#Pili’sBritishBakeOff – April
From Cornwall to York and back. In my quest to travel the UK and experience first-hand its baking traditions from my kitchen, I’ve so far visited Christmas cake, tattie scones or farls, Cornish sultana scones and English muffins. I’ve also recently made, even if I haven’t blogged about them, cheese scones, filling Cornish pasties, steak and ale pie, spiced hot cross buns and finger-licking Whitby lemon buns. I’ve enjoyed making and eating them all and today’s treat, saffron buns, sits amongst the best as a not-too-sweet treat that is fairly easy to make and versatile.
What are saffron buns exactly?
Saffron buns are a type of sweet bun or bread made with an enriched dough and flavoured with saffron, lemon and currants. If you’re egg or egg-white intolerant, you’ll be pleased to know they are egg-free (or my recipe is). For a vegan option, see how to make.
Fun facts about saffron
- Its Latin name is crocus sativus, so, it’s a type of crocus.
- It was introduced into Spain by the Arabs.
- According to the Larousse Gastronomique, the best saffron comes from Valencia in Spain. However, saffron is also grown in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Iran, Kashmir and Morocco. Saffron is also grown today in small boutique farms across the UK (for example, Norfolk, Cheshire or Cornwall) but the centre of British saffron growing in the 16th century was Saffron Walden in Cornwall. The crop was reintroduced in the past decade after being abandoned in the 19th century.
- You may be forgiven for thinking that vanilla was the most expensive spice in the world, but saffron is around ten times as expensive.
- Being so expensive, you might like to read this article from BBC Gardeners World on how to grow your own saffron. You plant them in summer and harvest in autumn. You’ll need 150 plants and some tweezers. Ready?
Learn more about Saffron Walden’s history by visiting Saffron Walden’s museum and watch these informative videos about saffron picking and the decline of saffron farming in La Mancha, Spain. As a painstaking manual job, it’s not surprising saffron is a niche job today, but the cheap powder does not taste as good as the delicate flower, so growing it may be worth a try.
How to make saffron buns
It’s as easy as making the dough in a Kitchen Aid, which takes around 15-20 minutes, letting it prove for an hour, forming the buns, letting them prove for another hour and, finally, baking for 15 minutes. The recipe I used comes from Ysewijn’s cookbook Oats in the North, but you can also find it on the CKBKapp. If not, try Cornish chef Rick Stein’s saffron bun recipe on BBC Food. Mine were absolutely delicious, very pillowy, and I’ll be making them again. I used fresh lemon zest instead of candied and raisins instead of currants as that’s what I had to hand. I did not use lard, but I imagine it imparts a nice flavour.
You might be more familiar with S-shaped Swedish saffron buns, eaten on St Lucia’s day (or The Festival of Light) in December. For those who are not, the recipe is below. The ingredients and making process look quite similar and also the amount of butter and sugar used. The only thing is these do contain egg.
What to do with saffron bun leftovers
Should you have any buns left, both Ysewijn and Stein say you can freeze them. When you need them, you thaw them and revive them in a hot oven. I can assure you they won’t be better than toasted, so, don’t freeze, eat as you go!
Other than toasted and enjoyed on their unbeatable own company (I really think they don’t need any gimmicks), you could toast them and butter them, slather them with decadent clotted cream or top them with runny marmalade as I did. Stein suggests making bread and butter pudding. Instead, I ate mine as an ibérico ham and tomato sandwich on the second day, which was very nice, but would have been nicer with a sweeter tomato such as a tomato chutney or semi-dried tomatoes. I enjoyed them on the third day toasted and paired with spicy chilli cheddar (delightful) and I think they would also go well with prawns or cray fish and a prawn-cocktail-type sauce. Why limit yourself to sweet options?
How to store saffron buns
I stored a few in a biscuit tin, and those that did not fit in in foil, and ate the latter first.
Would you know what a saffron crocus or a saffron rose is? If you live in the UK, the first is easy as crocuses are a popular type of ground cover in British gardens, but how about the rose? It refers to the stamens which, if I’m honest, look more like antennae to me! Saffron’s filaments are called strands or threads, just one more reason to use a specialist food translator for your texts as all these things are very collocational. An automatic translator will, for example, translate saffron thread as ‘hilo de azafrán’ when the correct rendering is ‘hebra de azafrán’.
What does saffron smell like? Its aroma can be described as rich, musky, floral and tenacious. What does saffron taste like? Its flavour is delicate but penetrating, warm, earthy, musky, bitter and lingering.
Did you know that saffron will add a deeper colour to your food if added early on (normally first infused) but will add more aromatics if added later? It’s important to dilute it properly or you can get a bitter unpleasant taste.
Saffron’s colour should be deep red. If it has some yellow, you’ve bought a cheaper version, perhaps safflower flowers!
Larousse Gastronomique, Hamlyn, 2009
Oxford Food Symposium 2020 booklet on Herbs and Spices, Jill Norman and Elisabeth Luard
Oats from the North, Wheat from the South: The History of British Baking, Savoury and Sweet, by Regula Ysewijn, Murdoch Books, 2020
Meet the salmon producer, The Guardian, (November 2013, 16th)