a procession led by a girl dressed in white. The chosen girl wears a crown of candles and carries sweet buns made yellow with saffron, while singing a song that begins, “Night walks with a heavy step. . .”

Today, in Swedish families, the holiday is celebrated at home. Children greet their parents at sunrise with coffee, hot chocolate and just-baked saffron buns.

Although her children are grown, Dana Balfe Durasoff still bakes traditional St. Lucia saffron buns in her Port Ludlow home. Raised just north of Stockholm, in Näsbypark, Sweden, Durasoff studied weaving and came to New York in 1967 to pursue a degree in design at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

“It’s fair to say I have made these buns all my life,” Durasoff says, “except when I was newly arrived as a student, living in Greenwich Village.”

After designing costumes worn by music legends Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, Durasoff left fashion to raise a family with her husband, Douglas, a scholar of international relations. She later worked in the tech industry and as a translator.

A designer’s eye and a craftsperson’s precision have contributed to Durasoff’s reputation as a skilled yeast baker. She bakes a number of rye loaves at once and freezes some for future use. Durasoff is a fan of Chimacum Valley Grainery’s organic, stone-milled rye flour for the flavor it gives her elaborately braided breads.

“I find the Grainery’s flour handles well,” she explained. “It develops a texture that helps to create the braids.” Durasoff also makes butter and serves her rye bread with gravlax she makes from Copper River or King salmon. Her friends vie for jars of “Black Gold,” her tongue-in-cheek name for the black currant jelly she makes from home-grown fruit every summer.

But baking saffron buns is the holiday tradition that has given Durasoff a way of maintaining a connection to her Swedish birthplace.

Visitors to Durasoff’s kitchen note that her years of baking are revealed by the condition of her cookbook, a well-loved 1967 copy of Hemmets Kokbok, first published in 1903, the Swedish equivalent of Joy of Cooking. The book’s fragile binding falls open immediately to the recipe for Saffransbröd, or saffron bread. The accompanying engraving features intricate drawings of traditional designs for the buns and loaves.

According to Durasoff, “All these shapes signify light in the darkness. They are Old Viking heathen symbols and they all have swirls.” The most popular shape is for Lussekatter, or “Lucia Cats,” studded with currants. Durasoff also makes braided loaves stuffed with marzipan and one-bite snail buns.

Asked to share her secrets for a successful St. Lucia dough, Durasoff explains that she follows the Hemmets Kokbok recipe, using whole milk, salted butter, all-purpose flour, and regular (not quick-rise) yeast. What seems to set Durasoff’s St. Lucia buns apart is a generous hand with saffron.

“I use one and a half times the suggested amount,” she says, “and I add a bit of cardamom.”

Though ounce-for-ounce saffron is more expensive than gold due to the labor-intensive nature of the harvest, a little saffron goes a long way. (Locavores will note that Pike Place Market offers Cyrus saffron, grown in eastern Washington state, where the harvest of crocus sativa has just ended.)

Durasoff clarifies that baking with saffron is not a year-round practice. She watches for seasonal sales and bakes with saffron only for St. Lucia Day and the Christmas season. Durasoff considers the expensive threads of the crocus flower to be much more than a holiday indulgence, however.

“No matter where I am,” Durasoff says, “baking the saffron buns gives me a feeling of home at at time when I miss it.” It’s hard to deny that for many of us, that feeling is more valuable than gold.