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A few days ago, a cardboard box taped up by hand arrived at my door. It held a small white paper box, inside of which, nestled between layers of crinkly pink tissue paper, were the most beautiful cookies I have ever laid eyes on. Palm-sized hearts baked to pale gold perfection, stamped with an intricate swirling pattern and a bright green jewel of crushed pistachios to mark the center. Biting into the cookies revealed a sweet, spiced layer of velvety brown date filling. Whereas I would normally eat a delicious cookie as fast as possible and without much thought, these delicate pastries made me slow down, brew a pot of black tea, and sit down with my husband to enjoy them in all their delicacy.
This is just the response that Fariba Nafissi, the founder of Zozo Baking, intends to invoke with her traditional Persian pastries and sweets. “Iranian pastries are for indulging, that’s why they come in tiny pieces,” says Nafissi. She is a true master of Persian baking, having started out as a young girl assisting her mom, also a professional baker, when she was growing up in Kerman, Iran, a Southern region surrounded by mountains. Now Nafissi has a thriving business based out of Los Angeles selling traditional Iranian baked goods and teaching classes to anyone who’s curious about learning the traditional methods used in her baking.
The art of Persian sweet making is mysterious territory for most westerners. There’s no vanilla or chocolate, but plenty of rose water, chickpea flour, dates, saffron, cardamom, pistachios, and even sprouted wheat. To help guide me through its nuances, Nafissi took a break from the kitchen—the upcoming Persian New Year on March 21 (Norooz), is her busiest season—to share some of her secrets for coaxing such beauty out of her ingredients. She also shares a recipe for nan-e berenji, rice cookies with rose, cardamom, saffron, and poppy seeds that are ubiquitous during the holiday.
Use Different Flours
Part of the fun of exploring Persian baking is experimenting with the different flours that are traditionally used. There’s rice flour, used in this recipe, which gives baked goods a delicate and slightly sandy texture. Then you have chickpea flour, used in Persian chickpea cookies, which is dense, sturdy, and tender in baked goods. Perhaps the most surprising is sprouted wheat flour, Nafissi’s favorite. It’s naturally sweet and makes for a tender, flaky dough. Using sprouted wheat flour is one more way that Nafissi likes to reduce the use of sugar in her baked goods. Try using sprouted wheat flour in cookies and piecrust; as a bonus, it’s reputed to be higher in nutrients and fiber than regular flour.
Sweeten with Dates and Spices
Up until modern times, Nafissi explained to me, most Iranian desserts were sweetened with dates and raisins, and she still makes date walnut pie and date-filled cookies without any processed sugar. The use of spices like cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves in Iranian desserts is another way that they taste naturally sweet. If you’re looking to cut down on processed sugar, pureed dates (or raisins, if you prefer) with spices and nuts make a decadent pastry filling or topping. You can also use date sugar made from dried and ground dates as a one-for-one replacement for white sugar in baking, although be aware that the color will darken the finished product. Another option is pure date syrup, which can be drizzled on at the end for a sweet, decadent finish.
Use the Whole Cardamom Pod
Cardamom is perhaps the most essential flavor in Persian sweets, and good cooks make their own powder by extracting the fragrant black seeds from their green pods and grinding them up. Nafissi recommends a shortcut of grinding the whole seedpod in a spice grinder or food processor, then sifting the powder out through a fine mesh strainer. The leftover husk can be brewed with tea or coffee—if you’ve never tried coffee with cardamom, stop what you’re doing and make some now.
Put your Saffron on Ice
The Iranian way of preparing saffron for cooking or baking is to grind it into a fine powder, then steep it in warm liquid in order to bring out the maximum color and flavor. Nafissi has a better idea: Put a few ice cubes on top of the ground saffron, and let it melt. The result is saffron water with a concentrated brightness that can be used to decorate baked goods (see the recipe below) or use it to color the top of rice.
Keep Dried Rose Petals on Hand
Roses show up in Iranian recipes in the form of distilled rose water, fresh whole petals, dried petals, and dried petal powder. When a recipe calls for dried rose petals or powder, purchase good quality, fragrant edible petals, like these, as opposed to whole dried rose buds, which take a lot more effort to work with because you have to break them apart. When ground petals are called for, you can make your own fresh powder by throwing the dried petals into a spice grinder, or pulverizing them with a mortar and pestle. The taste will be much fresher and more intense than a pre-ground mix.
- 250 grams (2 cups + 2 tbsp) rice flour
- 125 grams ( 1 cup + 2 tbsp) sugar
- 112 grams (1/2 cup) butter, softened
- 1 egg yolk
- 1 1/2 tablespoons rose water
- 1 teaspoon cardamom powder
- 2 tablespoons brewed saffron
- 20 grams (2 tbsp) black poppy seeds
How do you celebrate Norooz? Tell us about it in the comments!