How to use saffron, the rarest and costliest of the spices, in dessert

Why is so much of the good stuff always sold in grams?

Saffron, indisputably and for centuries the globe’s dearest flavoring, begins all its measurements in grams. Most recipes using it call for “a pinch,” about 20 of the dried stigmas from the center of a flower of Crocus sativus, the flower that gives us saffron, all of which stigmas were gathered, plucked and dried by hand only.

It takes about 470 of these stigmas to equal just 1 gram, a lot of pinches. The word comes by way of Arabic, “za’faran” (“yellow”). Although the threads appear dark red, they yellow, never truly redden, the liquid in which they are always enlivened.

Because it is so rare and costly, history has pushed substitutes, the most common over time being turmeric, which tastes or smells nothing like it, only resembles its coloring. The safflower flower takes its name from saffron because it, too, has stepped forward as a worthy interloper. It isn’t.

Long ago, Nuremberg, Germany, was a main trading place for it and, in the late Middle Ages, held a saffron fair where saffron was a financing security (or payment, or bribe). The Nuremberg police frowned on substitutes, of course, and threatened those who might commit such fraud with “death by burning or being buried alive.” My.

In Greek mythology, Zeus slept on a bed of saffron and crocus flowers. (Among its several medicinal attributes, saffron is considered an aphrodisiac. Zeus always thought ahead.) Ancient Greek legend has it that Hermes, the messenger, accidentally struck with his sword the head of his close friend, Crocos. Where drops of blood fell from the head of Crocos, wee bluish flowers sprung with, of course, saffron stigmas at their centers.

As with sugar in Europe after Columbus, ingesting dishes made with saffron was a sign of wealth and power since well before the Roman Empire. This was so not only because of its scarcity and expense, but also because of its coloring effect. It “gilded” food and, thereby, the eater of it.

After the death of The Buddha in the fifth century B.C.E., his priests began to dye their robes using saffron, in homage to him and as a sign of renunciation, for yellow and yellow-orange signify such in Hinduism. (Buddhist monks now use commercial dyes or turmeric.)

In many foods of the Mediterranean, Middle and Far East, saffron is indispensable, almost all times appearing in wet or steamed preparations: bouillabaisse, paella, risotto Milanese, Persian tahdig, bourride (a fish stew), b’stilla (the pigeon pie of Morocco) — the list goes on and on.

It is common, nearly ubiquitous, in the many rice dishes of Spain, Cuba, India and Iran. Because of how its native bitterness plays off honey or sugar — not to mention its haunting aroma, spicy flavor and tenacious color — it often appears in desserts, as in today’s recipe.

Halwa (sometimes spelled halwah or halva) is a Persian semi-sweet dessert based in semolina flour and flavored with saffron. It is called a “pudding,” but it is more like a moist pilaf. Leftover halwa may be re-warmed and served with a topping of melted ghee or butter, or with warm cream.

If you rewarm it with a substantial amount of milk or cream, you will not be able to go back to a breakfast of Cream of Wheat. You will have been gilded.

Halwa

Adapted from sbs.com.au/food and Romy Gill at saveur.com. Serves 6-8.

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 3/4 cups water
  • Seeds from 4 crushed green cardamom pods (about 1/4 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads or 1 tablespoon saffron water (see recipe)
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped raw cashews
  • 3 tablespoons golden or green raisins
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups semolina (durum wheat) flour (see note)
  • 1 rounded tablespoon slivered almonds, lightly toasted

Directions

Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods by smashing each pod with the bottom of a heavy glass and separating the small blackish seeds from the “shells.” If using saffron threads, pulverize them using a mortar and pestle.

To a medium pot set over medium heat, add the sugar, milk, water, cardamom seeds and saffron. Bring to a slow boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the liquid has reduced to a light syrup, about 10 minutes. Toss in the raisins and cashews, stir the mix and set aside.

To another medium pot set over medium-low heat, add the ghee or butter and melt it. Add the semolina and cook, stirring frequently, until toasted and slightly browned, about 8 minutes.

Cautiously stir in the reserved syrup mix (the semolina in the pot will bubble up at first) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the halwa obtains a crumbly consistency, 2-3 minutes.

Transfer portions to warmed bowls, sprinkle with the almonds and serve.

Cook’s notes: You may use coarse or fine semolina. The brand Bob’s Red Mill packages semolina and is in fairly wide distribution. You may substitute coarse whole wheat flour.

Saffron Water

Makes about 1/2 cup.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt or sugar
  • 1/2 cup hot water

Directions

Using a mortar and pestle or molcajete, grind down the saffron threads with the salt or sugar until pulverized. To a small cup or jar, add the powder and hot water and stir or shake until the saffron dissolves, upwards of an hour.

Store the saffron water in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or divvy up the water into 1-tablespoon portions in an ice cube tray and freeze until solid. Pack the cubes for later use.

For recipes that call for a “healthy pinch” of saffron, use 1 tablespoon saffron water.

Reach Bill St John at [email protected]

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