Come to the Table: Baking with ‘flower’

Chef Gayle Squires offers her unique recipes that she's collected from travels around the world.

July 2, 2012 14:11

Almond Croquant. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Rose water and orange blossom water were once the little black dress of a baker’s pantry, flavoring dinners and desserts with their floral essences. They originated in Persia and were popularized in the ninth century after Arab scholar, alchemist, and pharmacist Jabbir ibn Hayyan developed a distillation technique(also used for alcohol). Quickly, these distilled extracts migrated to neighboring Arab countries (where they were adopted by Sephardic Jews), Europe, and eventually the “new world.”

Meanwhile, over in Central America, indigenous vanilla served as the leading flavoring and didn’t stray far from home. Its passport only arrived in the mid-nineteenth century in the form of a newly-discovered hand pollination technique for the orchid that bears the vanilla bean. With its global cultivation and rapid commercialization,vanilla use spread quickly;now nearly every nibble of cookie, lick of ice cream, and slice of birthday cake explodes with the extract’s sweet, rich depth. But with ubiquity comes predictability, and vanilla can sometimes feel, well... ordinary.

So let’s journey away from Madagascar, Tahiti, and Mexico, the three main producers of vanilla, and visit the Mediterranean to rediscover floral essences.

Rose water, distilled from the petals of damask roses, is traditionally used in eastern Mediterranean (Iran, Syria, Turkey, and Lebanon) pastries and puddings. It is luxurious and wraps you in a warm, intoxicating embrace.

Orange blossom water is commonly used in cooking and baking in Egypt and the Maghreb (northern Africa – Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya). It is the innocent, but no less seductive, younger sister of triple sec, both parented by the Seville orange (introduced to Spain by the Moors) and distilled from the bitter fruit’s blossoms and peels respectively. While these flowers most frequently flavor sweets, some dried rose petals find themselves crushed and mixed into peppery spice rubs for lamb, and orange blossom water graces plates of savory Moroccan orange and olive salad.

To taste the extracts in their purest form, make café blanc – white coffee – by mixing a few drops of rose or orange blossom water into a mug of boiling water with a pinch of sugar. Let the steam envelop you while drinking in this non-alcoholic digestif. The flowers hit your nose before they hit your taste buds, even when trapped in a confection that melts on your tongue. Add too much and you think you’re eating soap. With a light touch, though, there is just enough flavor to hint at a flower and then fade away.

Rose water in baklava gathers all the flavors in a sensuous symphony. It intensifies the sweetness of the honey, mellows the earthy concoction of pistachios, walnuts, and almonds, and leaves a trace of intoxicating yet unassuming bouquet on your fingers sticky with shards of phyllo. Orange blossom water mingles discreetly with almonds. Its bittersweet aroma whispers in your ear and tiptoes behind you as you glance over your shoulder to see who is following.

Make room in your closet next to your little black dress and in your pantry next to the vanilla. Pick up rose water and orange blossom water in a Middle Eastern grocery store or online. Slip one of the unexpected extracts into a sweet or savory dish and see if anyone can guess the stealthy ingredient. The answer will be on the tips of their tongues and the tips of their noses, and then it will fade. They’ll reach for another taste, and then another. Their palates will be awakened, and they’ll ask for the recipe.

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