This tradition is said to have started more than 2,000 years ago when traders from the Middle East exchanged saffron for Cornish tin. Saffron is the world's most expensive spice by weight and, nowadays, it is often replaced with egg colour but, because a little saffron goes a long way, it is not as expensive as you might think. The spice also brings a subtle astringent flavour and the orange filaments look good in the finished cake.
The recipe below comes from Elizabeth Craig's 1936 book, Cookery Illustrated and Household Management. The recipe uses a very old-fashioned technique, taking a piece of dough, and adding fruit, sugar butter and spices to make a cake. The saffron water makes the dough very wet and the original recipe does not add any extra flour but, depending on how slack your original dough is, you will probably want to add some. Tested by Nick Anderson, the baker at Redbournberry Mill, the final cake has a close texture and a rich spicy taste.
Makes approximately 20 x 1lb/450g loaves
200 strands/about 10 good pinches of saffron
9 floz/240ml boiling water
10 lb/4.5kg white bread dough
Approximately 2½lb/1.2kg strong white flour
2½lb/1.2kg caster sugar
2 ½lb/1.2kg mixed peel
1/6oz 5g ground allspice
2 ½lb/1.2kg currants
2 ½ lb/1.2kg butter
1. Put the saffron in boiling water and stand in a warm place for at least 15 minutes until the water is dark yellow.
2. Mix the saffron water and strands into the dough.
3. Work the currants, peel, and allspice into the dough.
4. Add the extra flour now to make a workable dough.
5. Melt the butter and work in.
6. Shape the dough and let it prove for 30 minutes. It will not rise very much.
7. Bake for 30 minutes at 375?F/190?C.
8. Glaze as they come out of the oven.
=== Did you know? ===
? Saffron comes from the stigma of the saffron crocus (Crocus Sativus) and each flower produces just three threads of saffron, which are gathered by hand
? Saffron can be grown in Britain but most saffron now comes from Iran, Greece, Morocco, Spain and Kashmir
? The town of Saffron Walden in Essex owes its name to the spice