Monday, October 19, 2015

Microwave Saffron Turkish Delight

One of my friends went to Istanbul earlier this year and brought me back a box of varied sweets. Each cube was a firm jelly either lightly dusted with a white powder or studded with nuts. They were dark in color for the most part, favoring deep reds and greens, and quite tasty. My favorite was the one that tasted like cherry, though I enjoyed them all. There was a cloudy white one that seemed to be coconut as well as a few that were obviously pistachio and walnut; the nuts peppering the edges were a dead giveaway. There were also some that were difficult to reach conclusions about the flavors as they clearly were not common in America, but I can say that I'm certain not one of those delights were saffron-flavored.

Saffron isn't a flavor one usually associates with sweets and my main experience with it is sparingly using those expensive threads with paella that I make for my husband. I have a tiny bottle at present that was given to me as a souvenir of his father's and sister's visit to relatives in Spain a few years ago. When it runs out, I know I'll have to reluctantly pay more per ounce for this spice than I'd pay for gold.

Because of the high price of saffron, and the intensity of the flavor, I was stunned that the New York Times recipe for microwave saffron Turkish delight included a teaspoon of it. That seemed like an enormous quantity by any standard, but then I guess the Times food editors and writers make more money than my family does. As I scanned the recipe, I decided to reduce the amount of saffron and increase the amount of lemon to suit my tastes. I also substituted vanilla extract for vanilla bean because I didn't have any on hand and they are also very expensive. This was a substitution I regretted, and that I'm pretty sure lowered the quality of flavor of the final outcome, but I was already investing enough by using my precious saffron and I didn't want to splash out for a vanilla bean on a recipe that may flop. I've tried to make candy very few times in my life and have rarely experienced success.

You can follow the link above to the Times version of the recipe with instructions (which I followed as they appear), but my ingredients list was as follows:

  • 1 1/4 cups cornstarch (plus more as needed for dusting)
  • 3 cups sugar
  • 1/4 cup corn syrup
  • 1/3 teaspoons saffron threads
  • 3 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar

Though this is a microwave recipe, it is still labor intensive. The use of a microwave over a conventional stove-top cooking method is likely meant to reduce the chances that the candy will burn, not speed up the process. You need to stop at frequent intervals and stir. I used a glass bowl much bigger than required and a silicon spatula. Heed the warning on the instructions to handle the bowl with oven mitts as it will get hot over the long cooking process. The larger bowl makes stirring the thick molten liquid much less dangerous.

Since I rarely make candy and all of my previous attempts were pretty disastrous, I erred on the side of over-cooking rather than under-cooking. I followed the instruction to smear a bit of the mixture on the side of a cold plate, but I found that that it never quite solidified into a soft solid as I expected. I know the plate was cold enough because I kept it in the freezer between tests. After cooking for one more cycle than the maximum amount of time (24 minutes), I concluded that I'd better stop.

When I spread the gel-like mixture into my well-greased pan, it started to solidify pretty rapidly and became impossible to spread evenly. I ended up with an uneven topography of yellow goo. After cooling and freezing, cutting was an adventure as it was extremely tough to get the semi-frozen mixture to pull apart. I was very concerned that the candy was going to end up like ancient gummy bears texture-wise and would pull out my fillings when chewing.

The picture on the New York Times page for the recipe shows bright yellow candy with brilliant threads of red saffron topped by a snowy white dusting. Mine looked like this:

The instructions tell you to store the candy in a a shallow container filled with a mixture of half powdered sugar and half cornstarch. This is the wise way to store them and leaves you with the snowy-looking specimens above. They are not photogenic, but they also aren't sticky. If you attempt to package or display your candy as the Times photo does, it'll stick terribly to the sides of the plastic bag that you artfully place it into.

While the reality isn't pretty, it is extremely tasty. The textural issues that were concerning me did not come to fruition. After the candy had warmed to room temperature, it turned into a pliable, but manageable jelly candy. The texture is, for lack of a better word, delightful. The flavor, despite my reducing the saffron, had plenty of that spice present. If anything, I'd recommend reducing the saffron down to an even smaller amount (1/4 teaspoon, perhaps) and keeping the increased lemon juice amount. The lemon flavor isn't particularly potent and I think that it keeps the candy from being too sweet. The flavors definitely come together to produce something akin to honey without the cloying sweetness or stickiness.

This is a fantastic candy recipe and I would definitely make it again. I'd consider also changing it up with other flavors (such as orange or even anise). However, I wouldn't make it often because it's an enormous amount of work. I think it'd make an excellent holiday recipe or as a special treat for someone who loves jelly candies or Turkish delight. 

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