Nordic Saffron Knots
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Helsinki, Finland

Nordic Saffron Knots

The holidays are all about tradition. We’re having a traditional Finnish Christmas with a locally and ethically produced Christmas ham that is roasted for 12 hours; fish, such as gravlax and pickled herring; several different fish roes;  potato, carrot, and rutabaga casseroles; glögg (Scandinavian mulled wine); date bundt cake, cookies, and pralines. Christmas is also a time to unplug; I’m going to turn off my phone, TV, and computer for at least 48 hours and read books, eat, listen to music, and enjoy quality time with my family instead.

These saffron knots are a variation of Lussekatter, which are traditional, Nordic saffron buns that are eaten in December and especially on Saint Lucia’s Day on December 13. They’re one of the most luscious Nordic baked goods with a glorious yellow color. In this recipe, I filled them with an almond and orange filling and shaped them into knots. For the best result, make sure that all your ingredients are at room temperature. I recommend using bread flour, but this recipe will work with all­ purpose flour as well. Just substitute the flour by weight, not volume. Pearl sugar is obligatory but both traditional and delicious. You can leave out the egg and, furthermore, substitute the milk with water should you follow a special diet. Happy holiday baking!

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Nordic Saffron Knots

makes around 40 knots

1 g (0.035 oz) saffron
2 tbsp Grand Marnier liqueur or cognac
2 tbsp granulated sugar
2 cups + 2 tbsp lukewarm milk (preferably whole milk)

50 g fresh yeast (or alternatively 1 tbsp + 2 tsp (instant) active dry yeast, used according to packet instructions)
180 g (¾ cup + 2 tbsp) granulated sugar
1 ½ tsp fine sea salt
1 egg

about 1 kg (6 ½ cups) bread flour
170 g (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature

For the filling:
150 g (1 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup granulated sugar

100 g (1 cup) ground almonds
zest of 2 organic oranges

For the egg wash:
1 egg

pearl sugar, to sprinkle

To make the dough

  1. To ensure maximum taste and color, mix together the saffron, liqueur, and sugar in a glass and steep for at least 30 minutes or, even better, overnight. This step is optional but highly recommended. Should you prefer to skip this step, simply add the saffron to the milk mixture; no need for the liqueur and sugar that would normally be used for steeping.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, combine the lukewarm milk and crumbled yeast. Stir with a spoon until the yeast is completely dissolved. Add sugar, salt, saffron mix, and egg and mix until combined. Gradually add about two thirds of the flour and knead. Add butter and knead until well combined. Continue to knead the dough, and gradually add just enough flour so the dough comes clean off the sides of the bowl and doesn’t stick to your hand. Don’t overwork the dough or you’ll end up with hard knots, not soft as we want them to be. The dough can be made by hand, like I do, or in a stand mixer.
  3. Shape into a ball and cover with a clean kitchen towel. Let the dough rise in a warm, draft-free place for about 1 hour, or until double in size.
  4. Meanwhile, mix together the butter, sugar, ground almonds, and orange zest for the filling. Set aside.

To shape and bake the knots

  1. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
  2. Punch down the dough and divide into two equally sized portions. Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Roll out the first portion of dough into a large, about 23-by-16-inch rectangle. Spread half of the filling evenly on top. Beginning with the long side closest to you, fold it two thirds up, then fold the top third down. You should now have three layers of dough and it should resemble a business letter. With a knife, cut the dough into 1″ wide strips. Cut them in half lengthwise, leaving the top part attached. Stretch and twist each strip into knots and tuck the ends in the middle.
  3. Place the shaped knots on the baking sheets, spacing them about 2″ apart. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and let rise for 30 minutes. Repeat with the second batch.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 435°F.
  5. For the egg wash, lightly whisk the egg. Before baking, brush each knot with the egg wash and sprinkle with pearl sugar. Bake the knots on the middle rack for 10 – 15 minutes, or until golden to dark brown in color. Repeat with the remaining knots.
  6. The saffron knots are best eaten while still slightly warm or on the same day. However, you can freeze them once baked and warm them up when ready to serve.
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