Today is NoRuz, Persian New Year. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a few NoRuz celebrations with Mr. Sugar Mamma’s Iranian family. They are wonderful events, with lots food and gifts for the kids. Every year I swear we are going to celebrate Persian New Year with a big party. It has not happened yet.
Around Christmas time, as I slog through the stores looking for gifts and feeling like a failure, I dream of giving up on Christmas altogether and celebrating Persian New Year instead. Gifts for kids and envelopes full of cash, tons of Persian food & family. What is not to like. No Santa Claus, no hype. But I grew up with Christmas & could never give it up. I would love the kids to grow up with this tradition. I want to make it my own, yet I get intimidated trying to pull off something I have no background in.
Every so often we have people over for dinner. I always dread the work cleaning and cooking leading up to said dinner. But at the end of the night I find I’ve enjoyed myself, despite my fears of inadequacy. Every single time I declare, “We need to do this again, we need to have a party for Persian New Year!” And every year March 19, there is absolutely nothing going on at my house to celebrate.
Until this year. There is no party, there are no gifts, but there is a cake that I made last night that captures all the flavors of Persian New Year for me. Toasted Walnut and Pistachio Saffron Cake.
One of my most favorite Persian dishes is Fesenjoon. It is chicken cooked in a sauce of ground walnuts and pomegranate syrup. The combo of savory and sweet is heavenly. The finely ground walnuts are toasted first in a pan on the stove top. Stirring them and watching them slowly brown and release that nutty warm aroma is almost therapeutic. You can’t multi task, you can’t walk away; all you can do is stir and watch and smell and daydream. So for my cake I toasted the walnuts, even though the recipe did not call for it. I also added pistachio, because I can not think of a single Persian sweet that does not involve pistachios.
The flavor is strongly saffron, which reminds me of, well, everything Persian. Rich and buttery, it would be fabulous with the addition of some orange zest, or maybe an orange glaze. It would also benefit from the addition of some dried apricots or raisins, ingredients in another of my all time favorite Persian dishes.
Toasted Walnut and Pistachio Saffron Bundt Cake
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1 cup granulated white sugar
1/2 cup light brown sugar, packed
4 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons brandy
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 cup whole milk
1 pinch saffron threads
2.5 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon Kosher salt
1/2 cup walnut meal or finely ground walnuts
Confectioner’s sugar for decorating (optional)
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and your Bundt pan by buttering and flouring, or use a baking spray to coat. I used mini bundt pans, and I think they would also make great muffins. The top (which also ends up being the bottom of the bundt cake is the best part, crisp brown and buttery. Also probably good as a tea cake baked in a loaf pan.
Finely chop or process in a food processor enough walnuts to make ½ cup. Toast ground walnuts in a skillet on the stove top over medium heat, stirring constantly. This will take about 10 minutes. Watch carefully for them to turn golden brown and fragrant. Transfer to a bowl to cool. Then process enough pistachio nuts to make half a cup and add to the cooling walnuts.
Beat together the butter and sugars for about 5 minutes or until the butter is light and fluffy, add the eggs in, beating for about a minute after each one, then add brandy and vanilla and mix until combined.
Place the milk into a small saucer and heat over medium heat just until bubbles start to form around the edges and the milk is heated through (you can also do this in the microwave). Stir in the saffron threads and let cool to room temperature. If you have a mortar and pestle, you can grind up the saffron along with a pinch of sugar to make a powder. This will dissolve into the milk better than if just steeping the threads.
While the milk cools, combine the flour, ground nuts, salt, and baking powder together in a separate bowl.
Alternately add the dry ingredients and the saffron milk into the egg & sugar combo. Stir just until completely combined.
Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan, and smooth out the top. Tap the pan on the counter a couple of times to compact the batter into the pan. Bake on the middle rack for about 60-70 minutes, or until a tester inserted into the cake comes out clean.
Let cool in the pan for 10-15 minutes before inverting onto a rack and letting cool completely. Serve plain or with a light dusting of powdered sugar.
This type of cake will last covered up to a week, and I find gets better with age. Also freezes very well.