As it is too early for either daffodils or tulips, crocuses should be the Easter flower this year. Most crocuses are not eaten, but there is one variety which provides one of nature’s most treasured gifts. Saffron is the world’s most expensive herb.

The saffron crocus (Crocus sativus) is not winter-hardy in most of Canada. Even if we could grow it, harvesting it is more work than most of us would care to indulge. In each flower are three stamens which must be hand-picked. Any yellow sheaths which remain attached must be removed. The red stamens are then dried, reducing the weight to about 5,000 stamens per pound.

The bulk wholesale price is about that of gold. When packaged into containers of a few grams each and distributed across the country, the price rises considerably. But a little goes a long, long way.

Savor the golden yellow color and heavenly aroma of saffron in a rich Easter bread. With sweet almond butter, it is a perfect centerpiece for an Easter brunch. Accompany these with steamed asparagus and dill mayonnaise.

SAFFRON BREAD

  • 1 large loaf
  • 25 minute prepartion
  • 9 hours resting and rising
  • 1 hour baking

Making, shaping, and refrigerating the dough the evening before means only baking is required in the morning.

  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 tsp. ( 1/2 gm.) saffron
  • 1/2 cup warm water
  • 1 tbsp. baking yeast
  • 4 cups hard whole-wheat flour
  • 6 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 2/3 cup honey
  • 2/3 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 tsp. salt (none if salted butter used)
  • About 4 cups hard unbleached white¬†flour

Combine milk and saffron in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring to a simmer on medium heat. Combine water and yeast in a small bowl.

Combine flour, eggs (reserving on tablespoon for a glaze), honey, hot saffron milk, and foaming yeast. Beat vigorously until “strings” pull from the side of the bowl (about three minutes). Set in a warm place for one to two hours.

Stir in melted butter, salt and three cups of the white flour. Knead until the dough feels elastic (about eight minutes), incorporating only enough additional flour to prevent the dough from clumping to your hands.

Divide dough into four equal parts. Roll three of them into strands about one inch in diameter. Press the ends of each of these together and loosely braid – left to the centre, right to the centre, left to the centre, etc. Press the other ends together. Divide the remaining dough into thirds and braid these. Lay the small braid over the large one.

Brush remaining beaten eggs onto top, trying to keep away from the seams. Lift onto a baking sheet. Keep in refrigerator overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degreesF. Put cool loaf in oven. Bake until golden (about one hour). Cool slightly before serving with almond butter.

ALMOND BUTTER

  • 2 cups
  • 15 minutes preparation
  • 5 minutes baking

This spread makes any bread a special one.

  • 1 cup unblanched almonds¬†cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup honey
  • 1 tbsp. brandy, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degreesF. Bake almonds on a baking sheet until aromatic (about five minutes). Shred with a fine blade or chop into very fine pieces.

Knead toasted and shredded almonds with butter, honey and brandy. Put into small serving bowl. Chill.

STEAMED ASPARAGUS

  • 8 servings
  • 10 minutes preparation

In some parts of the world, spring is already well on its way. This celebratory dinner is a good time to indulge in imported asparagus dipped in a rich sauce.

  • 2 kg asparagus

Cut off the tough base of each stalk, usually the bottom inch or two. If the skin cannot be easily pierced by a fingernail, peel the lower half of each stalk with a vegetable peeler.

Stand the stalks in a tall pot. Put about half inch water in the bottom. Steam on high heat until bright green (about five minutes).

Serve right away in a stack or fanned out on a platter. If they cannot be served immediately, rinse in cold water and serve cold.

It’s not the North American practice, but it is proper etiquette to eat asparagus with your hands. Dip spears into dill hollandaise.

DILL HOLLANDAISE

  • 1 cup
  • 10 minutes preparation

The aroma of fresh dill always reminds me of spring. It adds an appropriate flavor to this special sauce.

  • 3 egg yolks
  • 1 tbsp. water
  • 1/2 cup butter, cut into
  • 1/4 inch cubes
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh dill leaves
  • 2 tbsps. lemon juice
  • 1/8 tsp. salt (none if salted butter used)
  • Pinch cayenne

In a small saucepan on low heat, whisk together egg yolks and water. When about the consistency you want the sauce (about two minutes), whisk in the butter, a few cubes at a time. Continue until all butter has melted.

Remove from heat and whisk in dill, lemon juice, salt and cayenne.

Serve right away in a heavy pre-warmed bowl. It can be kept warm in a warm water bath for up to one hour.