I'm Just Mad About Saffron...

In uncertain times, it can be a tremendous source of comfort to continue with life as usual. Though I don't know what I'll be doing come Christmas, I decided it was nevertheless time to start testing cookie recipes for my annual Cookie Bonanza. I have no way of knowing whether I'll have coworkers once again to give them to, or if I'll have to devise a distribution system for giving them solely to friends, but I've done my annual cookie giveaway for each of the past four years, and I didn't want to give up on it now, just because I'm currently out of work.

The only problem is that now, four years into my quest to find the best cookie recipes, I've gotten a little bit jaded. There isn't much terrain left for me to explore, besides in categories that I don't particularly care to delve into. I've never made macaroons, for example, but I hate coconut. Though I have piles of books devoted to cookies, and frequently skim baking websites, it's become increasingly rare that I find any recipes that inspire me.

I did recently come across one such recipe on 101 Cookbooks, a blog that I enjoy reading but seldom cook from, and it went straight to the front of my baking queue. I had to wait a bit, since its non-traditional flavors didn't really seem appropriate to the first baking occasion that arose -- the shiva for Lisa's grandfather. I thought that cookies flavored with saffron and redolent of vanilla might be a little challenging for people in mourning, so I went with the pumpkin chocolate chip bars instead. But with a guest coming over for dinner, it seemed a perfect opportunity to give them a chance.

Though the recipe called them Saffron Vanilla Bean Snickerdoodles, the only thing that the finished cookies have in common with their namesake is their texture. They are soft and a little bit chewy in the center, but they have no cinnamon, the ingredient that I consider to be the defining characteristic of snickerdoodles. That said, despite not being a snickerdoodle in the traditional sense, I rather liked these cookies. The vanilla flavor was pronounced and intense, with beautiful flecks of the real seeds running throughout. The saffron, aside from contributing a glorious yellow color, contributed a compelling earthy aftertaste.

However, I'm afraid that I was the only person who felt that way. While Justin seemed to enjoy them, as did Jess, our dinner guest, the cookies I sent home with her to take to my other former coworkers seemed to go over rather less well according to Jess's report. Though their softness and texture were praised, most people seemed to find the saffron off-putting in a sweet context. I may be a big fan of saffron (enough so that I actually keep the rare spice in my cupboard at all times), but apparently others don't feel the same.

Given how expensive saffron is, not to mention the expense associated with acquiring whole vanilla beans, I'm not sure the recipe would be worth recreating it for the Cookie Bonanza. These cookies may have captured my imagination, and I had hoped they could bring an aura of luxury to my yearly giveaway, but it looks like I'm going to have to keep my eyes peeled for further inspiration this year.

Saffron-Vanilla Bean Snickerdoodles
adapted from 101 Cookbooks

about 30 strands of saffron, to make approximately 1/8 teaspoon ground
1/2 vanilla bean
2 tablespoons milk
2 c. all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 c. unsalted butter
1/2 c. white sugar
1/2 c. brown sugar, packed
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Finely mince the saffron. The finer the powder, the more intense the saffron color and flavor in the cookies.
2. Combine the vanilla pulp, pod, milk, and saffron in a small microwavable bowl, and microwave just until the milk is hot, 20 to 30 seconds. Cover and let steep for about 10 minutes; the milk should have a sunny yellow color.
3. Sift the flour and baking soda into a medium bowl.
4. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter on low speed until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the granulated sugar, brown sugar, and salt and mix on low speed until well combined. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then mix on medium speed until light and fluffy, 4 to 5 minutes.
5. Remove the vanilla pod from the milk, squeezing off any liquid or pulp clinging to it back into the milk. In a medium bowl, combine the milk mixture, egg, and vanilla extract and whisk vigorously until well blended. With the mixer on medium speed, add the egg mixture very slowly, in a steady stream, and mix until well-incorporated and very smooth, about 30 seconds. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then mix on medium speed for 30 more seconds.Scrape down the sides of the bowl, then add the flour mixture. Mix on low speed just until uniform in texture.
6. Using a rubber spatula, scrape the dough out into an airtight container or onto a piece of plastic wrap. Cover the container, or, if using plastic wrap, shape the dough into a rough disk, wrap tightly, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours and up to 5 days.
7. Preheat the oven to 350. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone mat.
8. Roll dough into balls, and place them on the baking sheet, spacing them at least 2 inches apart. Bake for about 16 minutes, until golden but not too dark, rotating the pan midway through the baking time. Ideally, the baked cookies will be tall and slightly undercooked in the center, and will buckle shortly after coming out of the oven. If the cookies don't buckle, don't worry; they'll still be delicious. 9. Let the cookies cool on the pan for 10 minutes before removing. These cookies are best when eaten warm, shortly after they come out of the oven. However, they can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days. Alternatively, the dough can stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days, so consider baking only as many cookies as needed and saving the rest of the dough to bake another day.

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