Bon Appetit Wednesday! Lemon Buttermilk Pie with Ancient Saffron

Saffron_CropSaffron. Exotic, expensive, ancient. Have you ever considered the origin of this delightfully complex spice with its rich color and flavor? Today we’re bringing you a spectacular springtime recipe for Lemon Buttermilk Pie with Saffron, along with a brief history of the brilliant golden spice it features.

Saffron has been used for millennia as a spice and dye, but it is its medicinal uses that really took the spotlight in ancient times. Saffron threads are actually the dried stigmas of crocus bulbs. They cannot be harvested by any machine and must instead be plucked by hand from the delicate flowers. There are only three strands of saffron per bulb and so it takes 72,000 flowers to make one pound of the delicate spice.[1] Unsurprisingly, this pound of painstakingly harvested saffron generally costs around $1,000 US dollars. Perhaps more surprising is that according to prehistoric evidence, humans have been willing to undertake this slow and arduous task for over 50,000 years.[2] “Primeval traces of saffron are found in the prehistoric beasts painted on the cold walls of Iraqi caves and in tattered threads pulled from disintegrating carpets and funeral shrouds of the ancient Persian court.”[3] 16th century BCE frescoes from the Greek island of Thera depict a goddess overseeing “the manufacture and use of a drug from the saffron flower.”[4] In fact, we have written records from numerous countries about the use of saffron to treat 90 illnesses over the past 4,000 years, including the oldest known record, an Assyrian botanical dictionary from the 7th century BCE.[5]

Today, saffron is known more as a spice to flavor food than it is as a medicine, but perhaps we should be taking a cue from our ancestors and looking to the golden strand for its curative properties. Although it is extremely expensive, it only takes a very small amount of saffron to be useful as a medicine. In fact, recent research has revealed it may be effective in treating Alzheimer’s disease.

A 22-week multicenter, randomized, double-blind controlled trial of saffron in the management of mild-to-moderate Alzheimer’s disease published in 2010, showed 15 mg twice a day was as effective as donepezil (Aricept) at 5 mg twice a day, with significantly less vomiting as a side effect. Another 16-week, randomized and placebo-controlled trial also published in 2010, showed that 15 mg of saffron twice per day was both safe and effective in mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.[6]

Both the petals of the crocus as well as the cherished saffron strands have been studied in the treatment for depression.

The petals of the Crocus sativus plant have also been shown nearly equipotent to Prozac (fluoxetine) as a treatment for depression.  According to a study published in the journal Progress in Neuropsychopharmacology and Biological Psychiatry in 2007, 15 mg of Crocus sativus petals were as effective as 10 mg of Prozac in treating mild to moderate depression, putting 25% of the participants into full remission. Another depression study published 2004 showed that saffron, at 30 mg a day, was as effective as the drug imipramine, at 100 mg a day, in the treatment of mild to moderate depression.[7]

Despite its medicinal potential, perhaps you’re still only interested in saffron for its delicious flavor. Here are a few interesting things to keep in mind:

  • A chemical called crocin is responsible for the aroma, flavor and color of saffron. It is measured in a lab and the saffron is given a number based on its crocin content, 110-250+. The higher the number, the better and deeper hued the saffron.[8]
  • Saffron has a shelf life of two years if stored properly.[9]
  • In order to make sure you’re not buying saffron that has been dyed to appear of higher quality, look for long strands, uniformly colored strands and strands with streaks of yellow.[10]

So find yourself some authentic saffron and get ready to cook up a dish that’s both delicious and healthy, and boasts a pedigree for the ages.

Lemon Buttermilk Pie with Saffron

*Recipe courtesy of Bon Appétit by Alison Roman.

Serves 8


Buttermilk Pie Dough:

  • 1¼ of cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon of sugar
  • ½ teaspoon of kosher salt
  • ½ cup (1 stick) of chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • ¼ cup of buttermilk

Filling and Assembly:

  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, plus more
  • 6 large egg yolks
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1¼ cups of buttermilk
  • 1¼ cups of sugar
  • 1 tablespoon of finely grated lemon zest
  • ⅓ cup of fresh lemon juice
  • ¼ teaspoon of kosher salt
  • A pinch of saffron threads
  • 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted, cooled slightly
  • Whipped cream (for serving)


Buttermilk Pie Dough:

  1. Pulse flour, sugar and salt in a food processor to combine. Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse meal with a few pea-size pieces of butter remaining.
  2. Transfer to a large bowl and add buttermilk. Mix with a fork, adding more buttermilk by the tablespoon if needed, just until a shaggy dough comes together; knead very lightly until no dry spots remain. Pat into a disk and wrap in plastic. Chill at least 4 hours.

*Do Ahead: Dough can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled.

Filling and Assembly:

  1. Preheat oven to 325°. Roll out pie dough on a lightly floured surface to a 14” round. Transfer to a 9” pie dish, allowing dough to slump down into dish. Trim dough, leaving about 1” overhang. Fold overhang under and crimp edge. Prick bottom all over with a fork. Freeze 15 minutes.
  2. Line crust with parchment paper or foil, leaving an overhang, and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Place pie dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until crust is dry around the edge, 20–25 minutes. Remove parchment and weights; bake until surface looks dry, 10–12 minutes longer.
  3. Meanwhile, blend egg yolks, eggs, buttermilk, sugar, lemon zest, lemon juice, salt and saffron in a blender until smooth. With motor running, add 2 tablespoons of flour, then butter. Tap blender jar against countertop to burst any air bubbles in filling and pour into warm crust.
  4. Bake pie, rotating halfway through and covering edges with foil if they brown too much before filling is done, until filling is set around edge but center jiggles slightly, 55–65 minutes. Transfer pie dish to a wire rack and let pie cool. Serve pie with whipped cream.

*Do Ahead: Pie can be baked 2 days ahead. Keep at room temperature up to 6 hours; cover and chill to hold longer.

[1] Thomson, J. (n.d.). The Surprisingly Beautiful Origin Of Saffron. Retrieved May 8, 2015, from

[2] Sayer, J. (n.d.). The Ancient Flower That Heals The Human Soul. Retrieved May 8, 2015.

[3] Willard, P. (2002), Secrets of Saffron: The Vagabond Life of the World’s Most Seductive Spice, Beacon Press (published 11 April 2002), ISBN 978-0-8070-5009-5

[4] Honan, WH (2004), “Researchers Rewrite First Chapter for the History of Medicine“, The New York Times [January 10, 2006].

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sayer, J.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Thomson, J.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

2 responses to “Bon Appetit Wednesday! Lemon Buttermilk Pie with Ancient Saffron

  1. Pingback: Bon Appetit Wednesday! National Herbs and Spices Day | AntiquityNOW

  2. Pingback: Bon Appetit Wednesday! The Magic of Ancient Turmeric | AntiquityNOW

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