When we sit down at the table to eat, it sometimes seems as though we’re sitting down with our childhood memories and the ghosts of generations past. Doesn’t food do that to all of us? Dishes that you grew up with, recipes that your grandmother learned from her mother, the aroma of certain foods that evoke a powerful memory…
I was thinking about that last week as I made two desserts with my kids: Persian Rice Cookies and Saffron Pudding. The rose water, cardamom, and saffron… such distinct aromas and flavors…
Do you have foods that connect you to your family, remind you of your childhood, or even seem to define a little bit of who you are?
One of the main features of Iranian New Year is a very elaborate and beautiful ceremonial haft sinn table filled with all kinds of symbolic items such as sprouts (new life), coins (prosperity), garlic (medicine), apples (beauty), and so forth. It’s a score of elements drawing from ancient Zoroastrian concepts of good and evil, death and birth, dark and light…very Star Wars-y.
I always liked this ceremonial table – it’s one of the things I’ve retained from my early childhood in Iran, where I lived from when I was one until I was nine.
Although both my parents were Iranian, they had both attended college in the US and continued to travel extensively. I attended an American school in Tehran, listened to the Beatles and Maurice Sendak recordings, and was often glued to a TV set watching episodes of Underdog and The Waltons (believe me, it was a different Iran back then). I begged any visitors to the US to bring me back a pack of Bubble Yum, and I envied the American kids at school who ate sandwiches on fascinatingly white and fluffy Wonder Bread.
When we fled to the US in 1979, it wasn’t a stretch to embrace the culture I already knew so much about. It wasn’t until many, many years later that I started to appreciate the culture I had left behind. I’m always surprised at the things that bring vivid memories rushing back – the smell of saffron and rose water, the scent of juniper bushes (ahh, the beaches at the Caspian Sea), steamed Basmati rice, and the smell of hyacinths on the haft sinn table.
So the haft sinn table was something I started assembling years ago, slowly working my way to a complete table. Lately it is truly at the prompting of my kids who grab a hyacinth at Trader Joe’s and raid the cupboards searching for the other ingredients.
They also request Persian Rice Cookies and Saffron Pudding. I love that my kids enjoy these dishes too and that they can get a taste of my childhood and culture past. I’m not sure what every kid thinks of Persian Rice Cookies or Saffron Pudding, but I am always beaming when they both rave about how much they like it. Rosewater and saffron can be acquired tastes when used in desserts, but I think every Middle Easterner has a little bit of each coursing through their veins. These two sweets were inspired by Iranian New Year, Nowruz, which always falls on the first day of spring. I have always thought that it’s a great day to celebrate a new year and new beginnings.
- 2 1/4 cups white rice flour
- 1 egg yolk
- 3/4 cup powdered sugar
- 1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened at room temp
- 1 tsp cardamom
- 1/4 cup rosewater
- poppy seeds
- Preheat the oven to 350°. Line a cookie sheet with a Silpat; otherwise, oil the cookie sheet and line with wax paper.
- In a bowl, beat together the egg, sugar, and butter.
- Add the rice flour and cardamom to the mixture and start to combine into a dough. Drizzle in the rosewater and work it in. Add more flour if necessary to result in a dough that does not stick to your hands. Don’t over handle the dough because of the butter- if you do and starts to get really soft, stick it in a plastic bag and put it in the fridge for 20 minutes.
- Take pieces of dough and roll into a ball the size of a large egg yolk. Place it on the cookie sheet. Repeat until sheet is filled. Using a thimble (none in this house!) or a small cap (that I can find!) make patterns on top of the cookies. Sprinkle with poppy seeds.
- Bake the cookies for about 15 minutes. The cookies should be white when they are done – if they are browning on the edges, take them out right away.
- Cool the cookies completely before attempting to remove them (They will fall apart when warm so don’t mess around with them until they cool!)
Rice flour can be found at nearly any grocery nowadays (try places like Whole Foods). I used the rice flour from Bobs Red Mill or Arrowhead Mills which are both very popular lines. If you have access to a middle eastern grocery store, you’ll find more finely ground rice flour there which is better for this recipe. I like the graininess of rice flour, personally, so I don’t mind using a slightly coarser flour. While you’re at your middle eastern grocer, pick up a bottle of rosewater. When you buy rosewater, you want distilled rosewater, not diluted rose oil – check the label. At middle eastern stores, you’ll find the right one.
- 1 cup rice (I used basmati)
- 8 cups water
- 1 cup sugar
- 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 1 tsp Spanish Saffron threads (half the jar sold at TJ’s) (or use 1/2 tsp ground saffron)
- 1 tsp ground cardamom
- 1/2 cup rose water
- Garnish: cinnamon, almonds, or pistachios
- Rinse the rice in water and drain. Repeat.
- Add the rice and 8 cups water to a pot and bring to a boil. Simmer covered for about 20-25 minutes until the rice has absorbed much of the water and is kind of soupy.
- Add the sugar, butter, saffron, cardamom, and rose water. Stir well and simmer covered for an additional 30-40 minutes, stirring occasionally to release the saffron and keep the mixture consistent. Add 1 cup water if needed to keep the consistency pourable.
- Once the mixture has thickened to a pourable creamy pudding consistency, pour into a large bowl or individual serving bowls/ramekins. (If it still seems too watery, just simmer for a few minutes with the lid off.)
- Cool on the counter until pudding is at room temperature and then chill in the fridge for an hour. The pudding will thicken. Decorate if desired, before serving.
The recipe uses rose water which can be found at any Middle Eastern grocer. Make sure it is distilled rose water, not the diluted rose oil that you might find in some natural food stores…that won’t work well in cooking. Rose water is also fabulous in drinks and spritzers, so give it a try if you can find it.