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Rosewater wonderland

March 29, 2010

Research into the origins of sugar cookies led me to rosewater, which early incarnations like “jumble” cookies contained aplenty—almost to excess. Having bought a bottle to see what all the fuss was about, I promptly tumbled down the rabbit hole.

If early cooks poured absurd quantities into their cookies, I saw no reason not to be adventurous. Perhaps it was the intoxicating floral aroma. Regardless, I made some discoveries.

Rosewater in warm milk is a fairy-princess version of hot cocoa. It’s like sipping the pearlescent light that gilds clouds at dusk. A few drops diffused in hot water create a fragrant herb tea whose perfect transparency belies a depth and complexity of flavor, as though it were only wearing an invisibility cloak, waiting to unveil itself as star cluster or aurora borealis. I laced a chocolate cake with rosewater, and got inquisitive looks, followed by requests for seconds. I have match-making plans for rosewater and carob.

But first, my reading on ancient Persians’ rosewater distillation collided with a Smitten Kitchen post about arroz con leche, and all of a sudden I was having fantasies of cardamom-rosewater rice pudding. Given their fondness for rosewater in cookies, I suspected I might find rosewater-flavored rice pudding recipes in the early American cookbooks I’d been looking through. And I did.

Amelia Simmons’ The First American Cookbook (1796) proposes the following (baked in a crust, as many puddings were at the time):

A Rice Pudding.

One quarter of a pound of rice, a stick of cinnamon, to a quart of milk (stirred often to keep from burning) and boil quick, cool and add half a nutmeg, 4 spoons rose-water, 8 eggs; butter or puff paste a dish and pour the above composition into it, and bake one and half hour.

So, yes, they put it in their rice pudding.

But, adventuring further out of curiosity, I discovered that they put it in just about everything else, too.

I made the acquaintance of a rosewater-infused Bread Pudding, strolling with its cousin the Whitpot (pastry-covered bread pudding of sorts).

Sidling up close was what Simmons calls “A Cream Almond Pudding,” also with its share of rosewater.

Clearly at ease with fruits, I found rosewater, just a bit down the road, having an animated conversation with Apple Pudding, Apple Tart and Orange Pudding. They seemed to be discussing citron and cinnamon.

It came up in custards, boiled, baked, or made with rice and flavored with orange-water, cinnamon, and mace.

To go deeper was to see that early Americans were mad for the stuff. Using it as liberally as orange-water, cinnamon, and nutmeg or mace, they treated it as an all-purpose seasoning, the likes of our modern vanilla extract.

Look at their cakes, for goddness sake, which seem like some kind of mad riddle to which rosewater is always the answer. It makes equal appearance in their Plain Cake and their Rich Cake (both similar to pound cakes, but spiced, and sometimes soused and be-raisined)—also their Queens Cake (not terrifically more extravagant than the Plain Cake, though with equal proportions of flour and sugar—a sweet tooth only royalty could afford?)

They even put it in their Diet Bread (apparently some kind of egg-leavened scone).

And from there they only veer into the deeper realms of nonsense.

Conversing with fruits is sensible. Colluding with vegetables feels less so to modern tastebuds. Amelia Simmons asks for rosewater in her Carrot Pudding with cinnamon. And again in the Crookneck or Winter Squash Pudding with apples, nutmeg and wine. Most bafflingly, she requests that it attend the Potatoe Pudding with lemon and nutmeg.  (It’s true that pies through the 17th century used the medieval sweet-savory combination: carrots and rosewater; potatoes with cinnamon, mace, and sugar.)

The only items in the dessert/bread category consistently free of rosewater were dishes like Johnny Cake or what Simmons calls “A Nice Indian Pudding.” Made with “Indian meal” (cornmeal), these are consciously taken from a native New World tradition and removed from the staggering flavor mixtures inherited from European medieval cooking.

But the rest is bafflingly awash in rosewater. Which you wouldn’t necessarily notice, until you opened a small hatch in the door marked “Read Me” and found yourself inexplicably paddling a crookneck squash over a cinnamon waterfall with rose petals falling through the air.

Like Alice, I emerged from the rabbit hole. Perhaps or perhaps not like Alice, I recovered, and made a cardamom-rosewater rice pudding that seemed decidedly less exotic than before—but was delicious nonetheless, creamy and redolent with the lush flavor of roses warmed with cardamom.

Cardamom-rosewater rice pudding (adapted from Spice Lines)

serves about 4

1 c. basmati rice

4 c. boiling water

8 cardamom pods

4 cups 2% or whole milk

¼ sugar (or less, to taste)

about 1½ tablespoons rosewater (or to taste)

½ tsp. ground cardamom

¼ c. slivered almonds

Rinse the rice well and soak it for 30 min. in the boiling water. Meanwhile, place cardamom pods in square of cheesecloth and pound them to bits. (You needn’t use the corner of a cheesecloth; the idea is to make a spice bag, and you can use a fill-your-own tea bag pouch if available.)

Heat the milk and spice bag over medium heat until it comes to a low simmer. Add the rice (drained). Simmer on low for 30-45 minutes. Remove from heat, remove the spice bag, and stir in the sugar. Flavor with rosewater, careful to taste along the way to avoid letting it become overpowering. Add ground cardamom to taste. Stir in slivered almonds. Serve warm or chilled.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2010 8:13 am

    Gorgeous descriptions! Makes me want to try some fairy-princess hot cocoa myself 🙂


  1. Pistachio macaroons (my turn) « the roots of taste

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