by Adeena Sussman
A potent, surprisingly versatile flavor blossoms in the pastry kitchen.
Growing up, my familiarity with rose water was limited to my grandmother Anne’s medicine cabinet, where a tiny blue bottle of the stuff shared shelf space with her Emeraude perfume. It was occasionally dabbed behind her ears or splashed into the bathwater, but never ventured anywhere near the kitchen.
My, how things have changed. These days, I’ve grown to love rose water for the delicately evocative floral quality it introduces to culinary pursuits—especially baking. When used properly, it works simultaneously on multiple sensory levels to introduce a surprising, perfumed freshness to cookies, cakes, and candies. Rose water-infused whipped cream, vanilla pudding, or pastry cream creates perfect accompaniments for fruit—anything that goes with berries goes great with a touch of rose. And, of course, drinks! I love it stirred into a frosty lemonade, a mug of hot tea, or an icy cocktail made with a botanical gin and a crunchy slice of cucumber.
Rose water has been working its magic for a long time. Roman texts allude to its medicinal purposes, and Cleopatra was said to be a fan of its beautifying properties. A potent elixir best used in moderation, it may be the truest fulfillment of the well-known adage: a little bit goes a long way.
In Israel, where I live half the year, it shows up—and shows well—in desserts like malabi (thickened milk pudding topped with a sweet, rose-scented syrup), lokma (more commonly known as Turkish Delight), baklava, and other desserts. In fact, you can find desserts using rose water throughout the Middle East, including Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. In this region, desserts ranging from fritters to semolina cakes are often soaked in rose-scented syrups that elevate them from OK to extraordinary.
Rose water also has a following among British pastry lovers. The beloved Victoria sponge cake gets its rosy glow from a floral jam used to moisten spongy cake layers; drops might also get sprinkled into billows of whipped cream or added to the cake itself. Here in America, I’ve seen it in ice cream, meringues, and shortbreads, where the cookie’s structure and crunch stand up to, and even complement, rose water’s imperialist inclinations.
A by-product of rose oil production, rose water is usually made by steaming rose petals with water to create a distillate—essentially an essence of roses. (There are also a few alcohol-based products enhanced with the oil itself.) Rose water is made all over the world, but a disproportionate number of offerings seem to come from Bulgaria—a center of rose cultivation—and the Middle East.
When using rose water, proceed with caution: Some brands are so concentrated that even one or two drops will do. A great way to test its power is to dilute ½ teaspoon into 1 cup of cold water and take a small sip. If the water is very subtly perfumed, go ahead and be a little liberal in its use. If the flavor and aroma are assertive, bordering on aggressive, be gentle with those drops. You’ll be rewarded with desserts that strike the perfect balance between the exotic and the familiar.