Review: Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust

Reviewed by Lauraine Jacobs

With its show-stopping cover and title, Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust is a beautiful production. The pages are filled with glorious photos that are colourful and clear and certainly lead to a desire for the reader to indulge in the sugar and spice of cakes and many sweet things.

There’s been an exciting turn in food books published in recent years, both here and internationally, with memories and food of immigrants and exiles being shared. The great diaspora of the past century or two has been, and continues to be, both host and witness to ever-changing diets, menus, food trends and cultural changes in almost every country where people find themselves in pursuit of a new life.

This creates a demand for new ingredients, the knowledge of fresh cooking methods and excellent recipes. These much-loved dishes bring a new dimension to the countries the cooks find themselves in. It is commendable that publishers can and do present this new work with high publishing values and genuine authenticity.

Ashia Ismail-Singer, of Indian Muslim heritage, is not new to cookbook writing, this being her second book in just over two years. Her heritage includes her earliest years spent in Malawi as her grandparents left the state of Gujarat around the time of the Indian Partition. Subsequently her immediate family emigrated to Britain and she chose to leave that country as an adult and qualified nurse, travelling via America to eventually settle in New Zealand.

With a passion for the spices her family were steeped in, Ismail-Singer recorded her favourite foods in My Indian Kitchen (2018, published by Potton Burton). Now her new book, Saffron Swirls and Cardamom Dust, continues her kitchen journey and concentrates on baking with her favourite spices.

With its show-stopping cover and title, this book is a beautiful production. Christall Lowe deserves much credit for her photography as she worked for almost a year with the author, journeying frequently backwards and forwards from her home in the Manawatu to capture truly beautiful images.

The pages are filled with glorious photos that are colourful and clear and certainly lead to a desire for the reader to indulge in the sugar and spice of cakes and many sweet things. It means the book is a solid production with hard covers to ensure it lasts the distance and is large and comfortable enough to open easily and lie flat on the kitchen bench while baking.

It’s a personal thing but I did find it hard to read the small print on pages where the designer has used white typeface on black background — luckily there are not too many of those. Every recipe is photographed so bakers will have a clear idea of what they’re aiming for in the finished product. So many recipes for the cakes, the chocolatey treats and the lovely spicy drinks appear as truly mouth-watering.

Many of the baking treats we are used to are included, all given Ismail-Singer’s injection of her favourite spices. Cardamom with its “floral sweetness” and distinct perfume appears in more than 20 baking recipes and sweet drinks – cardamom and cinnamon buns, a chocolate and cardamom ribbon croissant pudding, white chocolate, rose water and cardamom truffles and mango ice pops with coconut dipping sugar to mention just a few. Cinnamon is another favourite, featuring in blueberry friands, a caramelised banana loaf and feijoa muffins.

There’s a helpful section in the opening pages of the book on spices and other ingredients but the author could have been given more guidance as throughout the recipes there are other ingredients that I feel could have also been more fully explained. For example, what are “dried rose petals?” We should know they need to be purchased from a specialist store. The “dark chocolate” of so many recipes is a minefield currently for inexperienced bakers as there are vast differences between good quality baking chocolate, chocolate nibs and buttons and bars with varying percentages of cocoa or cacao which all perform differently when incorporated into cooking.

Detail in baking recipes is very important because every baking recipe is an exact formula with no room for error. This book has plenty of lovely simple recipes, but there are definitely some that are more complicated and where less skilled cooks could do with helpful tips. I was puzzled by a few things like the very delicious looking orange, raspberry and pistachio cake that, despite the recipe calling for 1-2 oranges, thinly sliced, that are simmered for 40 minutes to the point of transparency, turn up on the cake as three thickish slices cut in half. An impressive looking spiced “Victoria” sponge that is not the classic recipe at all and two recipes that are made in a bundt tin but will cause confusion for the inexperienced cook as each appears to require a tin of very different shapes.

I would have liked more stories of the inspiration behind the recipes too, as I am sure there are lovely tales to be told which would help us feel more connection to this talented baker. Overall, though, this is a beautiful book with very original recipes that would make a lovely gift for keen bakers who seek new ideas and direction and a little more spice in their lives.

Reviewed by Lauraine Jacobs