Saffron: The gold standard of spices

Daniel Neman
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

I went to my local saffrontarium — which is where they sell saffron, of course — and bought a hit of saffron that cost $500 an ounce.

I did not purchase an entire ounce. No one purchases an entire ounce. The bottle I picked up contained a mere 0.03 ounces of the stuff. It cost me a cool $14.99.

The good news is that saffron is a very potent spice, and it takes just a small amount to impart its heady, perfumed flavor to any dish. That $14.99 jar is good for several meals.

Saffron costs so much because it is so hard to obtain. It comes from the stigma of a certain type of crocus, which only has three threads per flower. No one has figured out a mechanical way to pick the saffron, so it must be harvested by hand — but only in the morning, because the afternoon sun will cause the delicate threads to burn.

On top of that, it takes 4,000 flowers to yield a single ounce of saffron. No wonder it’s half as expensive as gold.

But is it worth it? Oh, is it ever.

I used the delicately intense spice to make four dishes. Two of them were desserts, which is not necessarily what one thinks of when one thinks of saffron. What can I say? I like dessert.

But we’ll save the dessert for last, which is as it should be. First course first, in this case Penne With Saffron.

I had thought of making a classic saffron risotto, but then I saw this recipe, and I knew I had to try it. Penne With Saffron is cooked the same way as a risotto, only with pasta instead of rice. I had never heard of cooking pasta this way before, but it turned out even better than I had hoped — and I was hoping for something great.

As with risotto, you begin with onions cooked in olive oil and butter until tender. Then you add the penne and one ladle of simmering stock. Stir until the stock is almost all absorbed, and repeat the process until the penne is completely cooked through.

The saffron – just a pinch – is only added to the last ladle. But it is enough to imbue the entire pot with its rich flavor. One taste, and you’ll want to thank those hard-working saffron harvesters.

My next dish was a main course, Chicken With Saffron Rice. The recipe came from Jacques Pepin, which may explain — along with the saffron — why it is so exceptionally satisfying.

At the heart of the dish is arborio rice that is cooked in chicken stock and flavored with saffron. In other words, it’s the saffron risotto I wanted to make all along, only without the constant ladling and stirring.

One other ingredient makes it stand out, a mixture called alcaparrado. This is a Spanish favorite made up of equal amounts of green olives, pimentos and capers. You can apparently buy it in a jar at some international markets, but I just went ahead and mixed together equal parts of green olives, pimentos and capers.

That was easy. But it was also an astonishing addition to saffron sort-of-risotto and chicken.

For the chicken, incidentally, I used dark meat. It remains moist throughout the cooking, and also the timing of the rice (it’s all cooked together in the same large skillet) is perfect when you use it. If you absolutely must use white meat, don’t add it back to the pan until there are 20 minutes left to cook.

At last, I could turn my attention to dessert. For my first effort, I baked an Old-Time Saffron Cake.

How old time? According to cookbook author Bert Greene, the recipe has been passed down from family to family for several centuries. Whoever first created it, and whenever it was first made, it is certainly a recipe worth keeping.

Despite the name, saffron actually plays a relatively minor part in the flavors that make up the cake. Made with the zest of a lemon and an orange, and topped with a lemon-orange glaze, it is more of a citrus cake.

But it also has ground caraway for a sharp counterpoint to the fruit, and the Christmas seasonings of nutmeg, cloves, mace and cinnamon.

So where does the saffron come in? It’s there in every bite, as a warm undertone that forms the base for the other flavors to play off.

But saffron takes the main stage in my other dessert, Saffron Panna Cotta.

Panna cotta is an ethereally soft, molded cream dish; it holds together better than pudding but is not nearly as rigid as, say, Jell-O. Though it is easy to make, it could not be more elegant.

The basic panna cotta recipe is cream, sugar and just enough powdered gelatin to keep it together. These ingredients are usually flavored with something aromatic and delicious, and it is hard to get more aromatic and delicious than saffron.

The saffron taste in this dessert is gentle but persistent. The sweetness of the panna cotta brings out unsuspected depths in the spice. If you want to impress someone, serve a Saffron Panna Cotta.

Heck, if you want to impress someone, serve a saffron anything.

Penne With Saffron

Yield: 4 servings

6 cups chicken, beef or vegetable stock

3 tablespoons butter, plus extra for serving (optional)

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 onion, thinly sliced

12 ounces uncooked penne

Pinch saffron

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Bring the stock to a boil. Heat the butter and oil in a separate pot, add the onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, until softened. Add the penne and stir until it is shiny and coated with fat. Add a ladleful of hot stock and stir until it has been absorbed.

Continue adding stock, a ladleful at a time, as if making risotto, until the pasta is completely cooked. You may not need to use all of the stock. Stir the saffron into the last ladleful of stock before adding it to the pot. Mix well until the dish is an even yellow color and smells of saffron.

Remove the pot from the heat, sprinkle with the Parmesan, mix well and stir in a pat of butter, if you like. Transfer to a warm serving dish and serve.

Per serving: 527 calories; 17 g fat; 8 g saturated fat; 32 mg cholesterol; 17 g protein; 76 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 1,447 mg sodium; 155 mg calcium

Adapted from “The Silver Spoon.”

Chicken With Saffron Rice

Yield: 4 servings

1 tablespoon olive oil

4 chicken thighs, skin removed

4 chicken drumsticks, skin removed

2 medium onions, thinly sliced

6 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

11/2 cups arborio or other short-grain rice

3 bay leaves

1 cup peeled, diced tomatoes

1/2 cup coarsely chopped green olives

1/2 cup pimentos

1/2 cup capers, drained (a 3.5-ounce jar will do)

11/2 tablespoons chopped jalapeno pepper, or more or less depending on your tolerance for heat

11/4 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon saffron threads

21/2 cups water

Tabasco sauce, optional

Heat the oil in a large skillet until hot. Add the chicken pieces in one layer and saute over medium-high heat, turning occasionally, for 10 minutes or until browned on all sides. Transfer the chicken to a plate and set aside.

Add the onions and garlic to the drippings in the skillet and cook for 2 minutes. Add the rice and mix well. Stir in the bay leaves, tomatoes, olives, pimentos, capers, jalapeno, salt and saffron, add the water, and mix well.

Return the browned chicken pieces to the skillet, pushing them down into the liquid and rice until they are embedded in the mixture. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover and cook for 30 minutes without stirring. Test to see if the rice is done; if not, cover and simmer longer until it is soft and creamy.

To serve, place a chicken thigh and drumstick, with some of the rice mixture, on each of 4 dinner plates. Sprinkle with Tabasco sauce, if desired, and serve.

Per serving: 462 calories; 14 g fat; 3 g saturated fat; 126 mg cholesterol; 38 g protein; 45 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 1,417 mg sodium; 78 mg calcium

Adapted from “Essential Pepin,” by Jacques Pepin

Old-time Saffron Cake

Yield: 10 servings

Note: Cake gets softer and improves with age.

1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

2 cups granulated sugar

2 eggs plus 3 egg yolks

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 tablespoon caraway seeds, ground in a blender

1/8 teaspoon saffron, crushed

3 cups all-purpose flour

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon ground mace

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 cup milk

Zest of 1 large lemon

Zest of 1 orange

11/4 cups sifted powdered sugar

1 tablespoon orange juice

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon boiling water

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter the inside of a tube cake pan and then lightly coat in flour.

Cream the butter with the granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs and egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Stir in the vanilla, caraway seeds and saffron.

Sift the flour with the baking powder, salt, nutmeg, cloves, mace and cinnamon. Add to butter mixture in three parts, alternating with thirds of the milk. Mix well; stir in lemon zest and orange zest.

Turn the batter into the prepared tube pan. Bake until toothpick inserted comes out clean, 1 hour and 20 minutes to 1 hour and 25 minutes. Cool in pan 10 minutes; invert on wire rack. Let stand while preparing glaze.

To prepare glaze, combine the powdered sugar, orange juice, lemon juice and boiling water. Stir until smooth. Spoon over top of cake, allowing some to run down sides. Cut into thin slices to serve.

Per serving: 561 calories; 22 g fat; 13 g saturated fat; 144 mg cholesterol; 7 g protein; 86 g carbohydrate; 56 g sugar; 1 g fiber; 129 mg sodium; 106 mg calcium

Recipe from “Bert Greene’s Kitchen Bouquets,” by Bert Greene

Saffron Panna Cotta

Yield: 8 to 12 servings

Notes: To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in a blender and blend on high for 10 to 15 seconds, until powdery. One tablespoon of gelatin, which is a little more than 1 packet, makes a very soft panna cotta. If you want it firmer, so that it does not expand when unmolded, use 4 teaspoons.

31/3 cups heavy cream

3/4 cup superfine sugar, see note

Grated zest of 1 lemon or 1 orange

3/4 teaspoon saffron threads

1 tablespoon powdered gelatin, see note

1 cup milk

Fresh fruit, to serve

Combine the cream, sugar, grated zest and saffron threads in a pan and bring to a boil, stirring gently. Remove from the heat and let stand for 10 minutes to develop the flavor and color. Sprinkle the powdered gelatin into the still-hot cream mixture (do not dump the gelatin, which will cause it to clump) and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Strain the mixture through a fine strainer into a large pitcher and stir in the milk. Pour the mixture into chilled dessert cups or wine glasses and chill in the refrigerator until set, 4 to 6 hours.

If you like, you can unmold the panna cotta to serve. Run the tip of a knife around the edge of the cup, dip the cup quickly into hot water and gently shake the dessert onto a plate. Serve with fresh fruit.

Per serving (based on 8): 358 calories; 37 g fat; 23 g saturated fat; 126 mg cholesterol; 3 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 6 g sugar; no fiber; 57 mg sodium; 97 mg calcium

Adapted from a recipe by Mario Batali, via “The Silver Spoon.”