Salted caramels from Trader Joe’s and saffron strands from Yekta were always packed into my suitcase for my trip back home to Rome. And when I was really lucky, I’d get to take back a blueberry-banana bread loaf made by Aunty Shelly and a cranberry walnut loaf by Aunty Sabiha, my Ami’s dearest friends.
When I was visiting my Ami in Washington, I would miss the orb-like cherry tomatoes from the corner shop in Testaccio, the kind you pop in your mouth like candy, and the cacio e pepe at Da Francesco, creamy, starchy, tangy, with just the right amount of fresh cracked pepper grinded on top. And I would especially miss the walk back home to San Saba through the centre of Rome’s historical centre, wobbling in my vertiginous heels on the uneven sanpietrini.
But when in Rome, I would miss the chats with the women my mother befriended when she arrived in Washington DC as a young bride. That’s me being a brat (chamchi is the correct word in Urdu) on Aunty Shelly’s lap with my mother next to us, resplendent in fuchsia. And Aunty Sabiha, the last one on the right, elegant, like a petite ballerina.
Aunty Sabiha makes a mean saffron-infused bread pudding which she serves during her luscious Eid luncheons every year, it’s her mum’s recipe. It is pretty much her opus magnus. And this is a woman who is also an economics Professor, mind you. Oh, and an artist, her paintings depicting scenes of Pakistan.
Unfortunately, this bread pudding, known as Shahi Tukray, the Emperor’s Morsels, could not be packed up and taken with to Rome, so I asked her for the recipe. Now I can have this bread pudding with its notes of musky saffron all year round, rather than just during Eid.
It’s most certainly not the kind of bread pudding you’re used to. This has no eggs, but that’s the way it is traditionally made in Pakistan.
First Aunty Sabiha fries each delicate piece of crustless bread in a little bit of butter and oil and then transfers it to a baking dish…
She keeps soaking the bread with creamy half-and-half…
Then the bread is ready for its second layer of a sugary, saffron and cardamom-infused syrup, like molten amber…
And finally, another pour of heavy whipping cream and it all goes into the oven…
Emerging puffed, bubbly, soft, bronzed…
With notes of saffron in every morsel…a bonne bouche.
You will need an 11×13 in baking dish.
*Approximately 10 slices white bread; preferably thick sandwich variety. (If in the USA, use Pepperidge Farm toasting white).
*1 1/2 cups half-and-half (half whole milk; half whole cream)
*1 1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
*1 cup sugar
*3/4 cup water
*4-6 cardamom pods
*1 1/2 tsp (heaped) saffron strands, ground into a powder (I use a mortal and pestle)
*A neutral oil and unsalted butter for frying
*Almonds and pistachios any style to your liking, (unsalted), for garnish
*Lightly butter your baking dish and set aside.
*Pre-heat oven to 350F.
*Cut off edges from the bread, slice in half on the diagonal.
*Place pan on medium high heat and smear with some butter, then add a few drops of oil (approximately 2 tsps).
*Fry bread till lightly brown on both sides. You will have to keep adding more butter and oil as you fry the batches of bread.
*Transfer fried bread into baking dish. Do not double layer the bread.
*Slowly begin to pour half-and-half on bread. As the bread absorbs the liquid, pour more.
*In the meantime place a saucepan on the stove on high heat and add sugar,water and cardamom pods.
*Once it comes to a boil, turn the heat to low, add saffron powder and allow it to simmer for 10 minutes.
*Pour half of heavy cream over the bread.
*Now pour hot syrup on top of bread, then pour the remainder of the whipped cream and bake in the oven for 30 minutes.
*Garnish with almonds and pistachios.
*Serve hot or at room temperature.