When I think of rose water, I can't help but be transported to the Persian Empire of millennia ago. Paper-thin sheets of phyllo, brushed with butter and baked with nuts. Sweet and sour rice dishes with gilded crusts and the perfume of delicately layered spices. And princes sipping sweet milky desserts kissed with rose water.
Yes, I spend a lot of time in front of my pantry sniffing spices.
Fast forward to the modern day—rose water is as likely to be found in Grandma's perfume as in our food. It's an old-fashioned flavor, looking backward rather than forward. But there's something about its ancient caché when treated right, there's nothing like it. Fantasies aside, cooking with rose water is a bit like doing edible history: a window into what we cooked thousands of years ago.
Rose water's best uses are also its oldest: pastries, creamy desserts, spicing for nuts, and accents on braised dishes. These uses came out of the Middle East, especially Persia and Moghul India, where it was also used for cosmetic and religious applications. Like orange blossom water, rose water can be infused into sweet spiced syrups poured over flaky baklava or blended into light cakes. It reinforces the floral notes of cinnamon and honey, with which it's often paired.
Rose water also tastes like it was made for milk and cream, especially from cows raised on flowers and grass. The simplest, and one of the best recipes involving rose water is as follows: stir half a teaspoon or so into some loosely whipped cream. Serve with sweet fruit.
For something slightly more complicated, try faludeh, the Persian version of falooda, a sherbet-like concoction of iced, sweetened milk and rose water, studded with tapioca pearls and strands of vermicelli noodles.
Rose water is nothing short of dreamy in ice cream, especially when joined with other exotic spices like saffron, cardamom, and jasmine. It's a frequent flavor of kulfi, the dense, rich Indian ice pop made from cream, sweetened condensed milk, spices, and occasionally ground almonds. If you've been looking to make ice cream but don't want to invest in an ice cream machine, kulfi is a great introduction as the base doesn't need to churn. Rose water is as classic a flavor for kulfi as vanilla is for American styles of ice cream. And the comparison goes beyond ice cream: rose water is a powerful substitute for vanilla in many applications.
You can also blend rose water into nut mixtures, especially almonds, pistachios, and coconuts. Try it in frangipane, baked into a tart with rich, meaty figs. That all said, sweets aren't your only option for rose water: a touch in Middle Eastern style braises and pilafs does wonders for the aromatic qualities of a savory dish.
If there's a trick to using rose water, it's to use it sparingly. Start with a quarter teaspoon and see how far you want to go. In the right quantities it brings out subtle notes in similar flavors, a perfect accent. Go overboard and whatever you're cooking will taste like musty, bitter flower petals. But that's a pretty easy rule for a spice with such a pedigree. So pick up a bottle from the "ethnic" section of your market (Cortas—pictured above—is my go-to brand) and delve into some seriously good, seriously old-school flavor.