(photo credit: Courtesy)
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
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.
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
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.
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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