Saffron – the mystical spice


            At least, that’s how I view it. I think there is no spice in the world that I am more enamored with than saffron. It must be the unique flavor and the vibrant golden color that it imparts to food –simply amazing!

Though considered one of the most expensive of spices – a little of it goes a long, long way (and I am lucky to have relatives who bring them home from trips). Jaden of Steamy Kitchen has a very lovely treatise of saffron on her blog recently – including where to buy it – so I will not cover its origins and its many uses in different cuisines (Jaden’s post also had a long list of different dishes that use saffron entered by her readers).

            There is also a myth that having too much saffron makes you laugh – whether that means that you are happy or simply going nuts – I have no idea. That information came from the “Hungry” Hubby, who, by the way, cannot prove the veracity of such claim.


            When Sunita of Sunita’s World revealed the spice of the month for October was saffron, my thoughts zeroed in immediately to the alluring picture of a creamy panna cotta in Alice Medrich’s book Pure Dessert. And if there was someone who knows how to make this Italian dessert, it’s Alice. I have made her heavenly cocoa nib panna cotta with outstanding results – the memory of the taste I still hold so deliciously to this day (psst…also check out Anita’s rendition of Alice’s honey panna cotta ). Aside from being infused with saffron, cardamom is also added. I have never used cardamom before but I have read about its many wondrous contributions in desserts – so this was a great opportunity to combine the two.

Saffron and Cardamom Panna Cotta

From Alice Medrich’s “Pure Dessert”

·         3 ¼ cups heavy cream

·         1/3 cup sugar

·         Pinch of salt

·         5 cardamom pods

·         Slightly rounded 1/8 tsp crushed saffron threads

·         1 cup whole milk

·         2 ½ tsp unflavored gelatin

·         1 cinnamon stick

·         Fine chopped or grated pistachios for garnish (optional)

IN A SMALL SAUCEPAN, heat the cream, sugar, and salt until steaming hot, stirring from time to time to dissolve the sugar. Off the heat, add the cardamom pods and saffron. Cover and allow to steep for 25 minutes. Meanwhile, pour the milk into a small bowl and sprinkle the gelatin over it. Set aside (without stirring) for 5 to 10 minutes to let the gelatin soften.

            Add the milk and gelatin to the cream mixture and reheat to steaming, stirring well to dissolve the gelatin. Strain the mixture into a bowl, preferably stainless steel; discard the cardamom pods. Set the bowl in a larger bowl of water and ice cubes and stir frequently until the mixture thickens and registers 50 °F on the instant read thermometer.

            Divide the mixture evenly among the ramekins or dessert dishes. Cover with plastic wrap and chill for at least 4 but preferably 12 hours. Serve the individual panna cottas in their ramekins or dishes, or unmold the ramekins : wrap each one briefly in a wrung-out hot wet towel and unmold them onto dessert plates. Use a Microplane zester to grate a little stick cinnamon over each one. Sprinkle with chopped or grated pistachios, if desired.


Cooking Notes:

            I have seen saffron simply thrown into dishes as threads. But I have learned the traditional Persian way of extracting maximum flavor from this spice. First you grind the saffron very finely with a mortar and pestle used exclusively for saffron. Then you add a little hot water to it and let it sit for a few minutes before using it.

           Alice, in her book, has you grind the saffron threads before adding it to the hot cream mixture. So I guess this works just as well.

            Of course with instructions this simple there’s always a way for me to mess up. I was ignorant in knowing the difference between a cardamom pod and its seeds and thought what I bought in the store were the pods (they were seeds although the label said whole cardamoms). And I swear, google was not very helpful the first time I searched for it either (miraculously, the second time I did a search AFTER I had already made the dessert, I found the answer there so spelled-out for me – grrr).

So my end-result? A panna cotta that had the wonderful essence of saffron but nary a trace of cardamom. It was sensuously creamy and tasted fantastic by itself or with pistachios and strawberries. I can’t wait to make it again – and yes, I have ordered cardamom PODS and I’m sure they are not the seeds!

32 thoughts on “Saffron – the mystical spice

  1. Sounds delicious!

    You can probably make do with the seeds, provided that you use about 20x the number (there are three double-sided groups of seeds in a pod, each of which contains maybe four seeds). There is flavor in the pods separately from the seeds, of course, and the pods help everything be easy to fish out … but the seeds may work just as well, particularly if you were to roughly crack them & use a sieve to remove the bits.

  2. This sounds delicious, although I have to admit that I've never had saffron. I've always been too cheap to buy any, but I think I need to make the investment!!

  3. I love, love, love saffron (in fact, I just posted a risotto recipe that uses it)! The flavor is so mellow and seductive. But where oh where did you get such a huge heap of saffron for your photo?!? So impressive!

  4. Hi DaviMack – I used 5 seeds – no wonder there was no effect , i guess i should have multiplied it like you said.
    Hi Deborah, It's always good to buy a canister like where Jaden buys hers because you save more than when you buy those few strands in the supermarket.
    Hi Kelly Jane – so far , I don't think I have overdosed in saffron to have uncontrollable laughter :).
    Marvin – it is a great combination indeed!
    Hi Amanda – laughter is a good thing!
    Hi big boys oven – I really liked the scent of cardamom when I first inhaled the seeds too.
    Hi Dana – I love saffron in risotto! My saffron stash is a collection over the years of when my husband's relatives comes home after a visit to Iran there is always one or two big clamshells of saffron – sometimes even more when other people send gifts through that relative . Believe me there's more from where that heap came from … 😉

  5. I've never actually made anything that called for saffron, simply because of the cost… I'd love to experiment a bit with it, and this post makes that idea all the more tempting! Sounds incredible!

  6. Oh Veron even without the pods this time, it sounds really lovely. Isn't it funny how something we think we understand, isn't the way it is at all sometimes. Food is an adventure. I've only been using cardamon about 2 years now. Amazing stuff how it sweetens without adding more sugar, I guess intensifies sweetness for me.

  7. I am also very enamored and intrigued by saffron. There is a dish from the Top Chef season 1 v. season 2 challenge that has been stuck in my head for months now – saffron poached lobster. It sounds amazing and I'd love to try it if someone cooked it for me. 🙂

  8. I am like you, enamored with saffron and cardamom. My dad taught me to always use the threads in hot liquids to release the flavors but I see why the cream would be so enhanced with both flavors. Very delicate and original. Beautiful job!

  9. You have used saffron very beautifully…and yes, making the strands of saffron sit for a while does extract the maximum flavour…than ks for the lovely entry.

  10. What a fantastic stash of saffron, undoubtedly from a lot of trips. I love saffron too like my blog name says, but haven't had a chance to post about it yet. I was thinking about posting Sholeh Zard soon now that it's getting colder….

  11. I have never heard of panna cotta with saffron…sounds amazing! This looks so lovely Veron…and I love those little pots you've put them in 🙂

  12. How about using ground cardamom? I needed a tiny bit for something had no idea it was so expensive until I checked over the receipt after and saw that the spice jar was $14! I should have bought a tiny bit from the bulk spices. Now I'm looking for recipes to use more of it, but most of them want pods.

  13. Hi Hannah – I think the results that saffron gives to any dish justifies its price…so experiment on!
    Hi Tanna – the dessert does taste good even without the effect of the cardamom…but I really want to see what's the added effect.
    Hi Hillary – I've seen that dish somewhere in my cookbooks. I'll dig it up and make it sometime.
    thanks helen – I took a whiff of the cardamom seeds and I think i will love them too as much as saffron.
    Anh – Pure dessert is becoming my favorite book to bake from…
    Peabody – good for you that you have that book…once you get settle in your new house I'm sure you'll find a great recipe to try!
    Thanks for hosting the Think Spice event sunita!
    Hilda – countless of trips indeed. From his aunts, sisters, and mom. Please post the sholeh zard on your blog!
    Thanks Joey – the little pots came from a pattisserie in SF. Rather than return it for a refund , I kept them 'coz I love little cute things.
    Patricia – get going with that saffron. You'll love it!
    Hi Sara G – I think ground cardamom will work. I don't know how much you might need though. I know what you mean, I was so shocked at the price of the cardamom pods.

  14. A very pretty color and beautiful saffron flavor…the panna cotta made my day girl!

    I'm hosting my first food blog event this month, AFAM-Peach/Nectarine, and I'd be glad if you could participate! you can get the details on my blog! looking forward to your delicious entry:)

  15. Oooooh, the color — it's so seductive! And the little bit of pistachio on top would be just perfect. I have been buying saffron by the tin; it costs $45-60, depending on where you buy it. The best thing is to share the tin with a friend or two, and then you are sure to use all of the saffron while it's still fresh.

  16. I am as intrigued and attracted to saffron as you are! Especially in dessert. I also use it in creme brulee! Lovely dessert that you present that I am dying now to try!

  17. Hi Veronica. I found your blog by coincidence. I liked your blog, it is very nice. I have one too but İt is Turkish because I live in Turkey. My blog is good but I have a problem with the headboard picture. I cant find a picture a nice picture like yours. How did you create your headboard? Maybe you can help me about it if it is possible. Thank you

  18. I'm so envious of your "saffron connection"! You've got quite a stash! I'm going to try and grow my own saffron crocuses, and I think the first thing I'll make if it works is this pana cotta. It sounds absolutely dreamy with the saffron and cardamom.

  19. A Follow-up: I used the ground cardamom, about 4 tsp I think. The taste was definitely there, maybe a little strong, I'd try just a tablespoon if pressed to do it again with ground cardamom. However, if I try it again I'll probably also find cardamom pods because the bottom 1/8 inch of the pana cotta was where all the ground cardamom ended up. 🙂 It was still really yummy though, I just skipped the grainy part at the bottom.

    My boyfriend didn't like it, but that's a positive! Everything he does like is gone before I get nearly enough.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s