I love to play word association with food. We have so many images in our subconscious that actually have very little to do with the food itself, but rather with a place we ate it, an emotion we experienced at the time, the feel and scent of the air during an unforgettable meal, or a person we shared the taste with. Basil, for me, brings up fragments of memory that include an intensely hot summer day, my bare feet on the kitchen floor, stained fingernails and a spicy cinnamon-like fragrance filling my nostrils as I tore up handfuls of green one long-ago afternoon when I learned how to make pesto from the abundant crop of basil in our backyard. When I think of soft buttery croissants I am sitting at the window of an old shepherd's cottage we rented once in southern France, turning my head one way to take in the aroma of yeasty, buttery pastry heating in the oven and turning the other to smell the cool, herb-soaked morning breeze softly wafting up from the fields below.
When I think of saffron, however, my head is filled with vivid images that have nothing to do with actual experience. I close my eyes and I can see dimly glowing lanterns, mud-brick walls and shadowy figures melting into dark doorways; I can feel warm breezes carrying the scent of night-blooming jasmine and incense, I can almost taste silver platters of food piled with spicy, syrupy tagines, baskets of oranges and walnuts and pomegranates, and bowls of rose-scented finger water. I have never witnessed anything like this, yet it is so evocative I can almost feel I was once there. The only way I can explain it is that saffron is one food so steeped in the myth and legend of the places it is used, places like Persia, Morocco, and Moorish Spain, that everything I have ever heard, read or imagined about these places comes together to create an impression so strong it rivals memory.
Saffron is an enigmatic spice. Use too much of it and it becomes acrid and bitter, overpowering all the other flavors it comes into contact with. Use too little, and its perfume is wasted. Saffron is at its best when it just haunts your senses; like a whisper on your tongue, it leaves you wanting more but knowing it would never be the same if you had it. I know many people who have never tasted saffron, not being willing to spend those sums of money on a pinch of red dust. I had never bought it myself, still being on the fence about whether or not I even liked it, when about five years ago I was given an unexpected gift. Neighbors of Manuel's mother had been to Iran and brought her back a jar of saffron as a present, and knowing how much I liked to cook she passed it on to me. I was astounded; inside the delicately engraved container was easily an ounce of blood-red, unbroken crocuses - the most expensive saffron money can buy. When it was opened the first time, the wave of scent was intoxicating. I was bewitched.
I have learned a lot from that bounty of saffron (the remnants of which are still in my spice bowl, by the way). I have learned, for example, that kept safely tucked away from both light and moisture, those little strands lose none of their seductive power; I have learned that it's better to keep them whole, rather than crumbling them, so that their vivid, serpentine forms can be fully appreciated in finished dishes; I have learned that a long, slow soak in just-warm water helps preserve their fragrance more than a boiling bath; I have learned that certain ingredients seem to have been invented solely for the purpose of combining them with saffron: garlic, lemon, wine, lamb, honey, orange, apricot, rosewater, almond, chicken, cinnamon...
In honor of my recent obsession with Spanish food (see here, here and here), I created this dessert, in which saffron gives a touch of sophistication and exoticness to the most quintessential of Spanish sweets.
Saffron and Sherry Flan
1/4 cup water
15-20 saffron threads, or a good pinch of powdered saffron
2 cups evaporated milk (alternatively try one cup milk and one cup cream)
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon rind
3 egg yolks
1/4 cup fino or amontillado Sherry
Start by warming the water so it's just hot to the touch. Add the saffron and let it soak for as long as you can, preferably about an hour. Preheat the oven to about 325F/160C. Heat the milk, sugar and lemon rind together until the sugar melts and the mixture just begins to simmer. Take it off the heat and let it sit 25-30 minutes to infuse. In a separate bowl, beat together the eggs and yolks. When the milk has cooled, beat in the eggs, then strain the mixture through a fine sieve. Add the saffron water and sherry.
Pour this mixture into 4 or 6 (depending on their size) oiled, oven-proof ramekins, and set them in a deep baking dish. Pour hot water so that it comes about halfway up the sides of the ramekins, then cover the whole thing with foil. Bake until the flan mixture is set and jiggles uniformly (i.e. the center doesn't jiggle more than the rest), which will take about 30-40 minutes. I actually never time these things, I just eyeball, so don't take these times as the gospel! Let them cool until lukewarm on the countertop, then chill until cold. To unmold, run a knife around the inside and invert onto a plate.
To make the flans even more exotic, mix a little more sherry with some mild honey and a squeeze of lemon, and drizzle over the top. Then sit back and imagine yourself in a sultan's palace, listening to a distant melody on the breeze and gazing up at the brilliant stars above...