TSiR 1 – Ancient Spices: Saffron
It took me some time to decide on a particular spice to feature in this first edition of “The Spice Is Right” (see description and rules here at Tigers & Strawberries).
First, I had coriander in mind, being well known as the Mexican herb – cilantro, or in Europe, coriander green / leaves, and well loved for its seeds’ sweetness in the cuisines of India and the middle east as well as in Europe.
But then I thumbed through one of my favorite cookbooks, Elizabeth Rozin’s “Blue Corn and Chocolate” (from the Knopf Cooks American series, unfortunately out of print). In this book, Rozin gives a detailed report of the fruits of the New World – the Americas – such as potatoes, corn, tomatoes, vanilla and many more – easily entering the hearts and cuisines of the old world – and then coming back to America with the immigrants.
But wait, where’s the saffron? Isn’t that ancient?
It is. And it has been used widely not only to color rice and cloth, but also to add distinct flavor and color to breads, such as the potato saffron rolls I am presenting with this entry.
But first, let’s talk about saffron.
In fact, anything I can tell you about saffron, the spice made of the styles of crocus sativa, a flower, has been put into words quite superbly before. My main sources, from which I derive most of my knowledge presented here, are
- Gernot Katzer’s incredible reference of spices, available in German and English (see saffron here)
- and the wikipedia entry on saffron
I have also looked up saffron in dictionaries and food references, among those Jill Norman “Spices”. I have learned that saffron – although I would have placed it as indigenous to the Himalaya – in fact is a plant native to Greece and has been used around the Mediterranean for approximately 3000 years.
Pagaths Garden added another tidbit I didn’t know:
apron-like garment found at Knossos was decorated with images of crocus blossoms. Actual saffron crocuses worn at the girdle were believed to relieve menstrual cramps; & saffron spice was used medicinally for this very purpose. It was also believed to induce a higher level of potency in men who took saffron.
The Chinese started to use saffron around the 7th century, and around the year 1000 AD it was cultivated in Spain.
The wikipedia article (which is excellent) explains in detail the chemistry behind the slightly bitter aromatic taste of the plant, so I won’t dig that deep, but quote the part about the usage:
Saffron’s aroma is often described by connoisseurs as reminiscent of metallic honey with grassy or hay-like notes, while its taste has been noted also as hay-like and yet somewhat bitter. Saffron also contributes a luminous yellow-orange colouring to foods. Because of the unusual taste and colouring it adds to foods, saffron is widely used in Arab, Central Asian, European, Indian, Iranian, and Moroccan cuisines. Confectionaries and liquors also often include saffron. Common saffron substitutes include safflower (Carthamus tinctorius, which is often sold as “Portuguese saffron” or “assafroa”) and turmeric (Curcuma longa). Medicinally, saffron has a long history as part of traditional healing; modern medicine has also discovered saffron as having anticarcinogenic (cancer-suppressing), anti-mutagenic (mutation-preventing), immunomodulating, and antioxidant-like properties. Saffron has also been used as a fabric dye—particularly in China and India—and in perfumery.
Of course, like many spices, saffron was said to be an aphrodisiac.
Saffron is extremely expensive – no wonder, 150000 flowers are needed for one kilogram of dried saffron. It lends color and aroma to beloved classics, such as risotto milanese, challah, paella or bouillabaisse, but since you need very little, it is still affordable. Nevertheless, adultering the real McCoy is quite profitable – and has always been:
From the webpage of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden:
From the Middle Ages until about 200 years ago, saffron was such a profitable article of commerce that a few pounds of corms served as collateral for a loan of gold or jewels. In 15th century Nuremberg, men were buried alive in punishment for adulterating the spice. (Saffron cheating is as old as the saffron trade itself; often the crocus flower’s golden stamens or male flower parts, which have no culinary value, are used to adulterate a crop.)
If you want to learn more about saffron, visit Gernot’s page and the wikipedia link, both have lots of interesting stuff, and Gernot lists typical recipes for saffron, too.
So will I.
As I said above, I was inspired by a recipe from Elizabeth Rozin. I hand it to you as printed in the book. I don’t own a 9 inch pan, let alone three, so I sort of cheated and oiled a cookie sheet to put the little balls (2 dozen) of dough on it. They did NOT touch before rising the second time, still they turned out great, touching each other after rising.
With the remaining dough I made a small braided loaf. They are rather light and fluffy, and great with a little butter, honey or jam.
The recipe as printed in the book:
Saffron Potato Rolls
In ancient Andean cooking, the potato was used both as a vegetable, and, because of its high starch content, dried and milled into a flour for bread. Although the potato was accepted in most of the Old World primarily as a vegetable, it found its place in a number of breads; both the potatoes themselves and the water in which they were cooked were used to enrich traditional raised wheat and whole-grain loaves, adding moistness and a delicate flavor. These rich golden rolls, fragrant with saffron and honey, have a flavor reminiscent of the traditional Jewish challah.
Makes 30-36 rolls
1/4 tsp. saffron threads
1/4 cup hot water
3/4 cup warm water (can be the water in which the potatoes were cooked)
1/4 cup honey
1 Tb. granulated yeast
1 cup plain unseasoned mashed potatoes
1/2 tsp. salt
2 eggs, lightly beaten
4-5 cups all-purpose flour
3 Tb. butter, melted
- In a small bowl or cup soak the saffron threads in the 1/4 cup hot water for 30 minutes.
- In a large mixing bowl combine the 3/4 cup warm water and the honey; mix well. Sprinkle the yeast over the liquid and let proof for a few minutes. Stir in the saffron water.
- Add the mashed potatoes, the salt, the eggs, 1 cup of the flour, and the melted butter. Beat the mixture until it is smooth and well blended.
- Stir in enough additional flour to make a firm, non-sticky dough. Knead the dough thoroughly until it is smooth and
- Place the dough in a lightly greased bowl, cover, and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour or until doubled in bulk. Punch the dough down and knead lightly.
- Lightly butter three 9-inch cake or pie pans. Pinch off pieces of the dough, about the size of a golf ball. Form into balls and place them, lightly touching each other, in the pans, about 10-12 balls per pan. Cover the pans and let the rolls rise for about 1 hour or until doubled in bulk. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
- Bake the rolls for about 15 minutes until they are lightly browned. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack. (If you want to freeze some of the rolls, then let them cool completely in the pans; wrap tightly in plastic wrap and freeze.) Serve the rolls warm with plenty of sweet butter.