Saffron and I go way back, to my “colonial fair” in 4th grade. Somehow I ended up at the clothes-dying station (how dressing up as if I belonged at Colonial Williamsburg taught me anything substantial about early U.S. history I’ll never know), and for authenticity purposes, I not only used saffron to dye the cloth, as our old friends in Colonial times did, but somehow ended up dying my hands, my real clothes, and anything dye-able within reach as well. Little did I know that saffron was also edible, or, as it’s now mostly used in this 21st century of ours, one of the most expensive and potent spices used in cooking.
Saffron, whose name derives from the Arab word for yellow, zafaran, are the dried tiny red stigmas that are plucked from the purple crocus flower, native to Asia Minor. Each flower only yields 3 stigmas (which are harvested by hand), which means that it requires about 70,000 to 80,000 flowers to create one pound of saffron-hence, the high cost. On the upside, saffron is quite potent, so a small amount gives way to lots of flavor. Another upside is you wouldn’t want to eat too much anyways, because in very large quantities, saffron can produce deadly narcotic effects.
Saffron-which today is most commonly used in paella, risottos, and bouillabaisse (making quite the international tour)-was reportedly known to the Sumerians 5,000 years ago, and found by Alexander the Great on his travels more than 2,800 years ago in Kashmir, where some of the world’s best saffron is still harvested. Saffron was also considered an aphrodisiac by pharaohs and kings alike, before it was used (more boringly) in Medieval Times as a dye and perfume (I always had a hunch those Medieval people were never much fun), a process that still lives on today in elementary school Colonial fairs everywhere.
SAFFRON FETTUCCINE WITH BROWN BUTTER, PINE NUTS AND PARSLEY RECIPE
Full disclosure: for this recipe, I had the assistance of a self-taught master pasta-maker, my father. The subtle art of pasta-making is hinged on experience, as the consistency of the dough can make or break the whole dish. That said, making homemade pasta is extremely rewarding. When you have the basics down for making a pasta dough, you also have a jumping-off point for endless creativity; the pasta is your oyster. The benefits of saffron in this recipe are twofold: it makes for a beautifully-colored pasta, a deep golden color flecked with bright red, and it lends the pasta a deep flavor all on its own that only need be paired simply with some brown butter, toasted pine nuts, and parsley for some brightness. This is an instance where the pasta’s flavor speaks for itself, rather than a pasta dish where the sauce and garnish is the standout. Brown butter is absurdly easy to make for how delicious it is (almost dangerously easy to make because it’s like liquid sunshine that should be poured on just about anything), and the nuts add to the earthiness of the dish. If you your first attempt at DIY pasta doesn’t come out as well as you’d hoped, well, then see what I said above about brown butter and just make some extra. There will be no complaints, I promise.
Makes 6 portions
Tools: Pasta-make machine, with a setting for fettucini
ANGEL FOOD CAKE WITH ORANGE-SAFFRON SYRUP RECIPE
Full disclosure again: my angel food cake did not turn out planned-seeing as part of the plan was for it to rise. I tell you this so that when you read the recipe below, which comes from Gourmet’s Menus for Contemporary Living cookbook, your angel food cake will not befall the same fate as mine. Take heed: egg whites are everything. If you’ve beaten them until they are stiff, or what, for instance, your father sous-chef says is stiff, he is wrong and you should keep beating them. When you go to fold in the egg whites, they should not melt in slowly, but should be more like giant blocks that remain stiff even as you are folding them in. On the flipside, take care not to overmix, the egg whites should form stiff peaks.
The accompanying orange-saffron syrup is just sweet enough that it gives the angel food cake an extra “something,” but not too sweet as to over-power the cake, making it a dessert on the more savory side. As I found with the pasta, saffron heightens otherwise relatively plain flavors as it does perfectly with the angel food cake and a hint of orange in the syrup.
From Gourmet’s Menus for Contemporary Living
Saffron Fettuccine with Brown Butter, Pine Nuts, and Parsley
3 cups durum wheat superfine flour
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp saffron threads
4 large eggs, beaten
1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
2 tbsp parsley, finely chopped
3/4 cup unsalted butter
Angel Food Cake
1 cup sifted cake flour(not self-rising flour)
1 1/4 cup sugar
9 large egg whites, at room temperature
1 tbsp vanilla
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp cream of tartar
1 tsp orange zest
1/4 tsp saffron threads
1/3 cup simple syrup
Photo: Suzanne Lehrer
To Make Saffron Fettuccine with Brown Butter, Pine Nuts, and Parsley:
1. In a food processor, pulse the flour, salt, and olive oil until well mixed for about 1 1/2 minutes. Then add the saffron, followed by the eggs, and pulse for another 2 minutes. The mixture should have a cornmeal-like consistency, feel moist, and hold together when you pinch it.
2. Empty out the mixture from the food processor and gather into a disc-shaped ball, compressing as much as possible, and wrap tightly in Saran Wrap. Let sit for one hour.
3. Hold the disc on its side and slice lengthwise into 3 thinner discs. Feed each disc gently through the compression part of the pasta machine on the lowest (widest) setting, or 0, taking care to feed in directly into the center. Repeat at settings up, or 2. Repeat again at a setting 2 or 3 intervals up, at 4 or 5, and then repeat at the thinnest possible setting, or on my machine, 7. You should now have 3 very long and wide strips of pasta dough. Cut each strip widthwise into 3 pieces, to make a more appropriate noodle length when fed through the cutting setting on the machine. Feed each piece through the fettucine setting, and set aside each bundle of pasta on the table. Try to separate the noodles from each other and spread them out to keep them from sticking.
4. As fresh pasta tends to cooks faster than dry pasta, cook for the pasta for about 8 minutes, testing after about 5 and then every minute thereafter.
5. Toast in the pine nuts in a pan on medium heat for about 4-5 minutes, or until the nuts are browned.
6. For the brown butter, slowly melt the butter in a saute pan over low heat, stirring occasionally until the butter is thoroughly melted and becomes a hazelnut color, making sure it doesn't cook long enough to burn.
7. Toss the pine nuts with the pasta, then drizzle brown butter throughout and top with parsley.
For Angel Food Cake:
1. Into a bowl sift together the flour and 1/4 c. of the sugar. In a large bowl with an electric mixer beat the egg whites with the lemon juice and the salt until they are foamy, add the cream of tartar and beat the whites until they begin to hold soft peaks. Beat in the remaining sugar, 1 tsp. at a time, add the vanilla, and beat the whites until they hold stiff peaks. Sift one-fourth of the of the flour mixture over the egg whites, folding it in gently but thoroughly, and sift and fold in the remaining flour mixture, one-fourth at a time, in the same manner.
2. Spoon the batter into an ungreased angel-food cake pan or a 10 inch tube pan fitted with a removable bottom. Bake the cake in the middle of a preheated 350 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted halfway between the center and outside edge comes out clean. Invert the pan onto a rack or prop it, inverted, on the neck of a long-neck bottle and let the cake cool completely in the pan. Run a thin knife around the edge of the pan and the center tube and invert the cake onto a plate. Loosen the removable bottom from the cake and cut the cake into slices.
For the Syrup: Combine all the ingredients over medium heat in a saucepan, stir occasionally and let cook for about 10-12 minutes. Pour the mixture through a very thin sieve into a bowl to strain out saffron pieces, and drizzle warm over the angel food cake.