When Steve returns from a stint away working he always brings me a few special things. This time it was some fancy hand cream, a couple chocolate bars from duty-free (chocolate is expensive in this part of the world), a can of ready-to-eat hummus, a small bottle of perfume and a bottle of hazelnut butter. An eclectic mix, but he knows me oh too well.
Also tucked into his one small piece of checked luggage was a present to me from a friend, fellow sailor and chef; a box of Spanish saffron. Small, useful, exotic and a little too extravagant to buy for myself, it was a lovely surprise and very thoughtful boat gift. Even before I unwrapped the plastic I could smell the unique perfume wafting through the boat.
Saffron is actually the stigma of crocus flower, crocus sativus. This particular crocus will not produce seeds needed to reproduce naturally and is particularly fussy about the conditions it grows in, so the whole process of producing saffron requires time consuming human intervention. Not to mention that the harvesting of the tiny, fragrant stigma is still done by hand.
The results are vivid red threads that have been used as a spice, a dye, and as a valuable trading commodity for thousands of years throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean. It takes roughly 150 flowers to yield only 1gr of dried saffron, so it is not a wonder that it is still considered one of the most expensive spices on earth.
I knew exactly what I wanted to make first; Saffron Yogurt.
I make yogurt almost weekly onboard, over the years experimenting with various methods. I have used a commercial yogurt as a starter, bought premixed dried yogurt packets, even had a small batch culture given to me that had made it half way around the world. Although I have had success with above methods I can’t rely on finding either good commercial yogurt or the premix packets everywhere we go.
A couple months I ordered a freeze dried culture from Green Living Australia. They advertised that their culture would produce 100 litres of yogurt, each 1 lt batch only requiring a few grains to ferment and set. It sounded like a bargain.
I use UHT milk to make yogurt, which unlike fresh milk is widely available across the globe. Since this new culture doesn’t take up much storage space in the freezer and I don’t need to refrigerate the milk, it meant I could make yogurt anywhere, anytime. I was a little wary when I received the package and there was a scant tablespoon in the foil packet. After making my first batch by simply swirling some milk inside the empty foil envelope the culture came in I was a convert.
Making yogurt is easy; heat milk to 44*C, add culture (a couple tablespoons of yogurt can also be used), stir well, pour into a jar and keep warm for 8-12 hours, you can wrap it with a towel, keep in a water bath or use a sturdy thermos. To make saffron yogurt I simply put a few strands of saffron in the milk while it was heating. The result was a pale yellow yogurt that had streaks of gold where the strands had settled. The milk had picked up the earthy, spicy, sweet floral smell that is unmistakably saffron. It was delicious.
I thought about adding a little saffron to a batch of regular yeasted bread.
But, I have been a little lax in the traditional bread making department. Instead I have been making a lot of quick breads, both sweet and savory. One of my recent favourites has been “Yogurt Herb Bread”, a recipe from Molly Katzen’s “The Enchanted Broccoli Forest”, a much loved and dog-eared cookbook on my shelf. It takes minutes to make, is packed with flavour and uses yogurt to cut the fat but still remains moist. It seemed a no brainer to make a batch using the saffron yogurt.
I had to tweak the original recipe as I mistakenly bought self-raising flour and only had one egg onboard, but the result was even better than the first batch I had made. The saffron added a subtle underlying flavour and lovely colour, the bread was so yummy it barely lasted a day.
I didn’t use the oven to make this bread.
Like most other baked goods on board I “bake” it on the stove-top using a cast iron frying pan or dutch oven. This isn’t a new technique, but it is one that I have been playing around with a lot in the last few months. I have been testing methods to prevent scorching and perfecting the flip needed to brown both sides of the bread. I have also successfully made some lovely pineapple upside down cakes and have even been experimenting with cookie recipes that work with the method.
For bread baking I found that lining the pan with either a custom cut silicon baking liner, a piece of BBQ liner or with a piece of baking parchment will not only prevent sticking and make the flip easier, but it greatly reduces the center from becoming too brown, or even burnt. It is important to oil the paper and the pan generously; the batter will soak up a little so I usually omit some of the fat called for in the recipe. For yogurt herb bread I nixed all 5 tablespoons of melted butter in the original version.
Since the pan I use is larger than my burner I move it around often for more even cooking and make sure the burner is on very low. If you had a flame tamer or diffuser this would be the time to break it out. I use a second flat frying pan inverted on the top to create the “oven” effect, but a piece of foil will also work.
My biggest tip:
Make sure you wait until the batter has cooked almost all the way through, so that the top is no longer gooey and lots of bubbles appear, before flipping. If you flip too early the bread will not have enough integrity, and will probably break. I have made my version of “Yogurt Herb Bread” several times using this stove-top technique and it always turns out perfectly cooked, golden and delicious bread in about a half an hour.
The good thing about saffron is that a little goes a long way, so there will be lots more experimenting. Besides adding a pinch to rice and couscous I am looking forward to adding some to meat dishes, and maybe even sneaking a few strands into some pickles and fruit preserves. I’ll keep ya posted!