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This dreamy dessert starts with saffron

  • NEW YORK TIMES PHOTO

In Japan, you can buy Kit Kats that taste like green tea. In Canada, Lay’s potato chips can be ketchup flavored. And now, a kesar pista Snickers bar has arrived in India.

Kesar pista, or saffron and pistachio, is a familiar combination for South Asians. It features heavily in several traditional desserts like kesar rajbhog — saffron-flavored, nut-filled milk balls — or kesari burfi, fudgelike saffron confections often studded with pistachios.

And during Holi, the festival of spring, many celebrants will sip thandai, a chilled, sweetened milk that’s stained golden yellow with saffron and often has a pistachio garnish.

Kesar pista is popular for a reason. The ingredients blend brilliantly, tasting even more luxurious, floral and complex together.

“Whether you look at the south, whether you look at the west, whether you look at the north, you will find this unique combination of spice and nut,” said Varun Kandhari, the director of marketing for Mars Wrigley India, which introduced the new candy bar in December. “It’s a very delicate flavor.”

Neither saffron nor pistachios are native to India — saffron most likely came from the Middle East, and pistachios from Central Asia and the Middle East, said Sonal Ved, a Mumbai-based food writer and the author of “Whose Samosa Is It Anyway? The Story of Where ‘Indian’ Food Really Came From.”

Saffron and pistachio “are contrasting, but they are also complimentary,” Ved said. “One has color and aroma. The other has body, or creaminess, and texture.”

The pairing’s use in dessert was well documented during the Mughal Empire, when kesar pista kulfi was served to royals, according to “A Historical Dictionary of Indian Food” by food historian K.T. Achaya. The flavor also appears elsewhere in Asia, in Persian dishes like sohan, a saffron brittle topped with pistachios, and bastani, an ice cream typically scented with saffron, pistachio, vanilla and rose water.

Kandhari said that, if the kesar pista bar sold well in India, Mars Wrigley would consider taking it to other countries. (He declined to share current sales figures for the bar.)

The flavor lends itself well to traditional desserts, he said, and “equally works well when you look at some of the contemporary desserts.”

Dessert shop owners in the United States know this to be true. Here, you’ll find saffron and pistachio cupcakes, brittle, ice cream and doughnuts. This is how kesar pista could become even more mainstream, Kandhari said. “What led to matcha becoming very popular across markets was it was used across different formats.”

Mita Shah, the owner of Mardi Gras Homemade Ice Cream in Columbus, Ohio, has had a kesar pista offering on the menu since 2000. She called it “the king of ice cream.”

“Pistachio has its own flavor, and saffron enhances that flavor,” she said.

In the past few years, kesar pista ice cream has become the No. 1 seller among both Indian and non-Indian customers. It feels nostalgic to those who grew up enjoying Indian sweets, she said, and intriguing to those who have not.

Once they try kesar pista, Shah said, “they get hooked.”

Saffron Pistachio Blondies

Ingredients:

• 3/4 cup/112 grams raw, unsalted pistachios, plus more for garnish

• 1 cup/130 grams all-purpose flour

• 3/4 teaspoon coarse kosher salt

• 3/4 teaspoon baking powder

• 1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom

• 3/4 cup/173 grams unsalted butter, melted and cooled

• 1 1/4 packed cups/250 grams dark brown sugar

• 2 large eggs, at room temperature

• 1/2 cup/87 grams white chocolate chips

Ingredients for the frosting:

• 1/2 teaspoon/0.33 grams packed saffron threads

• 1 1/2 tablespoons whole milk

• 6 ounces/170 grams cream cheese, softened

• 1/3 cup/77 grams unsalted butter, softened

• Pinch of coarse kosher salt

• 2/3 cup/93 grams confectioners’ sugar

Directions:

Make the bars: Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper so that the paper spills out over the sides of the pan, like wings.

In a food processor, pulse the pistachios until the nuts are very finely ground. Don’t let them get pasty. Add the flour, salt, baking powder and cardamom and pulse to combine.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together melted butter and brown sugar until smooth and shiny. (The butter will separate at first, then blend in.) Whisk in the eggs until incorporated. Add the pistachio mixture and mix with a silicone spatula to combine. Gently stir in the white chocolate chips until evenly distributed. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and spread in an even layer.

Bake until the sides are brown and pull away from the pan, and the middle is slightly paler in color, 25 to 27 minutes. A toothpick inserted in the center will come out with a few crumbs attached. Cool completely in the pan on a rack.

While the bars cool, make the frosting: Finely grind the saffron threads in a mortar using a pestle or in a microwave-safe bowl using the back of a spoon. If needed, transfer the ground saffron to a microwave-safe bowl or to a small saucepan if you don’t have a microwave. Stir in the milk, and microwave on high or heat over medium until the mixture is frothing around the edges but not boiling, about 30 seconds. Place the bowl in the refrigerator or freezer to quickly cool the mixture.

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, use an electric hand or stand mixer or a heavy whisk or wooden spoon to beat the cream cheese and butter until smooth. If working by hand, this takes some muscle. Add the confectioners’ sugar and salt and beat again until homogeneous and no clumps of sugar remain. Beat in the cooled saffron milk until well combined. The frosting will turn a bright golden hue.

Once the bars have cooled completely, scrape the frosting over the top, and use a spatula to spread it evenly. Crush or chop some pistachios for garnish and sprinkle all over the top. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours before eating. The bars keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 5 days or in the freezer for 1 month.

Total time: 1 hour, plus cooling and chilling, makes 1 9-inch pan.

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