How to Use Saffron, the Rarest and Most Expensive Spice, in Dessert

Why are so many good things still sold in grams?

Saffron, unquestionably and for centuries the most expensive flavor in the world, begins all its measurements in grams. Most recipes using it call for “a pinch”, about 20 of the dried stigmas from the center of a flower of Crocus sativus, the flower that gives us saffron, all of whose stigmas have been picked, picked, and hand-dried. hand only.

It takes about 470 of these stigmas to equal just 1 gram, a lot of pinches. The word comes from the Arabic, “za’faran” (“yellow”). Although the threads appear dark red, they turn yellow, never really red, the liquid in which they are still animated.

Because it is so rare and so expensive, history has pushed substitutes, the most common over time being turmeric, which has no taste or smell, resembling only its coloring. Safflower flower takes its name from saffron because it too has established itself as a worthy intruder. This is not the case.

Long ago, Nuremberg, Germany was a main trading place and in the late Middle Ages held a saffron fair where saffron was a guarantee of funding (or payment or bribe) . The Nuremberg police frowned upon surrogates, of course, and threatened those who might commit such fraud with “death by burning or being buried alive”. My.

In Greek mythology, Zeus slept on a bed of saffron flowers and crocuses. (Among its many medicinal attributes, saffron is considered an aphrodisiac. Zeus always thought of the future.) Ancient Greek legend has it that Hermes, the messenger, accidentally struck his close friend’s head with his sword, Crocs. Where drops of blood fell from Crocos’ head, small bluish flowers sprang up with, of course, saffron stigmas in their center.

Use a small amount of coarse salt or sugar to pulverize the saffron threads (Bill St. John, Special to The Denver Post)

As with sugar in Europe after Christopher Columbus, ingesting saffron dishes was a sign of wealth and power long before the Roman Empire. This was so not only because of its rarity and cost, but also because of its coloring effect. He “gilded” the food and, therefore, the eater of it.

After the death of the Buddha in the 5th century BCE, his priests began to dye their robes with saffron, in homage to him and as a sign of renunciation, as yellow and yellow-orange mean this in Hinduism. (Buddhist monks now use commercial dyes or turmeric.)

In many Mediterranean, Middle and Far Eastern foods, saffron is indispensable, almost always appearing in moist or steamed preparations: bouillabaisse, paella, risotto Milanese, Persian tahdig, bourride (a stew of fish), b’stilla (the pigeon pâté of Morocco) – the list goes on and on.

It is common, almost ubiquitous, in many rice dishes from Spain, Cuba, India and Iran. Because of the way its native bitterness plays off honey or sugar—not to mention its heady aroma, spicy flavor, and tenacious color—it often shows up in desserts, like in today’s recipe. .

Halwa (sometimes spelled halwah or halva) is a Persian semi-sweet dessert made from semolina flour and flavored with saffron. It’s called a “pudding”, but it’s more like a wet pilaf. Leftover halwa can be reheated and served with a topping of ghee or melted butter, or with hot cream.

If you heat it up with a large amount of milk or cream, you won’t be able to go back to a cream of wheat breakfast. You will have been golden.

A portion of halwa, a Persian dessert, and saffron water that flavored it.  (Bill St. John, Denver Post special)
A portion of halwa, a Persian dessert, and saffron water that flavored it. (Bill St. John, Denver Post special)


Adapted from and Romy Gill on For 6 to 8 people.


  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 1 cup whole milk
  • 1 3/4 cup water
  • Seeds from 4 crushed green cardamom pods (about 1/4 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads or 1 tablespoon saffron water (see recipe)
  • 2 tablespoons coarsely chopped raw cashews
  • 3 tablespoons golden or green raisins
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons ghee or unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups semolina flour (durum wheat) (see note)
  • 1 heaped tablespoon slivered almonds, lightly toasted


Remove the seeds from the cardamom pods by breaking each pod with the bottom of a heavy glass and separating the small, blackish seeds from the “shells”. If you are using saffron threads, pulverize them using a mortar and pestle.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, add sugar, milk, water, cardamom seeds and saffron. Bring to a slow boil and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sugar dissolves and the liquid is reduced to a light syrup, about 10 minutes. Add the raisins and cashews, stir the mixture and set aside.

In another medium saucepan over medium-low heat, add the ghee or butter and melt it. Add semolina and cook, stirring frequently, until toasted and lightly browned, about 8 minutes.

Carefully stir in the reserved syrup mixture (the semolina in the pan will bubble at first) and continue cooking, stirring frequently, until the halwa is crumbly in consistency, 2-3 minutes.

Transfer portions to warm bowls, sprinkle with almonds and serve.

Cook’s notes: You can use coarse or fine semolina. The Bob’s Red Mill brand packages semolina and is fairly widely distributed. You can substitute coarse whole wheat flour.

Saffron water

Makes about 1/2 cup.


  • 1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt or sugar
  • 1/2 cup hot water


Using a mortar and pestle or molcajete, grind the saffron threads with the salt or sugar until pulverized. In a small cup or jar, add the powder and hot water and stir or shake until the saffron dissolves, over an hour.

Store saffron water in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks or divide the water into 1 tablespoon portions in an ice cube tray and freeze until solid. Pack the cubes for later use.

For recipes that call for a “healthy pinch” of saffron, use 1 tablespoon of saffron water.

Contact Bill St John at [email protected]

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