Ask Peter: A golden glow
We have set a gold theme for a 50th birthday party and would like to run this through the food and drink menu somehow — any thoughts on how we could do it, outside the gold leaf that is being applied liberally to the cake? We are a bit stuck on yellow foods and it’s not terribly exciting. Deanna
Gold, saffron, safflower and turmeric. All shades of yellow through orange and gold of course, but gold leaf really is the only true gold, and as you’re putting some on the cake that’s covered then. I guess you want to avoid garish bright neon yellows (food colouring nightmares from childhood) but lots of shades in this spectrum would make for a gorgeous colour palate.
I’m not sure if you’re familiar with safflower — often sold as cheat’s saffron. Safflower is grown commercially mainly for its seeds which produce good volumes of oil, but the flower of this thistly plant has been used forever to dye clothing, and food, and the flowers range in colour from pale yellow to a deep red-orange. I’ve bought it in Istanbul at the spice bazaar and more than once have stopped a gullible tourist from paying an extortionate price for it, thinking it was saffron. It’s actually cheap as chips in comparison. Safflower threads are great in rice dishes, breads and cakes, simmered with cream and English mustard and mashed into potatoes. Unlike saffron which has a really strong taste, safflower is more for colouring and you could do something lovely with it at the party.
Saffron is one of those spices that really must be used in moderation. The best quality saffron is something you only need the tiniest amount of, and a generous flourish can actually ruin a dish. Saffron threads, which are the stigma and style of a crocus, vary enormously in quality, with those from Iran and Spain self-proclaiming to be the best. I’ve been using New Zealand-grown saffron for years now in my New Zealand restaurants and these huge plump threads are fabulous to cook with and colour food. Use in rice dishes from pilaf to risotto (and even old fashioned rice pudding with pistachios and sultanas added); braised chicken pieces on the bone with preserved lemons, diced potatoes and chickpeas; add it to pasta dough as we do at The Sugar Club for our creamy dashi crayfish linguine; and icecreams and sauces can all benefit from this lovely spice — used sparingly.
When using saffron or safflower threads you’ll get a better result if you soak them in warm water before adding to a dish. Make sure any of the threads and all of the colour that will seep out ends up in the recipe itself. So if you’re soaking saffron for a risotto, rinse the dish with warm stock, adding that to the rice so it doesn’t go down the drain. You can also buy saffron powder, which is much cheaper than threads. It’s a by-product, made from threads that aren’t quite up to scratch.
Turmeric is another flavoursome spice, whether fresh or powdered. Popular in Indian and Middle Eastern cooking, I like to use it for its earthy flavours in meat stews and also in soups where the colour and flavour enhance other ingredients — think pumpkin, carrots and even chilled tomato gazpacho, and of course a Thai-style coconut curry. Just be warned, when prepping fresh turmeric make sure you wear gloves or your hands will be stained for days!
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org and keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.