Celebrating a Chosen Sister with a Saffron-Infused Dinner #CooktheBooks #FoodieReads
After reading the August-September Cook the Book selection: Love & Saffron: A Novel of Friendship, Food, and Love by Kim Fay. I wanted to share a saffron-infused dinner I made for friend to celebrate her 41st birthday. We are now fifty. But these recipes have made it back onto my table in different forms over the years.
I devoured Love & Saffron in a single sitting. It had delicious prose and embodied the spirit of a true friendship between two women in a sisterhood that they chose. I figured it was the perfect opportunity to revisit a few dishes that I made for one of my very best friends.
Celebrating a Chosen Sister
Jenn and I have been friends for thirty-six years. She was the maid of honor at my wedding and is godmother to my oldest son. So, she definitely fits the bill of a sister that I chose!
First, let's talk about Love & Saffron, an epistolary novel about food and the friendship between two women. In the early 1960s Joan Bergstrom sends a letter to newspaper columnist Imogen Fortier along with a sample of saffron. And thus begins a friendship forged through letters. They do eventually meet in person, but most of their interactions are letters about spices, recipes, and how those two affect their relationships with the men in their lives.
The format of the book made me think about two of my longest running friendships. When I was seven-years-old, my best friend lived on my cul-de-sac and her father was also an officer in the Air Force. It meant that our being neighbors was limited to two or three years. When her family moved to Germany, she and I wrote letters for a decade. I didn't see her again until she sent me a plane ticket to Texas, where her dad had retired, when I graduated from high school. I didn't see her again for another decade after that when she and her husband, Owen, came to my wedding. Our communications are now almost completely through social media, but we started with letters.
Another friendship started in Rome, where we were both working for a year. Rikke and I saw each other everyday as we had vowed to see something new and beautiful each and every day. At the end of our contracts, I returned to the US, she to Denmark. We sent letters back and forth and didn't see each other again until my wedding. Then she visited when I was pregnant with R and for his first birthday. But life happened and I didn't seen her again until 2018 when I finally got to meet her husband and two kids; my family and I spent the holidays in Denmark and they graciously hosted us for several days. For my fiftieth birthday earlier this year, she mailed me a package and seeing her handwriting on the label brought me to tears! There is definitely something poignant about letters and seeing your friends' handwriting meant just for you.
I loved this book. It was a little bit of a slow-burn, but the friendship portrayed - and the unconditional support and love - was so appreciated. A caveat: there was a part that brought me to tears and I am not a crier, usually. So, you have been warned. I recommend this touching and inspiring story.
When Imogen replies to Joan about the saffron gift, she writes...
"Who knew that something as simple as a spice could loosen the knots in a man’s heart? My apron did not survive, but who cares? I’ll be forever grateful for your miraculous gift of Far East saffron."
Here are a few of the saffron recipes I have made over and over again.
Savory Ricotta Cupcakes with a Saffron Salsa
2 cups ricotta
1/2 cup shredded cheese (I used a mixture of parmesan and grana padana)
3 eggs, lightly beaten
2 shallots, peeled and diced
4-5 sprigs of fresh thyme
freshly ground salt
freshly ground pepper
Pinch saffron strands
2 large ripe tomatoes, chopped
1/3 cup olive oil
2 teaspoons Champagne Mimosa vinegar (or any vinegar you prefer)
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease the hollows of a muffin pan; I use a baking stone.
Whisk ricotta until smooth. Beat in the shredded cheese, eggs, shallots and thyme. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Spoon into prepared pans. Bake for 40 minutes or until set and golden. While baking, the cupcakes will puff up. As they cool, they will fall slightly. It's okay! Set aside in pans for 5 minutes before turning them out.
To make the salsa, warm the oil in a pan - not too hot. Just enough so that it's warm to the touch. Soak the saffron strands the oil while the cupcakes bake. Mix in the tomato, vinegar and thyme.
To serve, top ricotta cakes with salsa. Serve with the remaining salsa on the side.
This is a Moroccan pot pie of sorts. Crisp phyllo dough wrapped around savory saffron filling, a spicy omelet stuffing, and ground nuts sweetened and flavored with citrus. A garnish of powdered sugar and cinnamon adds to the exotic blend of flavors. It takes some effort, but it's well worth it!
makes one 11" b'stilla
2 pounds white fish (I used a fillet of black cod, skinned and cubed)
2 large sweet onions, peeled and chopped
1 Tablespoons ground ginger
2 teaspoons freshly ground sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon saffron threads
1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
8 eggs, beaten
2 cups ground cashews (traditionally, it's made with almonds; I had cashews)
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 Tablespoon lemon extract
2 Tablespoons butter, softened
1 package phyllo dough, thawed according to package
1/2 cup butter, melted
more chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup organic powdered sugar
2 or 3 Tablespoons ground cinnamon
Mix the fish cubes with onion, spices, butter and oil in a large flat-bottom pan that has a tight-fitting lid. Cover, and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for about 30 minutes. Do not add water, and take care not to burn the fish or the sauce.
Remove the cooked fish to another dish, but leave the sauce in the pan. Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce until most of the liquids have evaporated. Stir occasionally, adjusting heat as necessary, to prevent burning.
Add the beaten eggs to the reduced sauce and scramble. Cook till the eggs are set. Set the omelet aside.
Put all of the ingredients in a mixing bowl, and with a pastry cutter, work in the powdered sugar, lemon extract, and butter. Set aside.
Assemble the B'stilla
I actually have never seen anyone really make b'stilla. So this is my own version...and it's been a hit the times I've made it. Melt butter in a saucepan and keep it liquid.
Generously oil a large round baking dish; as I mentioned up top, I used a 11" deep dish baker. If you don't have a round pan, work on an oiled flat baking sheet and shape a circular pie as best you can.
Overlap three or four single layers of phyllo dough, rotating as you lay them in the pan so that the excess dough hanging over the edge of the pan is evenly distributed around the circle. Butter each layer of dough as you go. This forms the bottom of the b'stilla. For my first layer, I spooned in the sweetened nut mixture.
Lay your fish pieces over the nuts and sprinkle with fresh cilantro. Lay two more layers of phyllo dough over the fish, buttering each piece.
Top that with a layer of spicy egg omelet. Lay two more layers of phyllo dough over the egg, buttering each piece. Repeat till your pan is full - or you run out of filling. I ended up with two layers of each filling - nuts, fish, and egg.
Fold the excess dough up and over your last layer to enclose the pie. Flatten the top and smooth out any bulky areas.
Brush butter on the folded edges of dough, and top with three more overlapping layers of phyllo, brushing butter on each layer as you go. Carefully tuck them underneath the pie, creating a flat top for the b'stilla. It's ready for baking.
Bake the B'stilla
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake for 40-45 minute until crisped and golden brown.
To serve, invert the b'stilla on your serving platter. Slice and serve with a side garnish of powdered sugar and ground cinnamon.
Saffron-Cardamom Ice Cream
1 cup whole milk
1 cup heavy whipping cream
1 vanilla bean, sliced lengthwise and seeds scraped
4 green cardamom pods, crushed
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
4 large egg yolks
1/2 cup + 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
Pour the milk and cream into a medium saucepan. Stir in the crushed cardamom pods, sliced vanilla bean, vanilla seeds, and saffron. Heat until bubbles form around the rim and the liquid is steaming. Remove from heat, cover, and let infuse for at least an hour. Remove the vanilla bean and crushed green cardamom pods. You can leave in the saffron threads
Beat the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale. Temper the yolks with some of the milk mixture. Pour the egg mixture into the cream and return the pan to a low heat. Stir until the mixture coats the back of a spoon; it will take several minutes for a custard to form. Take care to not let it boil otherwise you'll end up with scrambled eggs.
Whisk in the ground cardamom and let cool completely. I usually let my custard chill overnight. Then freeze in an ice cream maker following the manufacturer's instructions.
Variation: Serve sprinkled with chopped roasted salted pistachios.
That's a wrap for my Love & Saffron offering. You still have plenty of time if you want to read the book and join our #CooktheBooks event. Thanks to Deb of Kahakai Kitchen for hosting this round. I am also linking this post to the August round-up for #FoodieReads. Find that here.