Monday, August 28, 2006

Cornish Saffron Cake


Saffron is an ingredient imbued with an air of exoticism, sensuality and beauty. Its musty perfume and concentrated potency both awaken the senses and astonish - how can such a tiny amount of what looks so meaningless release such colour and scent? The labour intensity of harvesting saffron (each stigma removed by hand, 4,300 flowers to be visited to form an ounce of weight), and thereby the cost of the end product, have also added to its status. Stories of Phoenician sailors landing on the rugged Cornish coast to barter with saffron in exchange for tin, have increased its romantic image.

That all said, saffron is a spice not to everyone's taste. For all those that wax lyrical over it, there are also those that consider it a tad overrated. Of course those less impressed may not have sampled the true flavour of saffron. Because of its cost synthetic substitutes or ground turmeric powder are sometimes used in its stead. In the index of Elizabeth David's 'English Bread and Yeast Cookery' is the item 'Saffron, travesties of'. Turn to the page in question and you will be warned to beware 'false, shameful saffron cakes'; these will be made without saffron, only colouring, too much vanilla and sugar sweetening and are sponge cakes, rather than yeasted breads.' Ms. David goes on to give several recipes for genuine saffron cakes - a recipe originating from Devon; a traditional cake from Cornwall; and also recipes from the 17th and 18th centuries which were baked more widely across the country. Not a hint of an E-number or a whiff of shame to be found in these recipes.

Saffron was originally favoured for the lovely bright yellow colour that it imparted to food. It was used liberally by chefs to wealthy mediaeval households for just this effect. Saffron was imported, but some areas of England were able to cultivate it. The cost of 'local' saffron was little less than imported saffron because of the labour involved in producing it. Cambridgeshire and Essex had saffron farms (so too Stratton in Cornwall according to Linda Collister in 'The Bread Book' and Jane Grigson in "English Food' - although I could find no further information on Cornish grown saffron). Saffron Walden in Essex is named for the local trade, although the saffron grown here was principally used for dyeing wool for weaving. The cultivation of saffron in England had all but died out by the 18th century. Despite its growth on the East side of the country it was only in Devon and Cornwall that saffron became associated with a regional food, and both districts developed their own form of fruit bread flavoured with the spice.

Now, at this stage I have to confess that part of the reason that it has been such a long while since I last posted, is that I had
to have two goes at turning out a decent saffron cake. Try number one used the Cornish Saffron Cake recipe from David's 'English Bread etc.', and frankly my loaf turned out to have all the appeal of a house brick. It was edible, but very disappointing. The rise I achieved with the dough was really minimal, despite my incredible patience with it. Patience sorely tried my loaf (after a taste) went binwards. The saffron I used was clearly past its prime, and the loaf was a muted yellow, rather than a proper sun-has-got-his-hat-on golden. I blame myself for the outcome, but, what to do? Browsing through a recipe book at work I found the answer. In Linda Collister's 'Country Breads' book is a recipe entitled 'Daniel's Cornish saffron bread'. I turned to the page expecting to find that Daniel is a Cornish master baker of many years standing. Nope. Daniel is Linda's six year old son, and he bakes a saffron cake each Sunday for tea. Now was the time to swallow my pride (and hopefully a tastier slice of cake), and admit that if a six year old could successfully turn out a saffron cake using this recipe, then there was HOPE FOR ME YET!

I bought myself some fresh saffron, and failing again to find fresh yeast, bought myself a new tin of dried yeast. Unfortunately my mum wasn't around to weigh out my ingredients, nor to negotiate the hot oven, but I thought I might manage this for myself.

Cornish Saffron Bread (so easy even a 33 year old grown-up can make it)

Half a teaspoon of saffron strands
300ml hot milk
500g unbleached white bread flour
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
150g unsalted butter, diced
50g light muscovado sugar
15g fresh yeast/7g dried yeast
100g mixed fruit

Makes one medium sized loaf

1. Pop the saffron into the hot milk and give it a stir. You will start to see the colour leach from the strands. Glorious. Leave to infuse overnight.


2. Grease a suitable sized loaf tin.
3. Put the flour and the salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the butter, and rub in with fingertips until you get the appearance of fine breadcrumbs. Stir in the sugar until well combined.
4. Reheat the milk to just below blood temperature. With the dried yeast I used I had to use this liquid to get the granules active, and the same applies to fresh yeast. Some dried yeast you can add directly to the flour, so check on the packaging.
5. Make a well in the middle of your flour and pour in the milk and yeast mixture (unless you have added the yeast to the flour - see above).
6. Fun bit. Using your hand work the liquid into the flour to form a dough, and then turn out onto a work surface and knead for 10 minutes. A great early morning workout.
7. Add the dried fruit to the dough (best done in stages) and knead for another minute until well combined.
8. Pop the dough into the greased tin. Put the tin into a large plastic bag (make good use of a nasty supermarket carrier) allowing space for rising, and tuck the opening of the bag under the tin to seal it. Leave the dough to rise to the top of the tin - this will take 1 - 3 hours depending on the kitchen temperature. My dough was ready to bake in 2 hours.


9. Preheat oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4. Bake your loaf for about an hour. The top will be a golden-brown, and the base of the loaf should sound hollow when tapped. Leave to cool on a wire rack.


And I am pleased to say that this go at saffron cake making had a happy ending. The dough swelled beautifully, the loaf was a beautiful shade of sunshine, and the crumb was soft and succulent (like a brioche). The saffron flavouring (and scent) was unhindered by the addition of other spices. So, thank you Daniel. You are my new baking mentor.

35 comments:

Monaz said...

That's just stunning! I love, love, love Saffron cake. Amazed you found a sunny day in London to take those photos - haven't seen sunshine here for a while until today (mind you, I have been stuck in an office this week for the first time in a month, so I think I've not been paying much attention to the outside world).

I've found the same with Elizabeth David recipes - perhaps she didn't have a very accurate way of testing her methods, or maybe they just don't translate to modern ovens and such all that well. Linda Collister, on the other hand, is a STAR when it comes to foolproof food.

Regardless, well done you!

anna said...

Hi Monaz,

I think my saffron cake generated its own sunshine - such was its golden colour ; ) I think that you need a slice to take to work with you to bring some vital light into your office. Go and bake!

Pene said...

Looks good, Anna. But I think I would have used the first loaf to make bread pudding instead of 'bining' it.
BTW I use to keep my dried yeast in the fridge in a glass jar with a tight lid (or in the freezer). Now I buy the fresh yeast, because it is much cheaper here in Estonia. I have seen packets of saffron but thought I'd wait & buy it when I really need it.

Faith said...

Delicious, Anna! It's really beautiful.

Also, I hope you don't mind - I tagged you for the "Five Things to Eat Before You Die" meme that's going around. I enjoy your blog very much and was curious to see what you'd say...

anna said...

Pene, bread pudding is a good suggestion for recycling a not so good fruit loaf. Unfortunately it is not a very popular pudding in this household. Perhaps I should have given our neighbourhood birds a feast instead...

Faith, I shall start thinking about this whilst cycling my way to work. Just five things... tricky.

ferg said...

I've had some saffron in the cupboard for a while. I was saving it for something special but now I fear I will have waited too long. The thing is ...do I risk it?
Cheers Gillian

anna said...

Hi Gillian. Give the saffron a sniff and decide how potent the scent still is. The packet I used on my first go at baking still had quite a strong odour, but when I bought a second lot my socks almost flew off when I waved it under my nose. If your saffron still has a good scent, then I say go for it.

Faerie Rebecca said...

I was all ready to go bake little Daniel's bread, and then saw that the saffron must stand overnight. Bah. I am off on holiday tomorrow and cannot bake a saffron cake before heading out. Today, yes; tomorrow, no. So, I shall just have to dream of golden bread until I return from California.

Matt said...

I'm from Cornwall and love saffron cake, but haven't made one yet. The local bakers do a very nice version, so there's almost no need, but your post has tempted me a lot.

I think the saffron trade in Cornwall was mostly on the Scillies, which still has a very big trade in early flowers. The rumour that my teachers at school used to say, was that saffron was not only expensive but considered very potent, so much so that wealthy londoners used to need a doctor's note to buy it.

That may well be tosh, but it sounds a nice story.


Also on fresh yeast, have you ever tried asking for it in a supermarket with a bakery. They're meant to give it away free apparently.

Liz said...

I've been googling for a decent Saffron Cake recipe (after my husband challenged me to make one for his Birthday on Sunday), and voila! I find your blog. It's been the first blog I've got sucked into. You really made me smile - I'm so glad a six year old has out smarted the hallowed Elizabeth David (shame she's not still around to quake in her boots)!

I feel inspired, must put saffron & yeast on the shopping list, now where's that loaf tin....?

PS. I'm from Bath - have you tackled the 'Bath Bun' yet? (and I don't mean the inferior 'Sally Lunn Bun' they sell to the tourists!)

nm said...

Have tons of saffron and very excited to find this blog.

Will try this this week.

judy said...

My grandmother and mother made "saffron buns", they lived in Cornwall in the early 1900's. I remember my grandmothers saffron buns to be faily dry. However, we just came back from the UK. Bought saffron buns there, and they were much more moist. My recipe call for 2 sticks of oleo, 2 cups flour, 1/2 C warm water. How can I make mine more moist? Please post asap. Thank you.
J. Webb

judy said...

My Saffron buns are faily dry, how do I make them more moist? The recipe calls for 4.5 C flour, 2 sticks oleo, 1/4 C sugar, 1 tsp salt, 1/2 c warm water, 2 pkg yearst, 1/2 t sugar 1/2 teas. saffron. Plus the raisins etc. I had some whilst in Cornwall last month, and they were very moist. Any suggestion anyone has would be greatly apprecialted. Judy

judy said...
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judy said...
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anna said...

Hi Judy,

The recipe I used worked out quite nicely, so you could make the dough into buns and bake it in that form - just reduce the baking time.

I'm sure I've got other recipes in my books, but they are untested. Maybe another reader can help out here.

Best wishes

Clive said...

Looks yummy. I prefer a recipe with more fruit - (1/3 sultanas and small quantity mixed peel - makes it more moist.) I eat both types when I get the chance!!
There are a lot of local bakers who use a tumeric saffron mix, not the same - tastes like a yellow yeast cake with maybe a hint of saffron.!
The main outlets for saffron in Cornwall was traditionally the local chemist.
You've inspired me to bake one!!

LimeyG said...

Thank you, Anna! This recipe has restored my baking self-esteem (long laid low by a faulty oven).
Here's my attempt. I'm gonna have to go through your entire oeuvre now!

Anonymous said...

I live in Sweden and not only does my village shop stock fresh yeast all the time and very cheaply,but also tiny sachets of real saffron.Strong flour is easily available and also fairly cheap(by Swedish standards!).If you have a bread maker,try putting all the ingredients,fresh yeast crumbled in to the flour,and set to a dough raisin programme.This takes all the hard work ,good if you have arthritic hands.It,s Good Friday,snowing hard and I have my first Saffron cake dough in my trusty machine.Although my mother was Cornish,I had to wait until was a married woman to learn classic Cornish cooking from my cousins.Happy Easter,Homesick for Cornwall

anna said...

Hope your saffron bread turned out well. We have snow here today (the Saturday before Easter), and we too would benefit from a warming aromatic loaf. Mmm...

oresme said...

Interesting blog. Funnily enough I've always used Elizabeth David's recipe and it's been fine. Has no-one mentioned clotted cream? Surely that it what makes the saffron cake experience the most exquisite. My grandmother's advice was to have the cream as thick as the slice of cake. And very sensible it is too.

lc said...

My family has been making our own version of saffron bread for several generations and I was never sure where it came from, but this is the closest I've found so far. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Found this because it's linked to from the Guardian's blog today - really enjoyed it.

myrkrider said...

Thank God I found your blog again. It is utterly amazing. I happened upon it quite a long time ago and I am so glad to have found it again. Thanks

Cate said...

I have had both saffron cake and saffron buns in St. Ives, Cornwall. Preferred the buns. They had a delicious flavour of nutmeg in them. Will now have to try them with clotted cream on them. Love your blog!

Janet said...

Thank you for the recipe! Just finished Daughters of a Granite land by Anita Burgh and she just raved about saffron cake. Your recipe looks appetizing - I'll have to see if my saffron is fresh enough, and will (of course) need to get fresh yeast. Can't wait to try!

Margaret said...

Anyone tried using a breadmaker? Would welcome some advice.

Thanks

Anonymous said...

I would like to make this as a surprise for my wife's birthday.
Could I make it a week in advance?
What would be the best way to store it and keep it fresh?

Matt

Anonymous said...

I am working on the production of a new ITV1 cooking show and we are looking for people to apply with great regional recipes such as this brilliant saffron cake. if you are interested then please get in contact ASAP

Mark Leung
mark.leung@optomen.com

David said...

I grew up in Cornwall and my Mum being a farmers wife spent a lot of her time baking. The highlights were her pasties and saffron cake.
The taste of this recipe is great really authentic,you just need to add some more fruit to make it truly authentic!

R Greenfield said...

Amazing! You've won over this American... this was my first time baking these and they came out perfect. I was looking for something to use saffron in to serve at my birthday, and had grown tired of saffron rice and Turkish pastries. I did have to make an adjustment because I can't use normal flour (Coeliac) but it performed excellently with an equal measure of the gluten-free flour blend I make (brown rice flour, tapioca flour, potato flour, sorghum flour, xanthan gum). A kitchen scale that weighs in grams made it so I didn't even need to convert into the standard American measures of cups, teaspoons, and the like. I was afraid that without eggs it would be a mess, but this recipe is foolproof! I made it into 12 little buns and baked it for 1/2 hour. I only have 10 to serve now... I sampled one and had to sample another right away! I used dried currants for the fruit, if that makes a difference. Thanks for the great recipe!

john jay said...


oh I like that it looks so tasty this so lovely cake i ever see here on internet.
i love eating that's why im too fat now :)
but most of the time what i eat are any kind of chocolates
like milk chocolate ,French macarons, and macarons london and so on.
well anyway that cake recipe above is interesting i wanna try that.

Anonymous said...

Oh yes! i remember my first encounter with the dreaded yellow stamen i have been addicted ever since . I was an 11year old school boy who had just moved to Redruth in Cornwall to join my Father and Stepmother my dad was a photographer and had just been to Gwennap Pit to take photos of the Feast day celebrations i used to carry the battery box of his camera to earn my pocket money , yes i still walk a bit lop sided even after all these years i am now 66 and have not lived in cornwall for many years but still miss it terribly its changed now you do not need a passport any longer , as an emmet i had to earn mine and remained an emmet for many years till my e from upalong wore off . as for saffron buns loaves and cakes ,I still salivate when i think of them to say nothing of Pasties and heavy cake , food of the gods indeed . I used to score the events we attended 1 star saffron buns 2 stars saffron buns and pasties 3stars saffron buns Pasties and heavy cake fury dance was a noted 3 star St Day 2 star etc many happy memories holding the steps for my dad so he could see over the top of the crowds at Helston long before the paparatzy started to use them , dashing down to lands end on a tip from a friend to photograph the bombing of the Torrey canyon yes we where the only press photographers there thanks to a friend of dads at Culdrose . Sadly Dads long gone but i still have the memories . The best shop brought saffron buns cakes and loaves all used to come from bakers in Penzance . Well i guess i ought to go and check if my home mades have risen yet bye my luvers !

waddy said...

Yes!!!!! my catering skills held good excellent good taste excellent texture and colour some slight tweaking of the oven temperature and cooking time . and the saffron cakes will roll of the production line like ingots of tin from the stamping works now mining for saffron cakes theres an idea . previously signed in as anonymous

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