13 December: St Lucy

Sul mare luccica l'astro d'argento.
Placida e l'onda, prospero il vento.
Venite all'agile barchetta mia!
Santa Lucia! Santa Lucia!

(Traditional Neapolitan Song)

It's St Lucy's day this week and I've celebrated her before. You can see that post here:


But l thought l'd give St Lucy another outing. Partly because l've always wanted to have a go at making the Scandinavian type dough which sometimes appears as Danish pastries and sometimes as other delicious tea breads and rings. Also I'm a bit of a cardamon freak. It's interesting isn't it how since the middle ages when spices travelled the world to flavour our food, different regions have taken particular spices to their heart and made them a significant part of their cuisine?

I don't want to make too much of this, but you get cardamon in Scandinavia in the same way as you get nutmeg in Britain or ginger in Germany.  Cardamon is the most subtle and grown up of spices. I also in a very weird way, (humour me for a moment) think spices have a personality and a gender. Cardamon is definitely female, a slightly weary, mature and beautiful woman. Like the Marshallin in Die Rosenkavalier, or someone played by Vanessa Redgrave. Cinnamon, which I love, is a young and male, delicious but overpowering - add your own image. And ginger? Ginger is George Clooney.

Right! Enough of that.

St Lucy, Lux, Luca, Lucia. It's all to do with light at a dark time of the year isn't it? As John Donne says, it's the year's midnight (well it was before the eighteenth century calendar reform), time to turn the lights on.  St Lucy was on of the early virgin martyrs, she was from Syracuse and she was executed for her faith in 304 AD under the orders of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. The veneration of virginity in the early church has had significant ramifications through the ages. Numerous legends tell of young Christian women undergoing horrific tortures to maintain their virtue for their faith and for Christ. St Lucy had her eyes gouged out. Eyes? Light? Of course.

Anyway by the sixth century St Lucy was widely known and worshipped. Our old friend the Venerable Bede mentions her popularity and her festival was kept in England as a holy day of the second rank, in which no work was allowed which might interfere with worship. There are lots of paintings of her, but as most of them have her offering her eyes up on a tray, you're getting this one instead, it's slightly less gruesome. Nice frock too.

(Francesco del Cossa 1430-1477)

As the earlier post mentions, St Lucy is still a popular saint in Scandinavia where the religious aspects of the day have become a cultural event. That's fascinating given that it was probably made a holy day because the pre-Christian pagan practices. Plus ça change.

So here's the tea ring I made. It's a traditional recipe, but my version owes something to The Hairy Bikers European Baking Book. It sounds much more complicated than it is.

Make a sweet dough with 175ml milk, 1 egg, 65g butter, 1 sachet fast action yeast, 30g sugar, 375 plain flour, ½ tsp salt and 1 tsp freshly ground cardamon. It will be sticky but keep kneading. I always use a dough hook for sweet dough - less sticky hands. Leave to rise until double in size.

Make a filling by mixing together 100g very soft butter, 100g granulated sugar, 2 tsp cinnamon, 100g candied peel, cut small, 50g ground almonds and 50g glace cherries chopped in half. You'll need 50 g flaked almonds too but see the method.

Knock back the dough and roll out to a rectangle 25x40cm and spread the filling on it, sprinkle on the flaked almonds. Go right to the edges on the long side, but leave a margin on the short side. Roll up into a tight sausage from the short side. Curve the dough round and stick the ends together to make a circle - use some beaten egg if it helps.

Now cut the circle with kitchen scissors right round but not through, tease the sections apart slightly and leave to rise for another 40 minutes. Glaze with beaten egg and bake at 190c for about 30 minutes. It should be golden brown. Leave to cool.

Make some glade icing with about 100g of icing sugar and 3 tablespoons of milk. It should dribble in a continuous stream but not lose its shape on contact with the bread. Cover with cherries, chopped nuts, glitter, crystallised fruit - whatever. Have fun.

I made two of these and I wasn't sure about how to keep the ring together, so I baked one in a large spring form tin and one on a baking tray.  The one in the tin took longer to cook and the centre filled itself in. The one on the tray wasn't really a circle, but actually it didn't matter. It was delicious and the filling meant it kept really well. I took it to a Christmas drinks party yesterday and it went in a flash.

Since she enjoys her long night's festival,
Let me prepare towards her, and let me call
This hour her vigil, and her eve, since this
Both the year's, and the day's deep midnight is. 

From 'A Nocturnal upon St Lucy's Day, being the shortest day' 
John Donne  (1572-1631)


Dorothy Oliver said...

So that was what was on offer at the Morrab Library Xmas Party!

Mary Beth said...

Yum! I love the ring, and the use of cardamom.

I made the saffron buns again this year for Santa Lucia day with my friends. I learned a new trick from a blogger names "Joe Pastry" where you roll out the "snake" of saffron dough for each bun as usual but then use a rolling pin to flatten it out so it looks like a thick ribbon. Roll into the "s" shape as usual and bake as usual. the curly parts of the buns stay much prettier. Fun! See http://www.joepastry.com/2012/making-swedish-saffron-rolls-lussekatter/

Liz Woods said...

Thank you both. And what a good tip Mary Beth!