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Bottles of orange blossom and rose water earned a permanent home in my cupboard in the l970s after my first taste of Paula Wolfert's salad of sliced oranges—scattered with walnuts and dusted with cinnamon—from her 1973 book, Couscous and Other Good Food from Morocco. The salad was memorable enough to inspire this dessert decades later!
If you’re wavering about buying that 10-ounce bottle of fragrant water for a recipe that calls for only a teaspoon or two, please don’t hesitate! First, you don’t want to miss the special flavor and aroma that these waters impart to a dish. Second, even the best brands (I like Cortas from Lebanon) are inexpensive and keeps for ages in a tightly sealed bottle in the pantry. Third, I’m about to tell you all of the ways you’ll find way to use it up—only to buy another! One more thing: please buy these waters at a Middle Eastern or specialty store; the small bottles sold for cocktail making in the liquor store are not good enough.
Moroccan, Indian, Persian, and other Middle Eastern cookbooks provide plenty of simple (often very sensual) recipes that call for flower waters. But you don’t actually need recipes (or new cookbooks) to start using them casually and intuitively.
First, get acquainted. Open a bottle and sniff from a distance, waving the scent towards your nose—just to get a hint of the aroma and flavor. Now is a good time for me to emphasize that less is more: Too much of these aromatic flavors (in your nose or in a dish) will remind you of soap or granny’s perfume rather than something indescribably delicious and unusual. Just as a familiar flavoring like almond extract is too strong to use in large quantities and always mixed into liquid or wet ingredients to dilute and disperse the flavor, so too are these. I’m convinced that flower water haters have never tasted them used with proper restraint, or have mistakenly used orange oil or orange extract, or orange “flavoring” instead. Do use blossom waters with a light hand—go for the nuance rather than the smack in the face.
Orange and rose flower waters can often be used interchangeable because both go with a many of the same things! For example, that orange salad is divine with either. That being said, each has some special affinities.
Orange blossom water goes with all of the things that oranges or arrange zest normally go with! It goes with chocolate and vanilla, of course, and all sorts of fruit, but here are some affinities that you might not think of right off the bat: cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, cranberries, custard, carrots, dates, figs, ginger, hazelnuts, mango, melon, saffron.
Rose is a little less familiar, more unusual, to the Western palate. It goes well in dishes with almond, walnuts, pistachios and sesame seeds, honey, and cream and all kinds of fruit, especially red fruit such as strawberries, watermelon, raspberries, and with lychees and lemon. Some of the best halvah is flavored with rose. (Psst—rose also goes well with chocolate!)
Here are 6 ways to insinuate a little flower power and aroma into everyday food—all without a recipe. Always start by adding a few drops at a time to wet or liquid ingredient, tasting as you go. If in doubt, less is best.
1. Blossom sugar: Mix 1/2 teaspoon orange or rose flower water thoroughly into a cup of sugar; taste and adjust with more sugar or more drops of flavor. Use to sweeten your tea, top sugar cookies, sprinkle over a bowl of berries, or whatever else you can think of. Store sugar in an airtight container.
2. Fresh fruit: Brighten everything from a platter of orange slices to fruit cocktails, compotes, or salads. Mix a few drops into the juices of your compote or the orange juices that accumulated from slicing or supreming—then toss or baste the fruit with the juices. To flavor a bowl of berries or fruit pieces where there are no juices, toss with blossom sugar (above).
3. Dairy: Add flower water to a glass of milk and honey (warm or ice cold) or a vanilla milkshake. Flavor whipped cream with it, or stir a few drops into plain yogurt sweetened with sugar or honey.
4. Drinking chocolate: Add to hot or cold drinking chocolate with or without spices such as cinnamon, cloves, or chilis.
5. Frostings:Flavor buttercreams and icings to taste.
6. Dessert sauces: Flavor caramel sauce or fruit sauces.
7. Beverages: Flavor fruit juices, aguas frescas, smoothies, and sodas. Don’t miss rose lemonade, and don’t forget cocktails.
I also use fragrant waters in sorbets, sherbets, and ice creams, cakes, cookies, meringues, marshmallows, chocolates, and caramels. For recipes, see my books Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-In-Your-Mouth Cookies, Pure Dessert, and Seriously Bittersweet.
How do you use blossom waters? Share your ideas and wins in the comments.