Is saffron worth the money? You bet.

Published March 7

I went to my local saffrontarium — which is where they sell saffron, of course — and bought a hit of saffron that cost $500 an ounce.

I did not purchase an entire ounce. No one purchases an entire ounce. The bottle I picked up contained a mere 0.03 ounces of the stuff. It cost me a cool $14.99.

The good news is that saffron is a very potent spice, and it takes just a small amount to impart its heady, perfumed flavor to any dish. That $14.99 jar is good for several meals.

Saffron costs so much because it is so hard to obtain. It comes from the stigma of a certain type of crocus, which only has three threads per flower. No one has figured out a mechanical way to pick the saffron, so it must be harvested by hand — but only in the morning, because the afternoon sun will cause the delicate threads to burn.

On top of that, it takes 4,000 flowers to yield a single ounce of saffron. No wonder it’s half as expensive as gold.

But is it worth it? Oh, is it ever.

I used the delicately intense spice to make four dishes. Two of them were desserts, which is not necessarily what one thinks of when one thinks of saffron. What can I say? I like dessert.

But we’ll save the dessert for last, which is as it should be. First course first, in this case Penne With Saffron.

I had thought of making a classic saffron risotto, but then I saw this recipe, and I knew I had to try it. Penne With Saffron is cooked the same way as a risotto, only with pasta instead of rice. I had never heard of cooking pasta this way before, but it turned out even better than I had hoped — and I was hoping for something great.

As with risotto, you begin with onions cooked in olive oil and butter until tender. Then you add the penne and one ladle of simmering stock. Stir until the stock is almost all absorbed, and repeat the process until the penne is completely cooked through.

The saffron — just a pinch — is only added to the last ladle. But it is enough to imbue the entire pot with its rich flavor. One taste, and you’ll want to thank those hard-working saffron harvesters.

My next dish was a main course, Chicken With Saffron Rice. The recipe came from Jacques Pépin, which may explain — along with the saffron — why it is so exceptionally satisfying.

At the heart of the dish is arborio rice that is cooked in chicken stock and flavored with saffron. In other words, it’s the saffron risotto I wanted to make all along, only without the constant ladling and stirring.

One other ingredient makes it stand out, a mixture called alcaparrado. This is a Spanish favorite made up of equal amounts of green olives, pimentos and capers. You can apparently buy it in a jar at some international markets, but I just went ahead and mixed together equal parts of green olives, pimentos and capers.

That was easy. But it was also an astonishing addition to saffron sort-of-risotto and chicken.

For the chicken, incidentally, I used dark meat. It remains moist throughout the cooking, and also the timing of the rice (it’s all cooked together in the same large skillet) is perfect when you use it. If you absolutely must use white meat, don’t add it back to the pan until there are 20 minutes left to cook.

At last, I could turn my attention to dessert. For my first effort, I baked an Old-Time Saffron Cake.

How old time? According to cookbook author Bert Greene, the recipe has been passed down from family to family for several centuries. Whoever first created it, and whenever it was first made, it is certainly a recipe worth keeping.

Despite the name, saffron actually plays a relatively minor part in the flavors that make up the cake. Made with the zest of a lemon and an orange, and topped with a lemon-orange glaze, it is more of a citrus cake.

But it also has ground caraway for a sharp counterpoint to the fruit, and the holiday seasonings of nutmeg, cloves, mace and cinnamon.

So where does the saffron come in? It’s there in every bite, as a warm undertone that forms the base for the other flavors to play off.

But saffron takes the main stage in my other dessert, Saffron Panna Cotta.

Panna cotta is an ethereally soft, molded cream dish; it holds together better than pudding but is not nearly as rigid as, say, Jell-O. Though it is easy to make, it could not be more elegant.

The basic panna cotta recipe is cream, sugar and just enough powdered gelatin to keep it together. These ingredients are usually flavored with something aromatic and delicious, and it is hard to get more aromatic and delicious than saffron.

The saffron taste in this dessert is gentle but persistent. The sweetness of the panna cotta brings out unsuspected depths in the spice. If you want to impress someone, serve a Saffron Panna Cotta.

Heck, if you want to impress someone, serve a saffron anything.

     
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