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Food And Drink : Cornish Classic Recipes : Saffron Cake

Saffron Cake

Continuing in my project to discover the dishes that make our county great, and armed with my ancient copy of ‘Favourite Cornish Recipes’, it’s on to round 2- Saffron Cake.
A lifelong favourite of mine, it has always been the perfect partner for a pot of tea and a good natter.
The distinctive ‘Saffron’, which lends a vibrant golden colour is an ingredient to be reckoned with. Currently worth more gram for gram than gold itself, Saffron is the dried stamen from the beautiful crocus flower, and the hand picking, limited time frame nature of its harvest has made it a premium spice attracting an equally premium price.

Saffron Cake Saffron Cake - Picture 1 Saffron Cake - Picture 2

It is thought it first made its way into Kernow some 2000 years ago, when Middle Eastern traders exchanged it for our precious metal, tin. Being a real delicacy, it was used for special occasion cakes, most commonly around Easter and Christmas. The cakes would be baked on Christmas Eve, and every guest would be given a piece, before everyone was invited to take a bite of someone else’s piece to symbolise friendship. Sounds lovely, but I’m not so willing to share.
For me, it conjures up memories of my childhood, when it was a real tea-time cake enjoyed with my pure delight. And my preferred serving method? It has been and always will be best enjoyed spread incredibly thick with good Cornish butter.
It has been a stalwart of ours for many years, originating here and long may it live on. Any good bakers in the county will have some to offer, made with love and care.
So, to the recipe. Knowing Saffron’s price tag and rarity, it is no surprise that isn’t too easy to track down. I managed to get some of Spain’s finest from the lovely Relish Food and Drink in Wadebridge.

The first stage of my recipe is to steep the delicate strands in boiled water to release the colour and flavour. This water will also serve to bind my dough, as it is to all intents and purposes the same principles as bread making. It can be made into individual buns or, as my recipe states, a loaf.
After assembling all my ingredients, it’s down to it. I mix my flour, salt, nutmeg and butter into a breadcrumb like texture, before adding ‘easy’ yeast (my favourite type) along with my mixed fruity bits. Then the Saffron water goes into the centre, before getting my hands dirty and forming a firm dough. Its time for your digits to get a work out and a 10 minute kneading session should do the trick. This of course gets air into the mix and stretches the all important gluten. After rising in the airing cupboard, it’s kneaded again, then into the tin and back for another warm rest with my washing. The oven does its work, and mine is done. The golden result sings out to be eaten, and the smell in my house is worth bottling I can tell you.

So, does it live up to the memories frozen in my brain from my early years? It excels, not necessarily because of my efforts (which are debatable), but because now I am old enough to see what the fuss is about. The sweet moist fruit, intense shade of yellow and soft texture take me right back to the bakery in Polperro all those years ago. We have got a lot of foods to shout about, and this is one of them. Thick cold butter and a good brew make it a real joy. As always, when you bake something yourself, it means more to you than something from a plastic bag, but this is one that is really worth the work. You cannot only take a homely smugness from your housewife efforts, but also uphold the tradition of everyone tasting your efforts….if you’re willing to share that is.


 1 tsp Saffron strands
1-2 teaspoons boiling water
1 lb strong flour
½ tsp salt
½ tsp ground nutmeg
6 oz soft butter
2 sachets ‘easy blend’ yeast
3 oz sugar
6 oz currants
2 oz chopped candied peel
6 fl.oz lukewarm milk


1. Steep the saffron in the boiled water, and grease a 2lb loaf tin.
2. Sift the flour, salt and nutmeg into a bowl, then rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs.
3. Add yeast, currants and peel and mix well. Make a well in the centre and add the saffron water and enough of the milk to work into a soft dough. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for 10 minutes.
4. Put into a clean bowl, cover and leave somewhere warm to rise.
5. When risen, knead again, and put into the loaf tin. Leave somewhere warm to prove again.
6. Set oven to 190c, and bake for about 40 minutes, then reduce oven to 170c and bake for a further 20 minutes, until golden and an inserted skewer comes out clean.
7. Turn out onto a wire rack and leave to cool.