Friday, January 18, 2008

Saffron rice pudding

I'm having a hard time concentrating on my chosen subject this morning, so potent are the chocolatey aromas wafting from the oven at Emilie's Cookies. I have set up shop here while some major renovations take place in our apartment, and it's only because I'm meeting a friend for lunch at La Merenda that I have steeled myself while fist-sized balls of dough studded with chunks of finest-quality bittersweet chocolate emerge from the oven as comic-book-perfect cookies.
Besides, today I'm here to talk about saffron, a scent that doesn't soothe in the way of chocolate but titillates and intrigues, occasionally dominating a dish completely (as in risotto alla milanese) but more often blending mysteriously with other spices. A yellow tint is, of course, no guarantee that a dish contains saffron - turmeric often stands in as a cheap substitute, as do some dubious substances that mimick the real thing.
Being the world's most expensive spice, saffron is subject to an alarming amount of abuse and fraud. Nothing illustrates this better than the golden threads that some Iranian friends of Nadim's brought him back from a trip to the Himalayas. They had visited a spice market and were curious to compare Indian saffron with that of their own country, which is considered the best in the world. Nothing on the front of the package set off alarm bells, so Nadim happily threw some of the saffron into his rice. It came out smelling and tasting like wet nylon carpet. Only then did he notice what was written on the back of the box. Read it carefully and you'll understand just how far cynicism can go in the spice business.

One spice grower who is most definitely not cynical is Thierry Pardé, who cultivates the precious crocus sativus bulb on a one-hectare farm in the fields of the Gâtinais south of Paris. The idea of French saffron seems surprising these days, but in the 17th century the Gâtinais was renowned for its saffron and over the past several years a few dedicated growers have revived the tradition.
I first came across Thierry at the Salon Saveurs in Paris, one of the food events I consider most worthwhile because it brings together producers from all over France who would otherwise be tricky to track down. On my first encounter with him I bought three small tubes of saffron, which disappeared in no time and left me longing for more. These long, deep ochre threads were not only the most perfectly formed I had ever seen, they were also the most potent – two qualities that make them prized among the top chefs in France.
At December’s Salon Saveurs I wasn’t about to make the same mistake, so this time I picked up 1.5 g of saffron, a relatively huge amount considering that Thierry produces only 1 kg in a year from 150,000 flowers. The little jar cost just over €30, but it’s money well spent as it takes just a few of the stamens to transport a dish to Italy, Spain, North Africa or the Middle East.

Thierry warns never to buy powdered saffron, which he says could be mixed with bricks, chalk, rust or even lead. Judging from Nadim’s experience I’m inclined to believe him. Once you’ve got your hands on the real thing, he urges you to treat it with care to preserve all of its qualities. This means infusing it in liquid (warm or cold, never hot) for at least three hours and adding it to any dish just before the end of the cooking time over gentle heat. You can infuse it in water, broth, white wine or milk, though I’ve noticed that milk seems to absorb and temper its dramatic yellow-orange color. Use about 2 threads per person in desserts, 3 per person in savory dishes.
Thierry gave me the idea of adding saffron to rice pudding, bringing a distinctly adult twist to this childhood dessert. Since the recipe in his booklet was charmingly vague, I adapted my own recipe from the cookbook Petites recettes pour grandir. In that recipe I used orange zest and orange flower water; here I replaced them with lemon zest and saffron. One of the things I love about rice pudding is that it doesn’t need much sugar, making it the perfect post-Christmas indulgence. It’s also an economical dish that is only as rich as you want it to be (you can use partly skimmed milk or make it richer, and yellower, by adding an egg yolk or two along with the saffron).
I like my rice pudding on the runny side so that it doesn’t go solid after resting overnight in the refrigerator, so don’t be alarmed if it still seems a little liquid at the end of the cooking time. To me it tasted best cold out of the fridge a day after it was made, but there is a good chance it won’t last that long.

Rice pudding with lemon and saffron
Serves 4

When this pudding didn’t turn deep golden as I had hoped, I infused more saffron in a little water overnight and added it the next day. As you can see, the milk again soaked up the color – but fortunately not the flavor, which enlivens this otherwise soothing dessert.

8-12 saffron threads, depending on their strength
30 ml whipping (double) cream or crème fraîche (2 tbsp)
750 ml whole milk (3 cups)
60 g sugar, raw cane sugar if possible (1/3 cup)
70 g short-grain rice, such as Arborio (a generous 1/3 cup)
Zest of 1 lemon, finely chopped
A pinch of salt

Stir the saffron threads into the cream and set aside at room temperature (or in the refrigerator in summer) for a few hours to infuse.

Bring the milk to a simmer in a medium saucepan and add the sugar, rice, lemon zest and salt. Lower the heat and cook very slowly for about 1 hour, stirring every few minutes and removing the skin that forms on the surface.

When you can see the rice grains at the surface of the milk and the liquid has thickened, turn off the heat and stir in the saffron-cream mixture. Cover the pot and set aside to cool. The rice will continue to absorb the liquid.

Pour into a bowl, cover with plastic wrap (clingfilm) directly on the surface to stop a skin from forming, and serve chilled.

I'm submitting this post to Weekend Herb Blogging, which was created by Kalyn's Kitchen and is being hosted this week by Cooking in Westchester.


Melissa said...

100% synthetic saffron?? That's a new one on me. Does he have any idea what it really was? Did it smell anything like saffron?

In Morocco I was astounded at what spice merchants tried to pass off as saffron - rusty powders packaged up in tiny sealed bags that they refused to open for a smell-test. Luckily the smell is impossible to duplicate, but if you can't stick your nose in there for whiff, that knowledge doesn't do a lot of good, does it?

Lucy said...

Beautiful saffron - had no idea it was grown in France. Love the corked jars, sitting in a row. Great idea to 'adulticise' such a childhood treat!

Warda said...

Hi Rosa, I didn't know about the overnight soaking. Thank Thierry for me, please. I love rice pudding, and yours sounds heavenly. Have a nice weekend!

Ann said...

Gorgeous photos! And I really enjoyed reading about saffron-- I didn'tknow how important it is to infuse it is!

Susan said...

Synthetic saffron is an outrage. I wonder how much they charge for it compared with the real deal.

Saffron really does enhance even the humblest desserts. This rice pudding must be a riot of flavor.

Laurie Constantino said...

Just I guess, but fake saffron is often safflower, sometimes called "bastard saffron." I was just reading about Josephine Araldo, a wonderful Frenchwoman who trained at Cordon Bleu and went to San Francisco in 1924 first as a cook and later as a cooking teacher. Anyway, one of Josephine's pithy bits of advice was "if you're going to use something as expensive as saffron, it is best to use enough to make a difference." Your rice pudding recipe sounds sophisticated and delicious, and definitely has enough saffron to make a difference.

Rosa said...

Hi Melissa! I'm almost sure it was made of nylon, because Nadim and I agreed that it smelled like cheap carpet. Truly horrid.

Sounds like a good saffron rule to me - sniff before you buy!

Lucy, even in France few people know about French saffron, as it's still so rare. But the quality is incredible, and it's so reassuring to know exactly where one's saffron comes from.

Warda, even a couple of hours of soaking makes a big difference. Thanks for stopping by!

Thanks Ann! Isn't it great that there is always so much to learn about spices?

Susan, this appears to have been sold at a convincing price, as even the Iranians were taken in! What a scandal. I loved the rice pudding, though it didn't go over so well with Sam, proving that it really is an "adult" take on this dessert.

Laurie: I have a lovely book written by Robert Reynolds with Josephine Araldo, From a Breton Garden. I love that quote about saffron - the same could be said of truffles or caviar for that matter.

Kalyn said...

Great post about saffron! I had the same experience in Morocco as Melissa describes, it seems that the spice markets there are full of powdered "saffron" which might contain just about anything. Luckily I have a friend who goes to Iran every few years and he sends me saffron once in a while. I've also had luck buying good quality saffron from Penzeys. What a brilliant idea to add a bit of saffron to rice pudding. I bet it really tastes amazing.

ostwestwind said...

Thanks for sharing the recipe, it's always hard to find good saffron, it is also grown in Spain, I think.

Ulrike from