Here's one way to make this fragrant saffron & cinnamon-scented rice pudding, traditionally served for the Iranian holidays of Ramadan, Norwuz, Tiregan.
This is an incredibly fragrant pudding and well worth the trouble. It's dairy-free if you use sunflower oil instead of butter or "I can't believe it's not butter."
An Iranian Tradition
The name, "sholeh zard," means "yellow flame." ("Sholeh" means "flame;" "zard" means "yellow".) It is traditionally served during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan (at night; eating during sunlight hours is forbidden), or for the Iranian holidays of Norwuz (the Iranian New Year, celebrated to roughly coincinde with the Spring Equinox) and Tiregan (a traditional Iranian/Zoroastrian summer holiday, which celebrates rain).
The Magi and European Christmas Traditions
Rice pudding itself is also a popular European Christmas dish. The Magi in fact may have come from what is present day Iran or Iraq (that is, from ancient Persia or Babylon). However, some scholars believe they came from what is present day Yeman, then the Kingdom of Sheba, or perhaps even from India. In any case, if you set out food for the Magi at Christmas or Epiphany, sholeh zard is a dish fit to welcome them.
There are several ways to make this pudding, which is served chilled. Ideally, the saffron should be ground up with a bit of water and sugar.
This particular recipe also calls for a syrup to be made first with the sugar, which the rice is then boiled in, with additional water added. I've seen many recipes, but all skip making the syrup. You can use a candy thermometer if you have one to make sure the sugar syrup has reached a temperature of above 230 degrees F, but below 235 degrees F. (Some recipes call for baking the dish at the very end, instead of the last bit of cooking, but it will be delicious cooked entirely on the stove.)
Traditionally, up to half a cup of the water added or, if you can find it, rosewater. Rosewater is an important flavoring and preservative in Middle Eastern cooking. Like saffron (discussed below), it is supposed to aid the digestion, and also contains some vitamins. Sometimes also, sholeh zard is boiled with a pod of cardamon (like the rosewater, the cardamon pods are added near the end of cooking, with the almonds and saffron; the pods are removed after cooking).
Saffron, perhaps first cultivated in Iran or Crete, is expensive and highly prized. Much of the harvesting is by hand. It's rich in caretenoids, and a number of medicinal properties have been attributed to it, including anti-cancer properties and digestive benefits. It may make giving birth easier and relieve headaches. Some of the caretenoids in it may help to protect the eyes from sunlight too, according to recent research.
Saffron is cultivated from a variety of the crocus (crocus sativas). Other varieties of the crocus are actually poisonous and even saffron in high doses is poisonous and may induce abortions, according to Moghaddasi's research (see Mohammad Moghaddasi, 2010, "Review: Saffron Chemicals and Medicine Usage"). According to the Spice Spoon, not all saffron is authentic or pure; be careful when purchasing it.
Notes on Cinnamon, Pistachios, Cholesterol
Although you sprinkle the cinnamon on after cooking and cooling the rice, the cinnamon is important to the flavor of the whole, so don't omit either it or the pistachios! And, again, if you use sunflower oil instead of butter or "I can't believe it's not butter," the pudding helps to keep blood cholesterol low, and is dairy-free.
Cooking and preparation time: about two hours (plus additional time as needed to chill the pudding). The recipe below makes enough to serve four-to-seven (as a dessert, it will serve four quite generously).
A Final Note on the Recipe
The recipe above has been adapted from an Iranian recipe I copied from a book when I was in the eighth grade circa 1970-71, for a report on Iran. A neighbor, who had been born in Iran, said, when I did not locate rosewater anywhere, that the rosewater was not essential, and to just use water to make the pudding. That is how I made it for my classmates, but the rosewater is somewhat essential apparently, although this pudding is delicious, in my opinion, even without it.