• Demystify

    Saffron- The Blooming Tales

  • –  Travel Food & Wine

    Saffron has a protracted and multihued history. Till date no saffron researcher came up with  an accurate time period as when and where the first saffron cultivation has begun on earth, however, the history of saffron cultivation and usage reaches back more than 3000 years and definitely spans many cultures, continents and civilizations.

    According to Greek mythology, handsome mortal crocus fell in love with the beautiful nymph Smilax. Alas, his favors were rebuffed by Smilax, and he was turned into a beautiful purple crocus flower by God. You must be thinking why there is always a broken heart in every great story, right? Unfortunately, solution to broken hearts cannot be defined.

    The most popular spice, which offers everything nice in it, has to be saffron. An ancient medicinal plant and the most luxurious of spices, has always had a miraculous, addictive power. Cleopatra took saffron-infused baths to enhance her allure. Alexander the Great used it to heal the wounds of battle. Many people consider that in its pure form, saffron works as an antioxidant, an antidepressant and a culinary weapon against Alzheimer, cancer and degeneration of the eyes. Egyptian healers used this spice for treating gastrointestinal ailments and the Romans used it as a deodorizer.

    We think by nature saffron is omnipresent, in stews, kebabs, rice dishes, sweets. However, not all of us are aware of saffron benefits, which, we tell you, are simply wonderful. Saffron is the world’s most exclusive spice, with a street value on average of around Rs. 12,72,000 per kilo. A double handful of saffron weighing about 1 kilo will contain at least 200,000 stigmas. All these are meticulously harvested by hand from the back-breaking picking of each flower to the dexterous separation of the 3 stigmas with tweezers.

    What Is Saffron?                                                   

    A spice derived from the flower of Crocus Sativus (scientific name), saffron threads are mainly used as a seasoning and coloring agent in food. Kesar in Hindi, Kumkumappu in Tamil, Jafran in Bengali, and Kumkuma pubba in Telugu, saffron is thought to have originated in or near Persia, from where it promulgated to Eurasia, parts of North America, North Africa, and Oceania. The plant usually flourishes in the Mediterranean Maquis (Mediterranean region with dense evergreen shrubs) and in similar climates where hot and cold summer breezes blow over semi-arid lands. The flower of the plant is purple and possesses a honey-like fragrance. The stems grow up to 20 to 30 cm in height, and they, along with the flowers and roots, develop between October and February.

    Saffron comes in various varieties; some of the popular ones include

    • Padmagadhi grown in Kashmir and often considered the best variety (also called Mongra or Lacha saffron).
    • Parasika kumkuma which has bigger strands
    • Madhugandhi which has thick strands and are slightly white
    • Bahilka which has tiny white strands
    • Other popular varieties are Sargol (native to Iran), Aquila (native to Italy), and coupe (native to Spain)

    Why Is Saffron Good For You?

    {According the writings of Hippocrates (the father of medicine), saffron is a wonderful treatment for colds and coughs, stomach issues, uterine bleeding, insomnia, flatulence, and even heart trouble. Saffron is extremely rich in manganese, which helps regulate blood sugar and aids the formation of bones, tissues, and sex hormones. It also contains vitamin C that fights infections and aids iron absorption.

    Even saffron milk has great things to offer. This spice, when combined with milk, can improve digestion and appetite, keep your skin healthy, and even enhance your immunity. Drinking saffron milk every day, especially before going to bed, can promote sound sleep. Saffron oil can make your skin glow – and even saffron water has amazing properties. All of this boils down to the contents in saffron – which is what we will look at now.

    Selecting Saffron 

    Saffron is the most expensive of all the spices. Hence, proper selection is vital in order to get your money’s worth. Saffron is available all year round in supermarkets and specialty stores. It is available in three forms – saffron threads or stigmas, saffron tips, and saffron powder. Adulteration and falsifying saffron is a common practice globally, due to the high cost of the genuine article, making adulterers potentially rich. In the past various materials such as safflower petals, corn silk, coconut fiber, and even dyed shredded crocus petals were passed off as saffron.

    However, today there is an even more insidious method being used to make false saffron. This clever fake is made of a soluble plastic, artificially colored and flavored, sometimes with sandalwood, in a vain attempt to mimic the woody notes of real saffron. Fake ‘plastic’ saffron that has been artificially colored and flavored will dissolve in warm water after several minutes. Fake saffron will release its color more rapidly than the real item. Good saffron can take anything from 15 minutes to an hour to release the golden hue. Artificially colored saffron look-alikes release a redder color, and the aroma is like sandalwood.

    Selection

    • Saffron threads or powder should be purchased from a reputed distributor. It should be packaged in foil to protect from air and light. Bulk saffron is usually sold in wooden boxes.
    • When purchasing saffron threads, ensure that they are dark red in color. These should have orange tips and should not have any color variation. There should be no traces of yellow as they have no utility except adding dead weight. The redder the color, the better is the quality of saffron. If the tips are not orange, it means that the saffron is of inferior quality and has been dyed. Saffron threads with white spots and those with yellow stamens attached should be avoided. The threads should be hard and brittle to touch.}
    • It is a bit difficult to discern powdered saffron based on color as it is more likely to be adulterated. It generally has a lighter color than the saffron threads or tips. To ensure superior quality, it should be bought from a reputed brand or merchant. The next step is to examine its aroma. Saffron should have a strong and fresh aroma. It should smell sweet and not musty.
    • Though saffron is available in both thread and powdered forms, it is advisable to prefer the thread if possible, as ground saffron has a shorter shelf life than the dried threads. It is usually mixed with other ingredients and lacks the quality and flavor of saffron threads.

    Moreover, saffron is an expensive spice. Thus, if it is available at a lower price, it is likely to be of inferior quality or maybe fake. If you then take one of the fake threads and rub it between your fingers, it will dissolve completely, a strong indication that the thread is not real.

    Storage

    • Saffron should be stored in an airtight container, preferably in a glass jar in a cool, dark, and dry place. The ideal storage temperature for saffron is below 68°F and in less than 40% humidity.
    • Like other herbs and spices, saffron is also sensitive to light so it should be wrapped in a foil if kept in a transparent container. If the saffron stigmas are compressed together, they should be loosened and separated a bit before being transferred to the jar. This will make it easier to pull or shake out a few threads at a time.
    • Though saffron can last several years if stored properly, it is advisable to use it within two years as it will increasingly lose more and more of its flavor with age.

    How to use saffron to get the perfect dish with a perfect color?

    The most important rule is “don’t use too much”. A very little bit of saffron goes a long way and if overused becomes overpowering and leaves a “medicinal” flavor.

    Methods

    There are several ways to prepare saffron for use. Basic methods include:

    Soak Threads The threads are soaked in liquid which can be broth, water, wine then the infusion is added to the dish. Crush threads with your fingers or use a tiny mortar and pestle. Add the saffron to the liquid and soak for 5 – 20 minutes. Add the tea to your recipe.

    Toast Threads Many traditional paella recipes recommend toasting the saffron before use. Carefully toast threads in a medium-hot heavy skillet (cast iron is good) do not allow to burn.  Then grind threads into a powder and use as directed in the recipe.

    Crumble and Use – Sometimes recipes that use a lot of liquid like soups, or salad dressings just say to crumble the threads and add directly to the dish. Soaking, even for a few minutes works better, provides better distribution of color and a more robust flavor.

    Here, the crimson character of this world’s pricey spice makes its presence known in the following recipes that strike the right chord of your sweet tooth.

    Saffron and Pear Muffins

    You will need
    • 1/4 cup butter
    • Saffron, a pinch
    • 3/4 cup + 1 tbsp buttermilk or milk
    • 1/2 + 1/8 cup flavorless oil
    • 1 egg
    • 2 cups self-raising flour
    • 1/4 tsp baking powder
    • 3/4 golden caster sugar
    • 2 small pears

    Instructions

    • Peel and core the pears. Cut into cubes and drain on a kitchen paper.
    • Heat the oven to 2000C/fan 1800C/gas 6. Line 12 holes of a large-hole muffin tin with large paper cases or butter them. Add the saffron to the buttermilk. Heat the butter in a small pan until it melts, then keep cooking until the butter starts to turn a golden brown and starts to smell toasty. Mix it with the oil, buttermilk and egg.
    • Sift the flour, baking powder and sugar together. Toss the pear pieces in this mix and take them out again.
    • Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients, add the liquid mixture and fold together quickly. Fold in the pears.
    • The mixture will be quite soft but will start to thicken as the raising agents activate. Divide between the muffin cases they should be quite full.
    • Bake for 20-25 minutes or until they are risen and golden on top. Note that they will have a slightly cracked appearance.

    Zerde- Turkish Sweet Rice

    You will need
    • 1 tbsp saffron
    • 1/2 cup water, to soak saffron
    • 1/2 cup rice
    • 5 cups water
    • 1/4 cup corn starch
    • 1 cup sugar
    • 1 tsp rose water
    • A handful of raisins
    • Pine nuts, to garnish
    • Pomegranate seeds, to garnish

    Instructions

    • Soak saffron in 1/2 cup of water and wait for 15 minutes to let it give its color. Wash rice very well to remove its starch. Boil the rice in 2 cups of water until a little tender. Drain saffron and leave the strands out. Pour the yellow water into the boiling rice.
    • Mix corn starch with 3 cups of water. Add in sugar and rose water. Combine it with boiling rice. Let it simmer until it reaches the consistency of pudding. Stir occasionally.
    • Chill it in refrigerator before serving. Garnish with pine nuts and pomegranate.

    Saffron and White Chocolate Macarons

    You will need
    For the macaron shells

    • 3-4 egg whites
    • 2 cups icing sugar
    • 1/2 cup almonds, without skins
    • 1/4 cup granulated sugar

    For the saffron and white chocolate ganache

    • 1 + 3/8 cup white chocolate,
    coarsely chopped
    • 1/2 tsp saffron strands, crushed
    • 4 cardamom pods, cracked
    • 1/2 cup cream

    Instructions

    •  For the saffron macaron shells, prepare your baking tray and baking sheets with a stencil of circles. Draw circles on a baking paper using a (mathematical) compass about 3.5 cm in diameter. Then place some white parchment paper on the baking tray and flip the baking paper back around.
    • In a large mixing bowl, mix the egg whites and whisk until it is thick and frothy. Gradually add the granulated sugar, whisking all the while, until the mixture turns into a thick glossy meringue. The consistency should be similar to hair mousse or shaving foam. Make sure the meringue is not over-beaten or else it will be too dry.
    • Blend together icing sugar and almonds until the nuts are finely ground and powdery. Sift the mixture to make sure there are no lumps.
    •  Place the dry ingredients into a bowl. Add the meringue and give it a quick fold. Fold a few times to break the air. Continue until you get a smooth and supple mixture, thick in consistency so that when you lift the spatula it flows back in thick ribbons. Test a small amount on a plate – should the tops fall back and flatten by themselves then it is ready, if not give it a few more folds.
    • Fill a piping bag with a plain tip with the batter and pipe small rounds (3.5 cm in diameter) on your prepared baking paper. Sprinkle chopped pistachios on the macaron shells and leave it to rest and dry for about 30 – 45 minutes.
    • In the meantime preheat the oven to 1400 C. When the macarons are ready, bake the shells for 10–15 minutes depending on their size. Remove from the oven and allow it to cool. Use a flat offset spatula to gently remove the shells from the baking paper and allow it to cool further on a rack.
    •  For the ganache, heat the cream till it is near boiling. Take off from the heat, add saffron and cardamom and cover with a lid. Allow it to infuse for 20 minutes. Strain.
    • Carefully reheat the cream and slowly pour the cream into a bowl with the chopped chocolate, stirring to dissolve the chocolate. Continue stirring gently until all the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Allow to cool slightly. The ganache will thicken as it cools.
    • To assemble the macarons, fill the cardamom white chocolate ganache in a plain tipped piping bag and pipe small dollops on one of the shells then gently cover with another. Do not press. Continue to do this until you have used up all of the filling and shells.