Across the numerous, often ambiguous stories of Lucia, the virgin saint who rejected her suitor and gave her dowry to the poor, the one constant is her association with light. Although Sicilian and celebrated in Italy, Lucia is arguably most revered in Scandinavian countries, where today young women dressed in white will sing Lucia songs and carry candles in her honor, evoking ancient, heart-of-winter rites meant to illuminate the year’s longest nights. In folkloristic terms, Lucia makes up part of the company of figures with whom Saint Nicholaus cavorts, such the Krampus, the red-tongued devilish punisher of bad children, and La Befana, the gift-bearing ‘good witch’ who flies the world over on the eve of the Epiphany. Interestingly, Lucia shares qualities with both: depending on the version of the story, Lucia sometimes rides a broom (like La Befana); while in some Swedish traditions, young people dressed as Lucia go about scrounging for schnapps, not unlike their far-creepier counterparts in the Krampus procession.
These buns, called Lussekatter (meaning ‘Lucy cats’) are the treat to have on Lucia Day. Raisins placed in the curls are meant to recall eyes, as Lucia is the patron saint of the blind and the eyes are her attribute (she was blinded before being executed). This does not exactly explain how this cat-tail-shaped, saffron-flavored, raisin-dotted soft bun equates with Lucia’s feast day though, does it? Well, maybe with a little more research (and why not a trip to Sweden next December, eh?), illumination will come in time for next year’s Santa Lucia.
The recipe comes courtesy of Joe Pastry. I used mascarpone in place of quark, a soft fermented cheese commonly used in baking throughout much of Europe but not available in Italy.
Buona Santa Lucia!