The Emperor’s New Spice
Saffron is well-known for being the most expensive spice in the world. In 2009, the average U.S. retail price was nearly $3000/lb. For comparison, vanilla beans, the second most expensive spice, retail around $150/lb and even if the cheapest you can get them is $5/piece, they’re only about $450/lb. Although saffron is prized for its aroma, its subtle flavor, and its ability to dye dishes a rich golden hue, the cost is primarily due to how resource and labor-intensive it is to produce.
Each thread of saffron is a pistil from a particular species of crocus, and each flower only produces three of them. It takes 170,000 flowers to produce a single kilogram of dried saffron. Furthermore, the pistils have to be harvested by hand during the short window of time when they bloom in October, and the harvesting must happen before sunrise because the flowers are so delicate that they wilt in the sun.
As my friend Kevin recently pointed out, saffron is a great example of something priced at its economic or exchange value rather than at its intrinsic (or use) value. As lovely as it smells, its aromatic compounds are extremely volatile and especially vulnerable to light and oxidizing agents. It’s somewhat more resistant to heat, but I generally find the flavor all but impossible to discern in most dishes, including some of the classic applications like paella and bouillabaisse. Given that, I probably should have known better than to put it in deviled eggs, which get their name from the pungent spices combined with the yolks. I could barely even discern it in the aioli on its own.
However, it sure does make things sound fancier. Kevin also recalled a recipe he’d seen for a bean dish involving saffron that noted, “adding saffron to beans is a good way to tell your guests that you’re not just being cheap by serving them beans.” And this, I think, is the true function of saffron at least most of the time: it’s something you put in food to prove you know what it is and can afford it, and then everyone feels compelled to say they can taste it and maybe they even think they do. But really, you could get the same effect by just telling people you put saffron in the dish.
A Classic for a Reason
In the future, I’ll probably skip the saffron-soaking. And I’ll probably just use Hellman’s/Best Foods mayonnaise with a little garlic and lemon juice mixed in instead of making my aioli from scratch. If, for some reason, you really want the aioli to be a vibrant yellow (not that you can tell anyway if you’re mixing it with egg yolks), you could always add some turmeric. Of course, then what you’ve got is just plain old deviled eggs. But there’s probably a reason the same basic preparation has been around for possibly as long as eggs and spices have been consumed.
According to The Food Timeline, recipes for boiled eggs topped with spicy sauces appear shortly after the Ancient Greeks and Romans domesticated egg-laying birds. There are recipes for spicy stuffed eggs in a 13th C. Andalusian cookbook, 15th C. Italian cookbooks, and 16th and 17th C. British cookbooks. Sometimes the recipes call for the yolks to be pounded with raisins, cheese, and spices like cinnamon and cloves, which might have produced something similar to mincemeat. However, mustard, onion, parsley, and cayenne are also common flavorings, and would probably have produced something virtually indistinguishable from the way most people “devil” their eggs today.
The association with the devil is apparently an 18th C. invention. As a culinary verb it was used for other hot & pungent preparations too— “devilled biscuits” referring to shortbreads spread with anchovy paste, mustard, and cayenne and then grilled (doesn’t that sound fantastic?) and seafood preparations that usually sound something like a curry. At least one cookbook suggested “devilling” or broiling meat with cayenne as a way of dealing with “relics of poultry or game.” None of them, I should note, involve saffron, and in retrospect if there’s anywhere you could expect saffron to shine, a dish specifically noted for being devilishly spicy is probably not it. So here’s a very foolish recipe if you want to waste some saffron, too. Or just skip to the egg part:
Recipe: Deviled Eggs with Saffron Aioli (makes enough aioli for about 2 dozen eggs)
- a large pinch of saffron (about 20 threads)
- 1 1/2 T. warm water
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 t. white wine vinegar
- 2 t. lemon juice (plus more if needed)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 t. mustard powder
- pinch of salt
- pinch of white pepper
- 1/2 c. canola
- 1/4 c. olive oil
- 1 dozen eggs
- 1/2 cup saffron aioli
- 1 T. Dijon mustard
- 1 t. celery salt (or celery seed + salt)
- 1/2 t. ground white pepper (or black pepper)
- pinch of cayenne (optional)
- paprika to garnish (optional)
- pimento slices to garnish (optional)
For the aioli:
1. Place the saffron and warm water in a small bowl and let soak for about 20 minutes
2. Immersion blender method: Put the saffron tea, and all of the other ingredients except for the oils in a 2 cup measure or the beaker that came with the blender and then place the blender flush against the bottom. Carefully pour the canola oil into the container so that it sits on top of the other ingredients and let the contents settle for a minute. Without lifting or moving the blender at all, begin pulsing it. A cloud of emulsified dressing should begin to bloom up from the bottom. Keep pulsing for about a minute, until at least half of the mixture is emulsified. Then, begin to slowly rock or rotate the blender to incorporate more of the oil. Once almost all of the mixture is emulsified, plunge the blender vertically through the mixture once or twice until the texture is homogenous. Then, whisk in the olive oil by hand. Do Not use a blender to combine the olive oil or substitute olive oil for the canola—blending olive oil releases bitter-tasting compounds that will ruin the aioli.
Food processor method: Put the saffron tea and all the other ingredients except for the oils in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. With the processor running, add the oil slowly—start with just a few drops at a time, gradually working up to a thin stream. Once the emulsification has formed you can add the oil more quickly. After all the canola has been emulsified, stop the processor and whisk in the olive oil by hand.
Whisk method: Combine the egg yolk, vinegar, lemon juice, and spices and whisk together until the yolk begins to lighten in color. Whisking constantly and furiously, begin to add the oil one or two droplets at a time. Once the emulsification begins to form, you can add the oil a thin, steady stream. After all the canola has been added in and emulsified, whisk in the olive oil and the saffron tea.
3. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired. Let sit at room temperature for 4-6 hrs to help kill any unwanted bacteria. Then, refrigerate and use within a week.
For the deviled eggs:
1. Place the eggs in a pot with enough cold water to cover by at least 1”.
2. Bring to a rapid boil and set a timer for 6 minutes.
3. Meanwhile, prepare an ice-water bath. As soon as the six minutes is up, drain the eggs and plunge them into the cold water.
5. Combine the yolks with the aioli (or 1/2 cup prepared mayonnaise combined with a clove of minced garlic and 2 t. lemon juice), mustard, and spices and stir until smooth. Taste and adjust seasoning as desired.
6. Fill the whites with a rounded scoop of the yolk mixture. Or, if you’re feeling fancy, pipe the mixture back into the whites with an icing bag and tip.
7. Garnish with a sprinkle of paprika and slice of pimento, if desired.