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Brot & Bread - February 28, 2015 - 3:52pm
Hier geht's zur deutschen Version dieses Posts

Another blizzard howls around our house, the third in two weeks! Alpine mountains tower over our backyard, shoveling is almost futile with the drifting snow, and a curtain of dagger-like icicles hanging from the roof grows to scary dimensions.

Icicles of Terror?
What can you do to avoid succumbing to the winter blues, or getting stir crazy? After digging out from another 11 inches of "light snowfall" to make our house accessible again, there's only one answer:

Go into my cozy kitchen, enjoy the warmth of the wood stove, and bake some more!

Emergency supplies to survive the next blizzard
Fortunately I always have nuts, Nutella, cream and rum in stock - perfect for making something rich and comforting to sustain us during this bone-chilling ordeal: Bohemian Hazelnut Torte, to our rescue!

Not for nothing, Czech Bohemia, once part of the Hapsburg Empire, is famous for its truly rich cuisine. With its wealth of pastries and calories it is no doubt on par with neighboring Austria and Bavaria.

Like all cakes in pastry chef Karl Neef's wonderful book on cakes,  Sonntagskuchen und Festtagstorten, Bohemian Hazelnut Torte needs a bit of work, but is so utterly worth the effort. In other words - a cake "to die for!"

The filling requires nougat. Unlike the one available in the US, German nougat is not white, but made with chocolate. Fortunately, Nutella is a good substitute.

Tart and spicy Pflaumenmus - my favorite jam
Another typical ingredient in Bohemian/Austrian pastry is Pflaumenmus (Austrian: Powidl). This spicy plum butter is similar to apple butter, but a bit tarter and more intense in flavor. You can substitute it with apple butter. Or get the real thing from a German deli shop, or at the commissary, if you are, like me, married to a veteran. 

Or you can make a pretty good substitute from prunes, without the hours-long baking process the original requires  - see my recipe for Pflaumenmus-Ersatz.  

Even though we really love our desserts - we are only two people, so I usually downsize, and bake either medium sized or even mini-tortes. You can choose between the two versions.

This torte is really "to die for" (here the mini-version)
BÖHMISCHE NUSSTORTE - BOHEMIAN HAZELNUT TORTE   (adapted from Karl Neef's Sonntagskuchen und Festtagstorten)

75 g/2.6 oz all-purpose flour             
15 g/0.5 oz hazelnuts, toasted (toast together with the nuts for the caramel)
1 generous pinch cinnamon
1 generous pinch baking powder
3 large eggs
55 g/1.9 oz sugar
30 g/1 oz melted butter, lukewarm

60 g/2.1 oz sugar
10 g/0.4 oz butter
110 g/3.9 oz hazelnuts, toasted ((toast together with the nuts for the sponge cake)

60 ml/1/4 cup water
3/4 tsp. sugar
40 g/1.4 oz rum

5 g/0.2 oz gelatin powder (or 3 sheets gelatin)
25 g/5 tsp cold water
550 ml/18.6 oz heavy or whipping cream
40 g/1.4 oz sugar
75 g/2.6 oz Nutella
35 g rum (2 tbsp + 1 tsp)
185 g/6.5 oz plum butter*) or apple butter

*) or make it yourself: quick and easy plum butter substitute

Toast all hazelnuts (for sponge and caramel) together in a dry pan, until golden, and most of the skins can be rubbed off. Use 15 g/0.5 oz for the sponge and set aside remaining nuts for the caramel.

Preheat oven to 355ºF/180ºC. Grease a 9-inch/23-cm springform pan, and line the bottom with parchment paper. (Or, if you don't want to deal with cutting a fairly thin cake in halves, grease and line two 9-inch/23-cm round cake pans).

For the sponge, grind nuts together with flour, cinnamon and baking powder
Place flour, 15 g/0.5 oz hazelnuts, cinnamon and baking powder in food processor. Pulse, until nuts are finely ground. (Grinding nuts together with flour or sugar prevents them turning into a greasy "nut butter").

Place eggs and sugar in a double boiler over simmering water. Using a whisk, beat mixture until it reaches 120ºF/49ºC (maximum). Remove at once from the heat and transfer to bowl of an electric mixer. Beat until egg mixture has cooled, and turned pale yellow and foamy.

Fold flour mixture and melted butter in egg mixture
Fold first flour mixture in egg mixture, then melted butter, until combined. Transfer batter to springform pan, or distribute in the two cake pans, smoothing top(s) with a rubber spatula.

Bake cake in springform pan for about 20 minutes (about 10 minutes for cake pans) until top is light golden brown and still feels elastic when slightly pressed in the center.

Allow cake to cool in the pan on a rack, then remove springform ring (or loosen rim in round pans with a knife), turn sponge out onto the rack, and peel off parchment paper.

The sponge should be light golden brown, and feel elastic in the center
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Place sugar in medium sauce pan over medium heat. Melt, stirring constantly, until sugar turns golden. Add butter, stirring until blended. Add hazelnuts, stirring vigorously, until they are covered with caramel. Scrape out and spread nut caramel in one layer on prepared baking sheet.

Caramelizing hazelnuts
In small bowl, stir together sugar, water and rum, until sugar has dissolved. Set aside.

In small bowl, sprinkle powdered gelatin over cold water (or cover gelatin sheets with cold water) to soak.

Whisk heavy cream with sugar until soft peaks form (standing or handheld mixer). Microwave Nutella until softened, then stir until smooth. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Folding rum-gelatin mixture and cream in Nutella
Heat soaked gelatin together with rum mixture in microwave (or on stove top), until it has melted. Stir rum-gelatin mixture together with 1 tablespoon of the whipped cream into bowl with the softened Nutella (to temper it). Then fold in remaining whipped cream.

Cut sponge horizontally in 2-3 layers (if baked in a springform pan) Put bottom layer on a serving platter. Grease ring of springform pan or cake ring, line with a strip of parchment paper, and place it around the bottom cake layer.

This cake cutter makes horizontal cuts easy 
For 3 layers: brush bottom layer with 1/3 of the rum mixture, spread 1/3 of the plum or apple butter over it, followed by 1/3 of the filling. Repeat with two remaining cake layers.

For 2 layers: use 1/2 of brushing liquid, plum (or apple) butter and filling per layer.

The torte is assembled, now it has to be chilled
Place torte for at least 4 hours in the refrigerator.

Remove cake ring from chilled torte. Using rolling pin, coarsely crush caramelized hazelnuts. Sprinkle top of the torte with nuts and caramel shards. 

Torte topped with nuts and caramel (here the mini-version)
MINI-BOHEMIAN HAZELNUT TORTE  (use diet scale or fraction weighing spoon!)

41 g all-purpose flour             
8 g whole hazelnuts
1 pinch cinnamon
1 pinch baking powder
97 g eggs*)
30 g sugar
16 g melted butter, lukewarm

*)break an egg into a cup, beat lightly, then measure the desired amount.

33 g sugar
4 g butter
62 g whole hazelnuts

33 g water
2 g sugar
21 g rum

2.9 g powdered gelatin (or 1 2/3 sheet gelatin)
1 tbsp cold water (for gelatin powder)
310 g heavy or whipping cream
25 g sugar
41 g Nutella
20 g rum
100 g plum butter (or plum butter substitute) or apple butter

Prepare like the larger torte, but cut sponge only once horizontally and use 1/2 of brushing liquid, plum or apple butter, and filling per layer.

This torte will not get old (here mini-version)
Submitted to Sugarprincess Yushka's monthly blog event "Calendar of Cakes".

Categories: The Bread Feed


Brot & Bread - February 28, 2015 - 3:27pm

Hier geht's zur deutschen Version dieses Posts (folgt noch)

Nothing better than a slice of freshly baked bread with butter and jam, especially with Pflaumenmus - spiced German plum butter - one of my favorites. Pflaumenmus is made from Italian plums, cooked for many hours to a dark mush, and seasoned with cinnamon and a hint of cloves.

Plum butter tastes similar to apple butter, but noticeably tarter and more intense. Pflaumenmus - or Powidl in Austria - is not only a tasty spread for sandwiches, but, also, often used as sweet filling in dumplings or pastry, especially in Austria and neighboring countries of the old Hapsburg empire.

Bohemian Hazelnut Torte with plum butter (the dark layer)
Married to a Vietnam vet, I can get plum butter and other German delicacies at the commissary in Bangor. But if you have neither access to a military base, nor to a German deli shop, and don't want to go through the lengthy process of making the real thing from scratch - there is an easy way out: DIY-Pflaumenmus-Ersatz!

When I wrote my blog post for Bohemian Hazelnut Torte I was wondering what kind of substitute could be used for plum butter. The best of all husbands suggested apple butter, and it comes fairly close, but is somewhat milder. Then I thought of the dried prunes I like snacking on, looked at ingredients in some Pflaumenmus (from the scratch) recipes, and got to work.

Ingredients for Pflaumenmus-Ersatz
This is what I came up with: a combination of the mellow acidity of balsamic vinegar and the fresh zing of lemon juice for tartness, brown sugar and maple syrup (or only brown sugar) for sweetness, and cinnamon and a hint of cloves for spices.

The prunes have to be soaked for several hours (or overnight), so that they can be easily pureed, using either a food processor or an immersion blender. The plum butter substitute tastes better the day after it's made, so give it a 12-hour rest in the fridge to allow the flavors to blend.

Not only good for baking - we had Pflaumenmus-Ersatz with pancakes and maple syrup for brunch: delicious!

200 g dried prunes
3/4 cup/180 g water, boiling
40 g/5 tsp. balsamic vinegar
4 tsp. lemon juice
4 tsp. dark brown sugar (or 1 tbsp. brown sugar and 1/2 tbsp. maple syrup)
1/8-1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon (to taste)
pinch ground cloves

In a small bowl, pour boiling water over prunes. Cover, and let sit for several hours (or overnight) to soften.

Place softened prunes with soaking liquid in bowl of food processor (or blender). Add balsamic vinegar, lemon juice, brown sugar, maple syrup (if using), cinnamon and cloves, and process until mixture is smooth.

Season with more lemon juice, brown sugar (or maple syrup) and cinnamon to taste. Transfer plum butter to a jar or bowl, cover, and allow to rest for 12 hours, until flavors have blended.
Categories: The Bread Feed

Sometimes the signs...

Farine - February 25, 2015 - 5:09pm
...are sad. There is a beach a few miles from where we live and we often take our little dog running on it. Most of the time the sand is bare: no weeds, very little detritus, only crabs, broken seashells and the occasional driftwood. Today the tide had brought in more stuff than usual: shiny pieces of redwood, polished rocks, large empty shells. I spied an unbroken sand dollar and an iridescent blue shell shaped like a tiny comma.
I continued walking, keeping my eyes on the ground. I couldn't shake the feeling that a sign from Noah was imminent and that it would materialize if only I paid close attention. I didn't have long to wait. Here it was at the edge of the surf: a lone kid shoe, full of water and sand, of a style and size that looked just right for a six-year old boy.
I stared. I could feel my heart racing and my throat constricting. But the dog was running ahead, chasing seagulls. I snapped a picture and reluctantly followed.
On the way back, the shoe was gone. As if it had never existed...
Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed


Farine - February 21, 2015 - 12:33pm
Signs are everywhere. Only we don't always see them. For three nights in a row last month, the shortest of five ivory flameless candles lined up on our kitchen counter lit up all by itself and I thought nothing of it. On the fourth night, it occurred to me it could be a sign. From Noah. The day after, it lit up during the day, then the battery died. I put in a new one but the candle didn't turn itself on again that night or any other night since.
Two weeks later, it was the turn of a red candle, the middle one of a set of three. This time I took a picture before turning it off. It didn't light up by itself again.
Now, unbeknownst to me, family members had consulted a psychic the week before Christmas. From what I heard later, it had been a poignant experience because so much of what that person said or hinted at about our family was eerily specific and accurate when there was no way she could have had access to that information through "regular" channels (even if she had had a chance to google the various branches of the family tree, including the distantly related and international ones, and she hadn't).
I must say I was flabbergasted when I heard the details. I have never been to a psychic and it has never even occurred to me to go see one. It would be fair to say that I am more of a skeptic than a believer. Yet I am convinced that there is much we do not know or comprehend about the world and that the essential may well be "invisible to the eyes" in the words of French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. One of the things the psychic said was that Noah was trying to communicate with his family through "something related to feathers" and/or through electrical interferences.
I hadn't been told yet on Christmas Eve when I spotted the yellow bird on one of the bushes lining our driveway. I hadn't been told but from the joy and peace that suddenly came over me, I "knew" it was a sign from Noah. The bird's feathers looked extraordinarily soft and fluffy and its eyes were bright. It let me approach as I took out my phone and started snapping pictures. It only flew off when I came too close for comfort and even then it still lingered in full sight a few minutes longer, eyeing me from its perch on a limb. I had never seen it before and never saw it since.
My daughter sent me these two pictures she took last week at the graffiti park in the college town where her oldest child goes to school. The Spanish words means "the lost son." The graffiti were next to each other. The thought of this juxtaposition sends chills down my spine. What are the odds that this might be unrelated to the loss of Noah? From what my daughter learned the graffiti are regularly painted over with fresh ones. What are the odds that these two should be up there for a broken-hearted mother to see on her visit?
Just as when we went back home in the month following the murder and the first three letters of the confirmation code on our flight itinerary was NOA... What are the odds of this having been a coincidence?
Yet we can never know, can we? The candles may have been malfunctioning, the bird a migratory visitor on its way to warmer climes, the graffiti totally unrelated to the tragedy that befell our family, the airline code the result of sheer randomness.  We may be looking for meaning where there is none.
And believe me, even though hearing from Noah is our dearest wish, it is also immensely sad it should be through such paltry and evanescent means. Only yesterday I was playing TimeLine and SmartyPants with my eight-year old California grandson (he was born six weeks after Noah and his twin sister) and we were having a great time trying to answer quizzes, solve puzzles and put scientific discoveries in chronological order. We went grocery-shopping and I made him lunch and it was just plain ordinary life and it threw into stark relief how pathetic it is that such trivial things as the sight of a bold bird or a rogue candle should bring happiness and peace.
And yet...
And yet it is better than nothing. The "signs" hint at the possibility that Noah is still out there and still close to us.
If they signify nothing else, they mean our love for him is very much alive. They mean he is missed every minute of every day. They mean we believe his spirit hasn't died. And if that isn't a reason to feel happy and at peace despite our sorrow, I wonder what is.
Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Buckwheat Love

Farine - February 14, 2015 - 8:17am
So the other day, I bought a small bag of Bob's Red Mill organic cracked buckwheat (marketed as "creamy buckwheat") thinking I would make porridge for breakfast and use the rest in a rustic bread. Maybe because I grew up eating buckwheat crêpes regularlyI have a huge fondness for blé noir (literally black wheat) as my grandmother used to call it (the other name being sarrasin) and as it is still called in half of Brittany and I was looking forward to a new buckwheat experience.
Well, I was disappointed: not only did the cracked buckwheat boil into a solid clump but it had no taste at all. To the point that it ended up in our little dog's food bowl (she didn't seem to mind, maybe because I added a non-inconsiderable amount of shredded chicken and sweet potatoes). In any events it had a very positive effect on her innards which had been rather scrambled because of her unbridled passion for sand crabs (we walk her on the beach most days and she treats it not only as her personal race track -which is good- but also as an all-you-can-eat sushi bar -which is less beneficial to her health).
Anyway I had buckwheat on my mind in a generally dispirited sort of way when French chef and pastry chef Philippe Conticini was invited on On va déguster, one of my favorite French weekly food radio shows, and I heard him describe, among other things, a topping he makes with buckwheat and hazelnut meal. Unlike the other recipes the chef shared on that day, this one was pretty simple and I jotted down the reference, thinking it could come in handy.
A few days later I got an interesting oat chocolate crumble recipe in my mailbox from Smitten Kitchen, a blog I love not only for its food but for also the verve, energy, humor and otherwise sheer New-Yorkishness of its author, Deb Perelman.
The recipe called for pears. That caught my attention. A dozen big organic pears had been ripening on the counter for the better part of two weeks and I knew they were about ready to eat. I was idly trying to remember if we had any oat flakes left over from the last time I made granola when the Conticini buckweat topping popped into my mind. Bingo!
Next thing I knew, I was caramelizing pears and grinding cracked buckwheat into flour. When all the ingredients were ready, I put the caramelized pears in an oven dish, covered them with a layer of unsweetened frozen raspberries, added dark chocolate chips and a generous sprinkling of buckwheat topping, and into the oven it went for about thirty minutes. I won't lie by saying it came out gorgeous. In my experience, melted chocolate always looks iffy under a toasted surface but it smelled divine and tasted even better, especially with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

For 5 or 6 people


For the fruit base
  • 4 ripe pears, peeled, cored and diced
  • 60 g sugar
  • 60 butter 
  • 200 g frozen raspberries
  • 1 teaspoon of corn starch
For the topping
(makes way more than you need for this recipe but can be refrigerated and used on other desserts or even on oatmeal or yogurt)
  • 100 g buckwheat flour
  •  50 g salted butter
  • 50 g brown sugar
  • 65 g hazelnut meal
  • 2 generous pinches of fleur de sel (or regular coarse sea sal
Since Deb explains in details how to make the fruit base and the process is pretty straightforward, I won't go over it again. As suggested, I added a teaspoon of cornstarch to the caramelized pears to thicken up the juices a bit. If you do that, remember to mix the cornstarch with some cold liquid first. (I took two tablespoons of pear juice out of the pan, added an ice cube until cool, removed the ice cube, mixed in the starch and put the whole thing back in with the pears.)
The recipe for the buckwheat topping being given in French, I'll run it by you in English: basically all you have to do is mix the buckwheat flour, butter, salt and hazelnut meal in the food processor until you get a finely granulated powder, toast it for a few minutes in a frying pan until satisfyingly blonde and fragrant. Et voilà, you have a dessert that's both reasonably healthful and decidedly decadent. Enjoy!
Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

About love

Farine - February 9, 2015 - 5:51pm
Love is when an eight-year old French girl decides to make a Pithiviers (an almond cake) for her family. She has baked Pithiviers before and is confident it will come out well. So confident that she forgets to use flour. Butter goes in and ground almonds and sugar and who can remember what else but what comes out of the oven is a flat disk. At the end of dinner that night, the so-called Pithiviers is solemnly brought out and sliced. But the smell and taste are off-putting (mushroomy in fact, probably because of the baking powder) and nobody is actually able to eat more than one bite of his or her share except the little girl's dad who pronounces the sorry cake the best flourless Pithiviers he has ever had.
Love is when you bake a brioche for your Valentine and you make it a hundred percent whole wheat to compensate for all the butter you used that he shouldn't be eating and you bungle the shaping because really you never learned how to make a brioche à tête like the ones you see all over Paris and because of the poor shaping, it doesn't rise as well as it should but you bake it anyway and when you slice it open to reveal a somewhat under-baked center, your Valentine says there is nothing wrong with your brioche that a little browning in the toaster won't fix.
Love is a lot like gluten in bread dough: it binds us together, yet leaves enough breathing space around each of us that we can grow and change and still be part of a whole. In the face of the relentless waves of violence, ugliness, intolerance, and plain old stupidity that are threatening to sweep us under, the humble metaphor is reason enough to keep on baking.
Happy Valentine's Day everyone!

Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Rallying against violence

Farine - January 16, 2015 - 12:55pm
Horrific events shook my native city last week. Nine days later, like millions of others, I am still in shock. The horror was compounded by news of mass massacres in Nigeria and on the day of the huge march in Paris, I found myself yearning for for a massive round-the-world rally against violence, wherever it takes place, whomever it targets and whatever weapon it makes use of.
Funerals have begun and my heart goes out to the families. Twenty-five months ago tomorrow, we buried our grandson Noah, himself a victim of unspeakable violence. The day of his murder was one of stupefaction, horror and denial. The day of his burial one of bottomless and never abating grief. That anyone should deliberately take someone's life and inflict such pain onto others is beyond comprehension.
On the day of the march, I spoke with one of my friends in Paris. She is an elementary school teacher in one of the city's toughest boroughs, in fact in the neighborhood of the kosher supermarket that was the target of one of the attacks . Her students are ten- or eleven-year old. Their reactions to the events were not what one would expect from kids born and raised in Paris. The allegiance most of them expressed was not with the values of democracy and freedom of expression. In fact several of them spoke with admiration of defiant older brothers. It will require more than words to convince these children that there is room for them in their own country and that violence isn't the only way. It will require commitment and acceptance. And some degree of trust. On both sides.
Meanwhile let us (the usually silent majority) rally against violence, any form of violence, anywhere. Even if we don't make an immediate difference, we owe to our shared humanity.

Categories: Blogs, The Bread Feed

Red gold on rocky hills: harvesting saffron in Provence

Farine - January 9, 2015 - 10:54am
I was out walking the pups (in addition to our own, we were taking care of our youngest son's dog) around nine one morning last week. Having just barked their heads off at a plumber getting out of his truck, they were strutting down the street (all eighteen pounds of chihuaha-terrier mix, combined), one with his ears perked up, the other one with her ears flapping down, both tails up in the air, clearly very pleased with themselves, when I experienced one of these minutes when Time seems to coalesce and hang in the air like an all-encompassing drop of luminous peace. The sky was a deep blue, the sun bright, far away the highway rumbled, birds were tweeting somewhere, the cool air smelled of pine and eucalyptus, I felt that if I reached out, I might actually touch life itself and it would be almost gel-like because there was no flux, only the present. A perfect minute. I stopped walking, awed. Then the dogs started sniffing and panting, pulling towards a red squirrel on a low limb, the world resumed its spinning. Still I had had that moment and I filed it away in my box of wonder. Albeit a very different, experience, our visit to a saffron farm back in the fall when we were in Marseille also felt suspended in time. Maybe it was the setting...
Or the twenty-minute walk up the fragrant hills from Lascours, the sleepy village where we had parked the car...

Maybe it was the beloved friends we were with and the good-natured group of locals we had joined for the occasion...
Maybe it was Delphine Douet, the owner of the saffron farm, a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide...
Maybe it was the weather, maybe the colors, maybe the aromas... Maybe a combination of all this. In any case, a morning so perfect that it could only foster hope and healing.
I didn't know much about saffron before visiting the farm. I knew I loved its smell and taste, I knew it was the most expensive spice in the world and I knew it came from a specific variety of crocus. Beyond that, not a clue. I suspect such is the case with most visitors because the first thing Delphine did was sit us down at a long table on a restanque (narrow terrace where the crocuses are cultivated) and tell us everything we could possibly want to know about the precious or rouge (red gold) as saffron is sometimes called.
Although I enjoyed hearing about the role of saffron in history, its place in religious rituals, its medicinal benefits, its cosmetic uses, its dyeing properties, its culinary assets, etc. I am not going to overload you with this info because you can easily find it on the web. If you read French, a good place to start would be 13'Or Rouge, Delphine's own website or this report she referred me to. For English-speakers, there is Wikipedia and other resources including this page of gardening tips in case you decide you grow your own (which I'd like to try).
What mostly got my attention was the fact that while the world produces about two hundred tons a year, four hundred tons are actually traded, meaning that not all that is labeled saffron is the real thing. As explained in this article (in French), some producers may substitute marigold, safflower, arnica, corn silk, seaweed, etc. or use dyes. They may make saffron threads heavier by coating them with sugar, oil, honey and mineral powders.
Others may include some non-aromatic parts of the plant itself. The stigma is the red thread which, once dehydrated, becomes the spice. The style is its yellow "foot." Cheaper brands often contains both stigmas and styles. Delphine explained that she always has her harvest helpers (us on that particular day) gather the stigmas in red bowls so that she can see at a glance whether or not they mistakenly included any of the yellow styles. Bowls containing yellow specks do not pass muster. To make her point, she passed around two little bottles, the first one containing dehydrated stigmas, the second one containing dehydrated styles, and invited us to uncork them and smell. The red stigmas smelled divine. The yellow styles smelled like old hay. In other words when you buy saffron that's both red and yellow, you are not getting one hundred percent pure saffron.
I normally get my saffron from Trader Joe's. When I got back home from France, I checked the bottle I had in my spice drawer.
Here is what TJ's saffron looks like on a red plate.
To be compared with the saffron in one of our bowls (prior to Delphine's inspection)...
Knowing what I know now, I understand why TJ's saffron is more affordable than others. I checked out saffron at Costco too. At first glance, it looks pretty much the same as TJ's and I assume it smells and tastes about the same as well. Less fragrant and aromatic that the one in Provence but a reasonable alternative although you will have to use it in bigger amounts to achieve comparable results.
One trick to find out whether the saffron you bought has been dyed is to rub some threads (or powder) between two wet fingers. Your fingers should turn yellow. If they turn red, dye has been used. Delphine advises against buying saffron powder because it is often adulterated.
The saffron-producing crocus is crocus sativus. The bulbs are buried in the summer for a fall harvest. They multiply underground during winter and spring then go dormant. Early summer is a good time to deter them, so that the cycle can resume. Dependent on man's help for reproduction, the crocus has been grown that way for five thousand years. To harvest the saffron, one pinches the flower at its base and snips it off (pulling would damage the bulb). When all the flowers have been harvested, the stigmas are pulled out. There are three stigmas per flower.

Delphine demonstrating where to cut off the style We were directed to a pile of little straw baskets...
...and off we went, the two youngest (age nine and fifteen) racing ahead and filling their baskets in record time. When the whole restanque had been plucked over and all the stigmas pulled out, Delphine weighed the contents of our combined harvest: twelve grams.
Well, it was twelve grams when she first weighed it but by the time I took the picture (like two or three minutes later), desiccation had set in and the weight was already down by one centigram. Just so you know, one hundred grams of fresh stigmas yield 20 g of dry saffron. For one kilogram of saffron, you need the stigmas of about one hundred and sixty thousand flowers.
Once enough stigmas have been collected, they are dehydrated for twenty minutes at 140-158°F/60-70°C, then stored in tightly closed containers away from any light source.
To maximize aroma and flavor, saffron must be rehydrated before use, preferably for twenty-four to forty-eight hours. A baker might want to soak it in the water to be mixed with the flour.
Delphine took out various saffron-infused products (jams, marmalades, honey, tea) to taste with bread from Dame Farine, the lovely Marseille bakery we had just visited. A match made in heaven!
Spent crocus flowers...
If you ever are in the Marseille area in early fall and would like to visit the farm, you may want to contact Delphine at +33 6 86 22 16 88 and put your name on the list for a group tour. She speaks English. Outside harvest season, she also organizes saffron-themed breakfasts at regular intervals.
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