It’s not the kind of thing we think of every day-eating roses, that is. Yet, the noble rose has had a place in our kitchen for eons, tantalizing, seducing, intoxicating people more than any other flower. Roses, which were used as a seasoning, were sold by the roadside in fourth-century BC in Athens. In ancient Greece, the symposia were occasions in which all the senses were engaged, and the perfumes used were as important as the foods served. Rose fragrance was considered appropriate for a drinking party; rose essence was also sometimes used to season wine, in both ancient Greece and Rome.
Later, the rose appears in confections. The Byzantines were probably the first to make rose sugar, which was also a popular Medieval sweet. Rosewater also was mixed with salep and drunk as a fortifying beverage as early as the seventh century in Constantinople. The Byzantines also mixed rose syrup with crushed mountain ice to make sorbet. Rosewater is the basic flavoring agent in loukoumi. Elsewhere in the Middle East, it is still drunk as a beverage and appears throughout Persia and Arabia as an aromatic sauce for certain meat dishes.
My mother used to make the rose petals into the most delicious spoon sweet and also she made both rodostagma, rodo (pl. roda) meaning roses and stagma, a drop – distillation (rose water) and anthonero, anthos meaning blossoms and nero, water (citrus blossom water).
Rose water cannot be made from any roses but there is a certain variety which is like a shrub and produces lots of small roses which are very aromatic. We used to have some of these roses in our garden and a few citrus trees in our back yard.
My mother had a still, where the petals of roses or blossoms were boiled with water. The steam coming out from the still would then condense and flow through the tube where she would collect the rose or blossom water. The house would smell heavenly.
During that period when there were plenty of roses or bitter orange blossoms she would also make the petals into the most fragrant spoon sweet, which also smelled and tasted heavenly. A lot of Cypriot desserts have rose water or blossom water in them or served with them. One of these desserts which is served with rose water, is called mahalebi.
Believe it or not, this dessert is a street food. Street vendors with carts used to sell it in Cyprus . They made it with cornstarch and water. Nothing else. They would then put it in empty condensed milk tins (which were half filled) and cooled it on ice blocks. When the customer would come to buy some, they would flip it in a plate and would either wet it with some rose water and sprinkle as much sugar as the customer wanted on or just pour triantafyllo, meaning rose cordial, on top. Triantafyllo is a syrup made from rose petals and has a rich alizarine colour and of course the aroma of rose is also very strong.
At home my mother would often prepare mahalebi with milk instead of water and only during the days of fasting she would make it with water. A few days ago, I had a lot of milk in the refrigerator and since it was about to expire I decided to make Mahalebi, which is one of the easiest and nicest desserts to make. You don’t need a recipe to make this dessert, just enough corn flour (starch) to set the cream.
I made it in the afternoon and it was cloudy and not much natural light to take proper pictures. I decided to keep one in the refrigerator to photograph it the other day but I had already added the caramelized pistachios and by the next day the sugar had melted.
I used to think that this recipe is Cypriot but in the ’80s after the war in Lebanon, many Lebanese came to live in Cyprus and we learned that they made it as well and it is called muhallabiyeh. That really did make sense as the word itself sounds like Arabic. Since then we learned to make their version of mahalebi, as well. I will prepare and post that recipe another day.
The Lebanese usually serve it with pistacchios from where I got the idea but they do not caramelize them, as I did.
Preparation and cooking time: 5 minutes
Ingredients for caramelized pistachios:
- 1/2 cup of unsalted pistachios
- 1 heaped tablespoon of brown sugar
- A sprinkle of rose water to wet the sugar
Place nuts and sugar in a non stick frying pan and keep stirring until the sugar melts.
Empty them on a parchment paper and when they have cooled, crush them a little and sprinkle on top.
The recipe is included in my cookbook Mint, Cinnamon & Blossom Water, Flavours of Cyprus, Kopiaste!
Tags: anthonero, blossom water, corn flour, corn starch, Creams, Cypriot, Cypriot cookbook, Desserts, healthy recipes, mahalepi, Mediterranean diet, Mint Cinnamon & Blossom Water Flavours of Cyprus Kopiaste!, Pudding, Rodostagma, rose cordial, rose water, Traditional, triantafyllo