A Charming Bouquet

If the mere scent of a rose can send your love into raptures, imagine what the taste might do.

February 11, 2004|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

True love and roses: It is an arrangement that has survived wars, natural calamities and the advent of speed dating.

But the rose, a symbol of passion since antiquity, is more than a rose. It's a versatile ingredient and decorative element that allows a Valentine's Day meal to speak your heart's desire.

In February, when fresh, edible roses are scarce, a loving chef's fancy turns to rose water, an intensely perfumed distillation of petals from the damask rose and other heirloom varieties known for their potent fragrance.

Rose water is a versatile flavoring that can add a sensual grace note to every course, savory or sweet. On Valentine's Day, though, the sweeter the better. Couple a rose-water-infused dessert with fresh or candied organic roses, and you have a beautiful feast, redolent of romance through the ages and around the world.

In the Middle East and the Mediterranean, as well as in India and China, rose water has been a staple ingredient for centuries. Fragrances, including rose water, were the "noblest of all food additives in the Arab repertoire," according to an essay in Food: A Culinary History (Columbia, 1999). Plentiful rose water has been used to flavor beef, chicken, vegetables, fruit salads, curries and rice dishes, pastries, puddings, and beverages both cold and hot.

In A Mediterranean Feast: Story of the Birth of the Celebrated Cuisines of the Mediterranean (William Morrow & Co., 1999), historian Clifford A. Wright discusses "white coffee," a "popular beverage in Damascus, when people wish to avoid caffeine. They stir orange flavor water or rose water with sugar into a cup of boiling water."

Rose water is often paired with cinnamon, almonds and cardamom, a refreshing variation from desserts that revolve around chocolate and vanilla.

"The Muslim and Arab people of the Middle East have been using rose water since the seventh century for many purposes," says Suzanne Amr, a Columbia resident who teaches the art of Middle Eastern cooking through the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks.

"Most of our desserts -- for example, basbousa, a dessert made out of semolina or farina and some nuts and syrups -- are flavored with rose water," says Amr, who spent her first 30 years in Egypt.

The culinary use of roses, which are native to all areas of the world north of the equator, spread from the East to the West. In her 1939 collection, Rose Recipes From Olden Times, Eleanour Sinclair Rohde includes instructions for making "a cake with rose water, the way of the royal princess, the Lady Elizabeth, daughter to King Charles the First." The 17th-century recipe calls for "halfe a pecke of flowre, half a pinte of rose water, a pint of ale yeast, a pint of creame," among other ingredients.

Until the middle of the 19th century, rural American cooks with far fewer resources than King Charles I used rose water instead of scant and costly vanilla to flavor puddings, cakes, cookies, gingerbread and pies.

In addition to its use in more elaborate concoctions, rose water can be added to whipped creams, fruit salads and compotes. Blended into a heavy sugar syrup, rose water is a delightful elixir to drizzle over poundcakes, waffles, pancakes and ice cream.

Crystallized rose petals add a fairy-tale shimmer to sorbets, pastries and other confections prepared with rose water. They also can be crumbled and broadcast across a cake. Use fresh roses as well to garnish cakes and other desserts.

But not just any roses. In February, most available blooms have been treated with herbicides and pesticides and should not be consumed. Unless you can find (and afford) roses grown specifically for culinary use through a specialty-produce company, it is best to wait until your own organically grown roses come into bloom to prepare rose teas, jellies, honeys, ice cream and other delicacies.

The certified organic roses sold in bouquets at Whole Foods and similar retailers are not recommended for extensive consumption, either. But well-washed organic roses, cleansed of natural sprays and used for decorative purposes, are safe to eat, says Ted Johnson, president of the mass-market division of the Delaware Valley Wholesale Florists.

The dried petals of roses grown to be edible are another option. Scatter them over cookies and cakes or blend them into butter or whipped cream, for a pretty effect and a subtle taste variation.

To top off your Valentine bouquet, throw in a little Shakespeare, for whom the rose epitomized love's ideal. In one sonnet, the Bard, in the guise of an imperfect beau, bids his lover to:

Never believe, though in my nature reign'd,

All frailties that besiege all kinds of blood,

That it could so preposterously be stain'd,

To leave for nothing all thy sum of good;

For nothing this wide universe I call,

Save thou, my rose; in it thou art my all.

Gathering ye rose buds

Where to find rose water:

Near East Bakery, 2919 Hamilton Ave., Baltimore, 410-254-8970

Punjab, 345 33rd St., Baltimore, 410-662-7844

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