saffron and shame: a lesson on etymology ::::
Saffron reminds me of so many different cultures and experiences: the robes of Thai Buddhist monks when Eat and I visited my parents when they lived in Thailand in 2001, the color of paella in my trip to Spain in college, the color of some Maine summer sunsets growing up. Not only is it the multi-cultural connectedness that attracts me to saffron, but its vibrant color, scarcity, and holy history.
Saffron threads are the stigmas (the part of the flower that receives the pollen) from the Crocus sativus flower. It is curious that stigma also means a mark of disgrace or a stain on one’s reputation, as if this spice somehow branded the spice world with an unwanted mark. In Greek, stigma means “to tattoo” which I surmise was an observation by a wordsmith after fondling some of the crocus plants. I imagine many a Greek touched those tender stigma, fingers stained with orange.
It is often etymology that leads me to appreciate certain word origins. One clear memory outside of the food world was in medical school when learning about the pelvic nerves. The pudendal nerve is a sensory and motor nerve that innervates the external genitalia. It is a form of the Latin-derived word pudendum, meaning the external genitalia. We learned in our anatomy lecture that the holy men that first studied and named these nerves long ago, monks or priests, named this part of the body from their narrow and taboo context: pudendum means to make ashamed.
So enough about genitals and embarrassed monks and onto the sultry saffron. These crackers use just a bit of saffron; a little goes a long way, otherwise the dish will be bitter. Although I have used saffron powder before in my saffron sables recipe and can be used here, it is preferable to use the saffron threads as they have longer shelf-life. The threads do need a little extra attention though (perhaps much like genitalia, in some circles): once plucked from the flower, the threads need to be dried and/or soaked before using to appreciate the fullest flavor. Much like my oatmeal crackers, these crackers are just as tasty and might make grocery store crackers obsolete in your cupboards.
One year ago: mixed bean soup
Two years ago: pumpkin panna cotta (with caramelized apples)
- ¼ teaspoon saffron threads
- ¾ cup water (6 ounces), divided
- ¼ cup (2 ounces) medium extra-virgin olive oil
- 2½ cups (12.5 ounces by weight) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons fine sea salt
- 2 tablespoons whole fennel seeds for topping
- 1-2 teaspoons flaky sea salt for topping (I felt 1 teaspoon was enough)
- Heat a small skillet over high heat until a drop of water dances on the surface. Add the saffron and shake pan until the threads become brittle, about 30 seconds. DON'T let it burn. Scrape the threads into a mortar and grind then into a powder with a pestle (don't have one? use a plate and the back of a spoon instead). UPDATE: Toasting the saffron wrapped in foil first actually has better flavor than the dry pan roasting, per some sources I've read. I'd recommend trying the foil-pan roasting version.
- Heat ¼ cup water and pour is over the saffron threads. Cool to room temperature.
- Pour the saffron-infused water, along with the crushed saffron threads, into a medium bowl. Add the remaining ½ cup cool water to the mortar to collect and saffron bits left behind and pour it into the bowl. Add the olive oil.
- Stir the flour and salt together in a small bowl. Add them to the saffron mixture all at once and stir with a rubber spatula until the water is absorbed. Dribble in a little more water as needed to moisten any flour at the bottom of the bowl.
- Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead about 10 turns, until dough is smooth.
- Divide the dough into two balls, flatten them, and cover them with a kitchen towel while the oven preheats.
- Start preheating the oven to 500 degrees F. Line two baking pans with parchment paper.*
- When the oven is at 500 degrees F, roll one ball out, keeping the other ball covered with the towel.
- Roll each piece of dough about 1/16-inch thick, into a 12x14 inch rectangle. Roll the rectangle onto a rolling pin and transfer to a baking sheet.
- Dock the dough with a fork (I didn't actually do this so my crackers were more bubbly on top). Cut into shapes with a pizza wheel (or cookie cutters, if you have the patience). Moisten the dough with a pastry brush dipped in water and sprinkle with fennel seeds and salt.
- Repeat with the other ball of dough for the other pan.
- Bake, rotating the pans 180 degrees halfway through the baking time. Crackers should be well-browned after about 15 minutes.
- Transfer pans to rack to cool.
- Crackers may be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for about 1 week. They taste great with flavored cream cheeses or thick vegetable-based dips.