Saffron has been traded around the world for at least 4000 years. The tiny threads are the stigmata of the Crocus sativus, more commonly called the saffron crocus. Each plant produces only four flowers. And each flower has only three strands of saffron. In what must be a painstaking and back-breaking effort each strand has to be individually plucked by careful hands before being dried to be used as seasoning or colouring in food. The most notable use worldwide would probably be Spanish paella. Though here in the UK Cornish saffron cake and saffron buns are quite popular too. Richly spiced yeasted sweet breads, sunshine yellow in colour and dotted with currants. One gram of 9 carat gold at 2016 prices would cost £11.19p. Compared to that – the cost of one gram of good quality saffron from Fortnum & Mason would be a heart-stopping £75. It’s far and away the world’s most expensive spice. I suppose because the saffron strands are such hard work for such small amounts it has to be reflected in the price. That must be the only reason for saffron being so costly. It certainly can’t be for the flavour.
I’ve never baked with saffron before. I managed to find some that was on special offer at the local supermarket recently so I thought to myself – why not? You have to treat yourself occasionally don’t you? And besides. It’s always nice to try new ingredients when you’re baking. It keeps the old grey matter ticking over. I had some cream cheese in need of being used too. So after a quick search online I managed to find a recipe for a handsome looking cake with cream cheese filling that was almost what I wanted. With a little bit of tweaking it would be perfect. When I was making myself familiar with saffron I had a few concerns. It seems that saffron is a bit like Marmite. People either love it with a passion or they don’t understand what all the fuss is about. And the main complaints from the haters were mostly in regards to the taste. It was bad enough that some people described the taste of saffron as being like hay. Then there were those who said it was like Iodine. Metallic, medicinal or chemical. Even worse were the people who found the flavour to be non-existent. And there were LOTS of them. If you are spending a small fortune on an ingredient you want to know that the finished cake is going to be worth it. I didn’t want saffron to be just an extravagant way to eat something yellow. It would have been easier to buy a banana.
There is something wonderful about the aroma of freshly baked cake. No sooner was this in the oven than the first dribs and drabs of interested tasters began to appear at my door, guided by the tantalizing fragrance. They were a bit previous. This saffron cake might have had the neighbours salivating but it would need to cool and be filled before they would get their chance. Which was fortunate. Because although the smell was great it didn’t quite carry through into the flavour of the finished cake. Opinion was not as divided as I thought it would be. Most people who tried this cake didn’t much care for it. I was one of them. The cake was a little bit bland for me. Boring almost. It wasn’t even particularly yellow. And to my mind there was a funny little aftertaste with the first couple of bites. Only the first couple. Then it kind of went away. I managed to eat a full slice for appraisal purposes – albeit begrudgingly. Then about half an hour later the aftertaste came back. Ever so slight but odd and long-lasting. I can only describe it as being faintly like a cross between sticking plaster and farts. Not the best endorsement you can give a cake. I was left feeling somewhat aghast. Or should that be a-gassed?
A tin to bake it in.
I think this must be quite an old recipe. If for no other reason than the size of tin is so very small. You will need an extra deep 18cm spring form tin. These days most cake recipes are big enough to feed a crowd but it wasn’t like that in the distant past. Back in the day, housewives would make cakes that were usually for about six people. Enough for the family and a couple of friends to have a good-sized slice with a cup of tea and that was all. There were not the same storage and refrigeration facilities that we have today. If you didn’t eat the whole thing straight off the cake would be stale by the morning. The only time you see recipes for such small cakes nowadays they are usually preceded by the words vintage, old-fashioned or grandma’s favourite. If you do want to try baking with saffron then please don’t let me put you off. Just do yourself a favour and find a different recipe perhaps. In the end it was a blessing this cake was only small. I’ve filed it in the category marked “you can’t win them all”. It might be that saffron is an acquired taste. It’s just one that I have absolutely no intention of acquiring. Now here’s that recipe… Enjoy?
- 0.2g Saffron.
- 90ml Boiling Water.
- 280g Self Raising Flour.
- 100g Currants (optional. I left them out).
- 180g Caster Sugar.
- 180g Margarine.
- 3 Eggs.
- ½ tsp Lemon Extract.
- 220g Cream Cheese.
- 20g Icing Sugar.
- ½ tsp Lemon Extract.
- You need to start this recipe the day before. Gently crumble the saffron into a heatproof glass jug. Add the boiling water and stir together. Allow to cool to room temperature then cover with cling film and set aside to steep overnight.
- Position a shelf in the centre of the oven, with tray. Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3. Grease and fully line a deep 18cm spring form tin, making sure the paper rises to about 2cm above the rim.
- Sift together the flour and currants. The currants will be left in the sieve covered in flour. This will help to prevent them sinking later.
- Cream together the sugar and margarine until light and fluffy.
- Add the eggs one at a time, beating well and scraping down the bowl after each addition.
- Add the lemon extract and beat to combine.
- Gently fold in half the flour until just combined, taking care not to over mix.
- Fold in the saffron and water until just combined, taking care not to over mix.
- Fold in the remaining flour until just combined, taking care not to over mix.
- Fold in the currants until evenly distributed, taking care not to over mix.
- Spoon the mixture into the prepared tin and level the surface.
- Bake for 1 hour 30 minutes or until well risen and nicely browned. Mine took the full 90 minutes. You might need to cover it loosely with foil towards the end of the cooking time. I didn’t though.
- The cake should feel firm to the touch and a skewer inserted into the centre of the cake should come out clean.
- Cool in the tin for 20 minutes before carefully removing to a cooling rack to cool completely.
- To make the filling – mash together the cream cheese, icing sugar and lemon extract using a fork until well combined.
- Carefully cut the cooled cake horizontally across the middle using a serrated knife.
- Place the bottom half onto a serving plate.
- Spread with the cream cheese filling.
- Place the second layer of cake back on top.
- If the cake is not all eaten straight away, whatever is left should be kept in the fridge on account of the cream cheese.