Whenever I make a crispy, saffron-scented noodle cake, I think of cold, dreamlike Spanish fields of purple crocus flowers I found myself standing in one misty dawn many years ago, watching bundled workers hurriedly plucking the small delicate flowers before the rising sun’s heat could wither them.
Later, in the farmers’ modest kitchen, the family patiently stripped the three red thread-like stigmas from each flower as they sat around a crocus-covered table for hours on end. In a process unchanged for centuries they were gathering saffron, the most expensive spice in the world.
It takes an experienced picker about an hour to strip 1100 flowers, enough to produce a quarter of an ounce of saffron. One hundred or so purple flowers go into each pinch I use in cooking, and into this gratin. It has saffron’s deep yellow color and inimitable flavor and aroma, at once bitter and floral, infusing a soft buttery interior with a crispy top.
It’s a snap to make and makes a lovely side for roast chicken, lamb and fish. I love it best on its own, accompanied by a salad for a simple satisfying supper. It is all the more delicious knowing the story behind it.
Crispy Saffron Noodle Cake
If you use a nonstick or well-season cast-iron skillet, you can turn the cake out onto a platter to serve it.
1 large pinch of saffron threads
2 teaspoon hot water
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 garlic clove, halved
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1/2 pound dried egg pasta (about 1/8 inch wide), such as linguine or tagliarini, or 12 ounces fresh pasta
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
12 coriander seeds, coarsely crushed (optional)
Preheat the oven to 475’. Place the saffron in a small bowl and crush to a powder with a teaspoon. Pour the hot water over it and set aside to steep 10 minutes. This will release the saffron’s full flavor.
In a small saucepan, melt the butter over very low heat; add the saffron and its liquid; when the butter starts to bubble remove from the heat. Let sit for 10 minutes.
Rub a 10-inch seasoned cast-iron or nonstick skillet, or 1 ½ quart gratin dish, with the garlic; discard. Let dry 5 minutes. Brush the pan with a little of the saffron butter. If you are using a skillet, sprinkle it with 2 tablespoons of the Parmesan cheese.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Salt well, stir in the pasta and cook until al dente (tender but still slightly firm to the bite). Drain and cool down under cold running water. Drain well and pat dry withpaper towels.
Return the pasta to the pot and toss with the saffron butter; season with salt and pepper and the crushed coriander, if using. Transfer the pasta to the prepared pan and arrange it in an even layer (taking care not to disturb the cheese on the bottom). Press the noodles down lightly and sprinkle the remaining cheese over the top.
Bake the gratin until the top is brown and crusty, 30 to 35 minutes. Let sit a few minutes. If you used a skillet, place a plate over the pan and invert the cake onto it. Then invert the cake onto a platter. Cut into wedges and serve at once.
Photographs of saffron in Spain courtesy of the great Owen Franken, with whom I traveled to Spain to find the story for Saveur. You can view more of his images of the saffron harvest here as well as other work. Thank you deeply, Owen!