Saffron, the star of my dessert at the Wild Honey restaurant in London (which itself was the star of my entire meal, and the meal the highlight of all the food I ate during my trip to London a few weeks ago) and the star ingredient in these cookies.
It might be my budget consciousness from student days long gone that has stopped me from experimenting with saffron until now even though I know what a delicious (and key) addition saffron is to certain dishes (Risotto alla Milanese or Persian Zereshk Polow come to mind). Saffron is also an ingredient you don’t come across that often in restaurants, likely due to its cost and its unusual flavour, so when I spotted it on the dessert menu at Wild Honey (in the form of a buttermilk and saffron sorbet served with some canteloupe melon), I knew I had to order it as it was also the first time I saw saffron in the dessert menu of a restaurant.
Niki Segnit, in my beloved book The Flavour Thesaurus, describes the taste of Saffron as follows:
“Saffron is inimitable. Turmeric, safflower and annatto are often used in its stead but can only ever hope to impart an approximation of its colour, and maybe a little saffron-ish bitterness. Saffron combines the flavours of sea air, sweet dried grass and a hint of rusting metal – it’s the spice equivalent of Derek Jarman’s garden on the bleak shingle beach at Dungeness, defiantly strange and beautiful.”Although the book goes on to say that saffron is often paired with sweet ingredients, the suggested list of flavour combinations is sadly rather short and focuses most on savoury pairings. Yet not only is saffron in fact a common ingredient in a number of sweet preparations from all across the globe, whether it is Indian Kulfi, a sweet frozen dessert similar to ice cream but denser and creamier, Swedish St Lucia buns or even Cornish Saffron Cake or Devon Saffron Buns, the more I think about it (and the more of this Saffron Polenta Shortbread I eat), the more potential and unexplored (sweet) flavour combinations for saffron there seem to be. I am thinking of pairing saffron with quinces (given their similar slightly musky flavour), summery stonefruits like apricots and peaches or indeed dairy like buttermilk, yoghurt, butter or indeed white chocolate. We also picked up our first peaches of the season this weekend and I am dreaming of making a Saffron Polenta Cake either with the peaches baked directly into the cake or served, poached in some Rose wine, on the side with a fat dollop of creme fraiche that has been whipped ever so slightly with the help of some iced water.
As for my first recipe using saffron, I knew I wanted a buttery cookie to play off the rich flavour of the saffron and thought that some buttery shortbread would be perfect for this (and would be the perfect airplane snack to pack for my weekend getaway to Venice with some girlfriends). These cookies are crisp yet crumble ever so slightly on first bite (without however disintegrating entirely – we all know how good cookies eaten in bed taste but that no one wants to sleep on cookie crumbs). I used polenta not only because of Emiko Davies’ post about a polenta cookie recipe which got me thinking about polenta more generally but also because of its gorgeous yellow colour which was only enhanced by the saffron (it also didn’t hurt that I still had a bag of beautifully yellow stone-ground Polenta I bought in Northern Italy when Alessandro and I went skiing earlier this year). Next time, I might add some chopped pistachios to the dough for a pop of colour and some extra crunch. I think saffron would work well in a sable cookie as well. And one day I might even give these saffron snickerdoodle cookies a try, they do look delicious.
Saffron Polenta Shortbread
Yields ca. 2 dozen cookies depending on size
140g all purpose flour
A pinch of salt
0,1g saffron, ground
100g cold butter, cut into small cubes
Optional: 1-2 tablespoon polenta to roll the shortbread dough in for a crunchier crust
1. Whisk together the flour, polenta, sugar, pinch of salt and saffron in a bowl.
2. Using a knife or pastry cutter, cut the butter into the flour (you could also use your hands to rub the butter into the flour). Once the mixture starts resembling sand, add the egg and quickly work everything together into a smooth dough. Form the dough into a log (ca. 15cm long and 5-6cm in width), cover in clingfilm and place in the fridge for a 1 hour.
3. Pre-heat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius.
4. Remove the dough from the fridge and discard the clingfilm. If you want, scatter the additional polenta on a large plate or cutting board and roll the log of dough in the polenta. Using a sharp kitchen knife slice the log into cookies with a width of ca. 1/2cm and place the cookies on a baking tray that has been lined with greaseproof paper. Make sure you leave some space between the cookies so the hot air of the oven can circulate properly but there is no need for more than 1-2cm between the cookies as they will not spread in the oven. If you have to bake the cookies in batches, place the remaining dough in the fridge until you are ready to bake the next batch (this will help the cookies keep their shape).