Sparkling Saffron Cocktail
With Spanish Cava
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Sometimes a recipe reveals itself to you. That’s always fun – a flash of inspiration, things click, and you know just what you’ll do. This is not one of those recipes. This is the opposite of that. This is a recipe that starts out with an ingredient and the simplest thread of an idea, forcing you to carefully concoct a plan and assemble all of the pieces. In this case, the ingredient that I started with was was quite literally a thread – saffron.
I’ve experimented with saffron on-and-off over the years, but I think I’m finally hooked now. It’s an ingredient with a potent and utterly unique flavour that warrants careful consideration. As is often the case with strong and distinctive ingredients, you have to tread a thin line when it comes to flavour pairings; weak or subtle tastes won’t stand up to the saffron, while bold and powerful flavours run the risk of masking, overwhelming, or clashing with it. I often take a trial-and-error approach to this kind of thing, but in this case I took a rather more academic and sensory approach. I’ve been reading an incredible cocktail book called The Bar Chef by Frankie Solarik, and it really got me thinking about this drink (and all cocktails) from a complete sensory perspective. The importance is of taste is still paramount, but the scent and even the texture of the ingredients guided me almost as much when I developed this recipe. The saffron takes center stage in a simple syrup, but it shares some of the spotlight with fragrant green cardamom (another classically pricey spice). Acidity and bitterness balance the heady floral sweetness, and these come from fresh-squeezed grapefruit juice. Sparkling Spanish Cava (a wine made using the same in-bottle fermentation that characterizes champagne) brings a dry, somewhat fruity flavour to mix, along with an effervescent texture. I was pretty happy with this combination, but I wanted to do something else to really bring the cocktail to life. For that, I turned to another flower – rose. Rosewater is a wonderful ingredient, but it’s very easy to overuse. The smallest amount has the ability to make food and drink evoke memories of soap. Your grandma’s soap, to be specific. So, with The Bar Chef fresh in my mind, I decided to focus only on the scent. Rosewater makes the subtlest of appearances in the liquid used to soak and sugar the rim. It appears and lingers for only a moment before the tastes and textures of the cocktail take over.
On Saffron & Inspiration
From a modern culinary perspective, saffron is a funny thing. It’s well known even to those who don’t cook very often, and yet it evokes an aura of complex, exotic and expensive cuisine. On top of that, it’s not exactly the most obvious of ingredients when it comes to its use in the kitchen. It’s ostensibly a spice, but it doesn’t really look like (or get used like) any other spice in the cupboard. I think that many cooks and even professional chefs shy away from saffron because of the complexity (and again, expense) it brings to mind. But in order to really understand (and love) saffron, you need to experience it. It lends a brilliant yellow colour to foods, but it’s really the flavour that’s unmistakable. It’s never easy to describe flavours, and that’s doubly true for saffron. It tastes… well, like saffron. Unsatisfying, I know – but that’s exactly why you need to give it a shot. And given that I just scored 5g of premium Spanish saffron for free (!) you’ll probably see more of it around here soon. A little goes a long way, so I’ve got lots to experiment with.
While I love the flavour of saffron, it was actually botany that planted the seed for this recipe in my mind (#Iseewhatyoudidthere). Every few months, I participate in a little blogging collaboration called Connecting Over Cocktails (more on that below). We pick a theme, develop new cocktail recipes, and all post at the same time (check out the links at the bottom of the page for more information). This time around, we decided to embrace spring and think floral. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest for about 5 years now, and I’ve gotten pretty hooked on the sudden floral explosion that accompanies a Vancouver spring. Witch hazel, cherry trees, hyacinth, daffodils and more all make very early appearances around here. Having grown up in a much colder part of Canada, I’m always pretty pleased by this, and I figured that I’d have all kinds of inspiration for this cocktail. As luck would have it, we’ve had an unseasonably cool and rather rainy/snowy spring around here, and everything is way, WAY behind, leaving me a feeling a bit blasé – not to mention spoiled (I realize I’m not getting much sympathy from my frozen compatriots in the rest of the country). Luckily one beautiful and tenacious little plant has managed to erupt from our damp black soil – crocus. Crocus is a beautiful little flower, and in some parts of the world it will bloom while there’s still snow on the ground, making it one of our earliest harbingers of spring. It’s also the source of saffron, the world’s most expensive spice.
Now before I accidentally set off a foraging gold rush, I should point out that the crocus that grows here (or, in all likelihood, anywhere near you) is not the same crocus that yields saffron. The saffron crocus, Crocus sativus, is a fall-flowering plant that’s unknown in the wild. It’s triploid, meaning that it has three copies of every chromosome – the same genetic feature that gives us seedless bananas and watermelons. This also means that it can’t reproduce by seed, and that the plant has been entirely dependent on humans growing, dividing, and spreading the roots (called corms) for literally thousands of years. The spice itself is the dried red stamen of the flower, and it can only be reliably harvested by hand. All of this makes saffron a rather unusual and incredibly labour-intensive spice – a fact that’s reflected by its often astronomical price tag. Prices vary depending on source and quality, but $10 (US) per gram is not unusual. That’s about 5 times the price of silver, and about 1/4 the price of pure gold. This means that saffron has always had a certain luxury status, and that it has been used in a very deliberate way. Oddly enough, saffron replacements, adulterated saffron, and moderately priced (but lower grade) saffron have all become common enough that more attention seems to be placed on the colour than the flavour in many circles, but I think that this cocktail can convince anyone that the slender red stamens’ true appeal is for the palate.
Alright, let’s talk about making these bad boys. I’ve given pretty detailed instructions in the recipe section below, but it never hurts to cover a few extra points. Let me also go on the record to say that, while I may have mentioned a pretty hardcore cocktail book above AND used some less familiar ingredients, this is actually a very easy cocktail to make. No fancy equipment needed, and no complicated steps involved. If you make the simple syrup ahead of time, you can make one of these in about 2 minutes.
So… is this expensive?
Let’s get to this one right off the bat. This cocktail sure seems fancy-shmancy, but it’s not going to break the bank. Yes, saffron is expensive – but you’re using what amounts to about 0.2 grams – about 2 bucks worth. And that makes WAY more syrup than you’ll need for this recipe alone (see quantities below). Green cardamom has historically been an expensive spice, but it’s not going to break the bank these days. Spanish sparkling Cava is made using the same fermented-in-bottle process as Champagne, but it remains one of the wine world’s best deals. The bottle I used for this retails for around $14 (CAD) in my neck of the woods, and it’s a wonderful wine and a fantastic value. Even if you don’t take the extra syrup you’ll end up with into account, these are only going to cost about $3 per glass, and that’s erring on the high side.
Saffron – Go for the best stuff you can find (and don’t buy too much unless you plan on doing a lot of saffron recipes, or you have money to burn). Good saffron can be found from many regions around the world, including (but not limited to) Spain, Iran, Pakistan, and Italy. Avoid powdered saffron, as it is frequently adulterated with other ingredients. DO NOT use a saffron replacement like turmeric or sassafras; these ingredients replicate saffron in terms of colour, but not in terms of flavour. Annoyingly, sassafras flowers are sometimes sold as ‘American saffron,’ which is wildly misleading. Basically, if the price seems too good to be true – it is.
Green Cardamom – Whole cardamom pods are increasingly found in a variety of markets, but Indian grocery stores are probably your best bet for fresh and relatively inexpensive stuff. Make sure you’re using whole pods, and not the small black seeds alone. Don’t use ground cardamom either; the flavour of pre-ground cardamom fades fast, it’ll be difficult to figure out how much to use, AND it will be hard to strain out of the syrup. Don’t use black cardamom – it’s a great ingredient, but it’s heady medicinal flavour will not work here.
Cava – A delightful sparkling wine from Spain, I went with cava because of the Spanish connection to saffron, because I like it, and because it’s a phenomenally priced wine given the great quality and flavour. I used a brut (fairly dry) cava. Sweet and semi-sweet varieties are available, but I personally think they’d be too sugary for this cocktail. If you can’t find cava, champagne, prosecco, or another dry sparkling white wine will work.
Rosewater – Rosewater is often available at well-stocked grocery stores, but you’ll definitely find it at Indian and Middle Eastern grocery stores. Make sure you measure carefully, and don’t overdo it, as a little bit of rosewater goes a very long way.
Grapefruit – Red grapefruit works well for the colour here, but I think you’d be fine with white as well. In a pinch, you could substitute pure grapefruit juice as long as it’s not sweetened, but the freshly squeezed stuff tends to have a bit more of the bitterness that really helps make the sweet ingredients pop.
There are two important things to note here: first, the recipe makes far more simple syrup than you need, and second, the recipe is for 6 cocktails. Here’s why:
Simple Syrup – I deliberately chose to make a fairly large quantity of simple syrup for a couple of reasons. First, because you’re dealing with relatively small amounts of saffron, it’s tough to scale it down much further. Second, it keeps really well in the fridge (for up to 6 months), and it makes wonderful drinks, including non-alcoholic ones. I’m currently drinking some with a little club soda and some blood orange juice. It’s perfect. That being said, if you’re looking to but back a bit, you could probably halve the recipe and still be alright, though you may find the saffron a little stronger or weaker – after all, ‘half a pinch’ is a tough measurement to approximate.
6 Cocktails – I normally give instructions and information for a single cocktail, but given that cava is a sparkling product and that one bottle makes 6 cocktails, I decided to assume that you’d be making that many. If you’re making more, you won’t need extra syrup (see the note immediately above). If you’re making less, seek out a sparkling wine stopper at a liquor store so that your extra cava won’t go flat in the fridge.
While it won’t have the exact same character as the original, a non-alcoholic sparkling wine or even simple club soda can be used to create a very lovely alcohol-free cocktail.
Connecting Over Cocktails
As I mentioned above, this cocktail was part of a collaboration with a wonderful group of Canadian food bloggers. Each of us has published a new drink today*, and I’m happy to tell you a bit about all of them here. I hope you’ll check out their drinks, and their sites – these people are incredibly talented, and I’m happy to call them my colleagues, and my friends. Here are the amazing floral- and/or spring-inspired cocktails they’ve dreamed up:
Samantha from My Kitchen Love (who is new to our group, and all-around awesome) has gifted the world a Rhubarb Pisco Sour.
Meaghan from Un Assagio (also new to our group, and also awesome) has a superb sounding Rose Julep.
Jared at The Hesitant Chef brings us his Hopped White Lady, which is a kickin’ drink, and not a particularly springy WASP.
Justine from Justine Celina brings us a glorious Coastal Orange Blossom Gin Cocktail.
Jen from Mud On Her Boots has a delightfully named Lavender Orange Bees Knees.
Dana at Killing Thyme has a gorgeous Spiked Hibiscus Tea
Taylor from The Girl on Bloor has a refreshing Cucumber Basil Gin Fizz.
There you have it! May your April showers bring flowers in the garden – and the kitchen.
Til next time – Cheers.
*due to time zones and the vagaries of life, some posts might be up a little later in the day than others. Check back!
Note: Nutritional information is given for a single cocktail.
No ingredient pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
No pantry pages have been written yet for any of the ingredients in this recipe. Like to see one? Let me know in the comments below or by email.
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Saffron-cardamom simple syrup, grapefruit juice, a rose-scented sugar rim, and brut sparkling cava make for a unique, elegant, yet surprisingly simple cocktail.
- 1 pinch saffron (about 0.2 g)
- 200 ml hot water
- 4 g green cardamom pods (about 1 tsp or 16 pods)
- 50 ml cold water
- 250 g sugar (about 1 cup)
- 15 ml red grapefruit juice (1 tbsp) freshly squeezed
- 7.5 ml saffron-cardamom syrup (1/2 tbsp)
- 2.5 ml rose water (1/2 tsp)
- granulated sugar (enough for each glass)
- 125 ml sparkling Cava or other dry sparkling wine, chilled.
- 30 ml red grapefruit juice (about 1 large grapefruit) divided (see also "Glass Rim" above)
- 15 ml saffron-cardamom syrup
- twists or slivers grapefruit zest to garnish
(Optional but recommended) Wrap the saffron in a small square of aluminum foil, then toast in a hot pan or oven for about 1 minute. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.
Lightly crush the saffron threads (e.g. with a mortar and pestle) and place into a small container. Pour hot water over the saffron, then loosely cover the liquid and set it aside, ideally for about 4 hours (see note).
Lightly crush the cardamom pods with a mortar and pestle in order to break them up into pieces. Place the cardamom in a small saucepan along with the liquid from the saffron (you can filter out the saffron threads now or later), cold water, and the sugar. Heat the mixture on the stove top, stirring frequently to dissolve the sugar. Once the mixture is simmering gently, remove it from heat and let it stand for 30 minutes.
Pour the simple syrup through a fine strainer to remove the cardamom and saffron solids. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to a month.
Squeeze enough red grapefruit to yield about 200 ml (a little over 3/4 cup) of juice. Two medium sized grapefruit should do the job. Pour the juice through a fine strainer in order to remove any pith or pulp. Set 15 ml (1 tbsp) aside for the rims, and chill the rest of the juice for the cocktails.
Before preparing the drinks, combine the liquids soaking the glass rims in a small flat dish or bowl. In a separate bowl, pour a small quantity of granulated sugar (enough to cover the glass rims - you can always add a little extra if you run low).
Prepare 6 champagne flutes by dipping the rims into the soaking liquid, then into the granulated sugar. Set them aside.
To each cocktail, add 15 ml (1/2 oz) of simple syrup and 30 ml (1 oz) grapefruit juice. Top up each glass with about 125 ml (1/2 cup or 4.2 oz) of chilled sparkling Cava. Garnish with grapefruit zest and serve immediately.
Four hours is generally considered to be a good amount of time to extract the maximum amount of flavour, but if you're pressed for time, simply steep it for as long as you can manage (ideally no less than 15-20 minutes). The flavour may not be as rich or complex, but it will still capture the unique taste and aroma of saffron.