It is necessary to pick 150,000 crocuses
in order to produce one kilogram of saffron.
Soon, she’ll crouch again above each crocus,
feel how the scales set by fate, by misfortune
are an awesome tonnage: a weight opposing…
– from ‘The Saffron Picker’ by Judith Beveridge
For a traveller to India, there is wealth of beautiful goods to bring back home. Textiles, silver jewellery, gemstones, pashmina shawls, perfume extracts, darjeeling tea. But for me, travelling as light as possible, the treasures that I always made sure to stow deep in my bag before leaving India were small rectangular boxes of deeply crimson saffron threads.
Saffron is the most expensive spice in the world, largely because it is so difficult to harvest. As in the poem above, it takes some 150,000 saffron flowers to produce a meager kilo of the stuff. Originally cultivated in Greece, it soon spread across the world via the ancient trade routes, and these days Iran accounts for the vast majority of saffron exports worldwide. There is something of the mystery surrounding saffron, something of the holy. It is, after all, the colour that monks dye their robes. It is said that if you take a hot saffron bath at night the scent of it on your skin afterwards will drive your lover wild.
Saffron is also, to my mind, one of the best spices in the world to cook with, both sweet and savoury. It has a subtle taste that has no real comparison; slightly perfumed, almost sweet, earthy and otherwordly at the once. It is often compared to hay in fragrance and taste, and colours dishes a wonderful deep golden-yellow.
This Saffron & Aniseed Cake is such a lovely way to showcase this most illustrious of spices. The saffron and aniseed bounce beautifully off one another, complimenting without overpowering. This is the kind of cake you can slice thickly and wrap in paper to stow away for a late afternoon snack; that you can eat for morning tea with black coffee and a good book; or that you can share with your lover in bed, getting crumbs on the sheets and not even caring.
Saffron & Aniseed Cake with Yoghurt Glaze
This cake is light but still toothsome, the spices reminiscent of Indian desserts. If you don’t have spelt flour available feel free to sub in plain or wholemeal flour.
1 1/2 cups wholemeal spelt flour
1 1/2 tsps baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 cup plain yoghurt
1/2 cup olive oil
2 tbsp milk
3/4 tsp saffron threads
1 1/2 tbsps aniseed
1 cup icing sugar
1 tsp lemon juice
3 tbsps plain yoghurt
Extra aniseeds, to decorate
Preheat oven to 180°c/350°f. Butter and flour a round springform pan. Set aside.
In a small saucepan combine the milk and the saffron threads. Heat over a low flame, watching carefully. Just before the milk boils remove from the heat and leave to infuse for approx. 20 minutes. Alternatively, combine the milk and saffron the evening before and leave to infuse overnight in the fridge.
In a small bowl sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.
In a larger bowl whisk together the sugar and the eggs until light and fluffy. Add the yoghurt, saffron milk, olive oil, the aniseeds, and whisk until thoroughly combined.
Add the dry mixture to the wet and mix until just combined, taking care not to over-mix. Pour into the prepare pan and bake in the preheated oven for 45 – 50 minutes, or until the top is golden and a skewer inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Cool the cake in the tin for about 20 minutes, then remove and leave to cool completely before glazing.
Make the glaze by whisking together the icing sugar, lemon juice, and yoghurt. Pour over the cooled cook and sprinkle with a dash of aniseeds to decorate.
Cake will keep in a sealed container for up to five days.