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Roses add a bouquet of flavor

Sorry, Gertrude Stein, but you got it wrong with "Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose." The flower has a whole new identity: out of the bud vase and onto the plate.

Long used in Persian and Indian cooking, rose is a flavor not commonly found in American fare. But some creative local chefs and bakers are working it into desserts, drinks, even savory dishes.

Rose syrups, rose water and petals fresh, frozen and dried lend a surprising floral note to fruit-topped pastries and chocolate eclairs, strawberry mojitos and a couscous served with lamb.

"Roses are definitely one of the nice, fragrant, sweet flavors that can be a main ingredient," said Anisha Jagtap, chef-owner of Puffs & Pastries in Hampden. "For me, it's my favorite flavoring for a flower. … Roses are definitely one of the best edible flowers to try."

Born in the United States to Indian parents, Jagtap developed a taste for rose on a visit to India.

"First time I had it was as a little girl — rose petal ice cream outside a palace in India, touring around," she said. "It was so crazy. The ice cream wasn't even pink, but the rose petals were so bright and pink. … You would get almost half-pieces of fresh rose petal. You got this really sweet flavor."

Jagtap is eager to share that flavor with customers at Puffs & Pastries, which she opened on The Avenue in September 2008. But she knows Americans can be wary of rose, even if they don't blink at other edible flowers.

"It's easier for me to sell something that's lavender than rose — period," said Jagtap, who did a brisk, Groupon-fueled business in Lavender French Apple Pies at Thanksgiving. "People don't quite equate roses with eating. More so, people think of lavender as an herb and roses aren't. People's perception is it's a flower as opposed to something you eat."

But Jagtap seems to be cultivating a following for her floral favorite, particularly around Valentine's Day, when she uses rose buttercream icing on 6-inch heart-shaped cakes that resemble Conversation Heart candies. (Last year at Valentine's, she developed recipes for rose granita and rose sorbet for Taharka Brothers Ice Cream.)

All year at the shop, rose mousse fills butter cakes, eclairs and cupcakes. Rose pastry cream sits between squares of puff pastry and slices of mango, pear and strawberries. It's also sandwiched between layers of lavender cake in a confection known as Cinderella Cake. Rose also finds its way into a saffron-infused rice pudding. She plans to add a rose sticky-rice pudding with fresh mango and toasted black-and-white sesame seeds to the menu this month.

Jagtap gets that rose flavor from rose syrup made in India (Kalvert is one brand in her kitchen) and dried heirloom rose petals from France, which she'll sometimes steep in pastry cream or sprinkle atop treats for decoration. ("The French do a good job of clipping [the flowers] when they're light and bright," she said. "Otherwise, they can be bitter").

Rose water and syrups are still too out-there for Sparks-based McCormick to bottle them. The company website nonetheless has recipes for Lamb Kaftas with Rose-Infused Dipping Sauce, Field Salad with Strawberries, Kumquats and Rose Petals, and Apricot-Poppy Phyllo Purses with Rose Water Glaze. (The recipes, which call for rose water, direct home cooks to specialty stores or Middle Eastern markets for that ingredient.)

"We are watching the trend for rose flavor," said Laurie Harrsen, a McCormick spokeswoman, noting that the company declared rose and poppyseed a Top 10 flavor pairing in its 2008 "flavor forecast."

Chef John Walsh of Chef's Expression catering in Timonium will serve a Rosewater, White Chocolate and Raspberry Parfait as part of a Valentine's Day wine dinner at Gramercy Mansion. But his use of rose in desserts and savory dishes isn't limited to the holiday.

"I use it a lot when I do vegan weddings," Walsh said, describing a salad made of crisp micro-lettuces, rose petals and fresh strawberries in a vinaigrette made with rose water, shallots and a white balsamic reduction. "It's absolutely gorgeous."

He marinates fresh petals in rum overnight with basil and strawberries for mojitos. He also likes rose water in baklava and Thai black rice pudding. He thinks it works well with white chocolate and raspberries.

"It's an exclamation point," he said. "It's a sweetness. It'll never put you in a bad mood."

Walsh makes a lamb tagine with nuts and dried fruit and serves it over a bed of toasted couscous flavored with cinnamon, dried figs and rose water. The rose water helps bring out the many spices in the dish.

"It just enhances it to the next level," Walsh said. "It's like you're at a spice market. It really brings it out. When you smell it, you get hungry. You want to dive into it."

Which isn't to say Walsh thinks everyone is ready for rose, particularly in savory dishes. When he made a batch of the lamb stew last week for the Walters Art Museum's cafe, which Chef's Expressions runs, he went lighter than usual on the rose water.

"If I'm controlling the clientele, like at a wine dinner, they'll go for it," he said. "Our clients are very, very cool. When they want something from us, they're pretty into food. … When you're doing it for the [general] public, you have to go a little delicate on it."

laura.vozzella@baltsun.com

Quick & easy rose buttercream icing

Makes: enough to frost a dozen cupcakes or an 8-inch cake

1 pound unsalted butter, softened

3/4 cup rose syrup or 1/4 up crushed dried Heirloom roses (untreated with pesticides)

1/2 cup confectioners sugar

1/2 cup whole milk

In a mixing bowl, whip softened butter until fluffy, about 10 minutes. On low speed, slowly add rose flavoring (or petals) and sugar. Scrape down sides of mixing bowl to whip evenly. Once the mixture is light and fluffy, gently stream in whole milk in small increments until completely incorporated.

Give the buttercream one last even mix and you're done. Pipe or spread on cakes or cupcakes.

Recipe courtesy of chef Anisha Jagtap of Puffs & Pastries bakery

Lamb tagine

Makes: 6 servings

2 1/2 pound boneless lamb shoulder, cut into 1 1/2 -inch pieces or lamb shanks

1 medium sweet onion, halved and thinly sliced

3 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup grapeseed oil, divided

3 (3-inch) cinnamon sticks

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon Ras el Hanout (a North African spice blend, available at specialty stores, online and some supermarkets)

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 pinch saffron threads

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1 tablespoon white wine

About 2 1/2 cups water

1/2 pound dried figs (about 2 cups)

3 tablespoons lavender honey

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1/4 cup whole blanched almonds

1/4 cup pistachios

Toss together lamb, onion, 3 tablespoons oil, spices (except saffron), 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper in a 5- to 6-quart heavy pot.

Lightly toast saffron in a dry small skillet (not nonstick) over medium heat until just fragrant, 15 to 30 seconds. Crumble into wine and let stand 1 minute. Add wine to pot, and then add enough water to just cover lamb. Gently simmer, partially covered, stirring occasionally, 1 1/2 hours.

Stir in figs and honey and simmer until meat is tender and sauce has thickened, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with salt.

Toast sesame seeds in dry small skillet over medium heat, stirring, until pale golden, then transfer to a small bowl.

Heat remaining 1/4 cup oil in same skillet over medium-high heat until it shimmers, and then sauté almonds and pistachios until almonds are golden. Drain on paper towels. Serve Tagine, sprinkled with sesame seeds, pistachios and almonds, over Toasted Couscous (see recipe below).

Recipe courtesy of Chef John Walsh of Chef's Expressions catering

Toasted couscous with rose water

Makes: 6 servings

1/4 cup olive oil

4 cups chopped onions

1 15-ounce can garbanzo beans (chickpeas), drained

1 cup chopped dried figs (about 6 ounces)

3 cups chicken stock

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

2 cups (about 12 ounces) toasted couscous (also known as Israeli couscous)

2 tablespoons of rose water

1/3 cup chopped fresh mint

1/2 cup slivered almonds, toasted

Heat oil in heavy large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and sauté until very tender and beginning to brown, about 25 minutes. Add garbanzo beans and figs and stir 1 minute. Add broth and cinnamon and bring to boil. Mix in couscous and rose water. Cover pot; remove from heat. Let stand 15 minutes.

Mix in mint and half of almonds. Season with salt and pepper. Mound couscous in bowl. Sprinkle with remaining almonds.

Recipe courtesy of Chef John Walsh of Chef's Expressions catering

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