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In the center of a low-growing purple crocus (crocus sativus) are three orange stigma. These stigma are the most cherished of all spices, saffron. Its exorbitant price is justified when you consider that the stigma must be picked by hand, and it takes approximately 75,000 stigma to make 1 pound of saffron.

Luckily, it doesn’t take much saffron to color and flavor your food. One or two strands, carefully steeped in liquid, can infuse a whole pot of rice with its dry, floral aroma.

Nonbelievers soon discover that too much of a good thing is bitter and unpleasant.

Saffron is used throughout Europe and the Middle East. It’s grown in India, Iran, and Spain as well as Mexico. The Spanish government oversees a grading system, but no such system exists in Iran or India. Still, the quality is high and connoisseurs can judge the quality, country of origin, and even territory by flavor and aroma.

Often the saffron color is simulated by the use of turmeric, safflower, or marigold, but the sweet and pungent flavor cannot be duplicated.

When buying saffron, look for a vibrant red color. The older it gets, the closer to brown it becomes. Saffron is harvested in late fall, and good suppliers will date their product. Saffron keeps well, but don’t pay too much for a batch that’s obviously old. Old saffron is dry and brittle, so avoid a batch with a lot of broken pieces at the bottom of the jar.

When I use saffron, I toast it quickly in a dry skillet (just for a few seconds…it burns pretty quick), let it cool, then crumble it into a warm liquid to steep before adding it to a recipe.

The low-cholesterol oil of the safflower (carthamus tinctorius), extracted from its seeds, is the most common use of this thistle-like herb today. But historically it was grown as a dye, both for food and textiles. Its shaggy orange flowers look a lot like saffron to the uninitiated, so beware. Disreputable vendors have been known to try and fool the consumer. If you fall victim, you’ll know right away, as the flavor of safflower is practically nonexistent.
Saffron crocus

Easter Kulich

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I am ready for Easter. I have the Peeps, the Cadbury Eggs, and the Star Wars Egg Dying Kit. Seriously, if you happen to pass by a Star Wars Egg Dying Kit how can you NOT buy it?

Next on the list is the Kulich. No one in the family is Russian, but my boss at Zola’s in SF asked me to make it once 20 years ago and I fell in love with it. Who could resist bread with saffron, rum, dried fruits, nuts, and citrus zest? Not me.

Bread is a symbolic, holy food in many cultures, and it is not uncommon to see the addition of eggs both in the dough, or baked into the loaves still in their shell. We see eggs at Easter (not usually decorated with Star Wars stickers) because the egg is an ancient symbol of re-birth and spring. Eggs are also a food traditionally forbidden during Lent. Even today, orthodox communities abstain from all animal products during this holy time of year, then let loose on Easter and make up for lack of these foods in one fell swoop.

This Russian Easter bread is tall and regal, and is commonly served with Pashka, a molded sweet cheese studded with still more fruits. If you are short on #10 cans, bake this dough in two traditional loaf pans.


1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dark raisins
1/2 cup dark rum
1 cup milk, warmed
2-3 threads saffron
1/2 teaspoon granulated sugar
3-1/2 teaspoons (2 packages) active dry yeast
4 egg yolks
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 vanilla bean, scraped
1/4 cup skin-on almonds, toasted and chopped
1/4 cup candied citrus zest
Grated zest and juice of 2 lemons
4-6 cups bread flour
2 cups powdered sugar, sifted


  1. Combine raisins and rum and set aside to plump overnight.
  2. Combine warmed milk and saffron, and set aside for 10 minutes. Add sugar, yeast, stir to dissolve, and let stand 10 minutes, until foamy.
  3. Add soaked raisins and liquid, egg yolks, butter, salt, vanilla bean, almonds, candied zest, grated zest (reserve juice), and enough bread flour to make a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured work surface and knead 8-10 minutes, until smooth and elastic. Add flour only as needed to reduce stickiness. Return to bowl, dust with flour, cover with plastic, and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in volume, about 1-1/2 hours.
  4. Use a church key can opener to make three holes in the bottom of a #10 can. Coat the can with pan spray, and line the sides with a cylinder of parchment paper. Turn risen dough out onto a floured surface and shape into an oblong loaf. Place end-first into prepared can, cover loosely with plastic, and set aside to proof for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 350˚F.
  5. Bake until golden brown and hollow sounding, about 45-60 minutes. Cool 10 minutes, remove loaf from the can, and cool completely on a rack.
  6. Combine powdered sugar with lemon juice and a pinch of salt, and beat until smooth and creamy. Add more sugar or a touch of water as needed. Drizzle icing onto the top of the cooling loaf, and let it drip down the sides. Decorate the top of the iced loaf as they do in the Baltics, with candied fruits.