Monday, June 24, 2013

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19th Century Rose Brandy from Virginia

Within days of moving into the new house, I uprooted all the rose bushes. This was partly because I wanted to make room for herbs in that spot (indeed, wormwood, basil, parsley, and more grow there now). I uprooted them also because they weren’t healthy bushes and I would rather coax something to life there rather than nurse them back to health. But mostly I ripped them out because I can’t abide the overpowering smell of fresh roses. Not in a vase, not in a garden, not as a gift — and for God’s sake, never even near the dinner table where their overpowering odor would ruin any meal.

That’s fresh roses. Roses preserved are another matter. The suffocating, cloying smell of fresh roses can be tempered through skillful distillation, infusion, and preserving in sugar that leaves their distinctive floral notes in place, but smooths out the high notes. Candied rose petals strewn across a cake? Fine. Looks pretty, too. Rosewater in cocktails? Sure, Champagne and mild bourbons can — with a restrained hand — sometimes become the base of delicious rosy drinks. Odds are, I’d rather enjoy that bourbon without the rosewater, but if some bartender wants to show off, why not?

And then there’s baking. Desserts, puddings, pies ~ this is where rose flavors can shine and, apart from the occasional cocktail, where I tend to use rose as a flavoring. A hand pie, filled with stewed dried apples, palm sugar, and rosewater then fried and tossed in sugar is a sublime thing indeed. Good rosewater and even rose syrups are available in Middle Eastern markets and well-stocked liquor stores, but I am tempted to try a batch of 19th century rose brandy. This recipe hails from Virginia, but the technique is nearly identical to older French recipes.

From Mary Stuart Smith’s 1885 Virginia Cookery-Book, here is a rose brandy specifically for flavoring cakes and other desserts. And, hey, maybe a few cocktails.
Rose Brandy for Flavoring 
Gather leaves from fragrant roses, without bruising; fill a pitcher with them, and cover them with French brandy; next day pour off the brandy, take out the leaves, and fill the pitcher with fresh ones, and return the brandy. Do this until it is strongly impregnated; then bottle it. Keep the pitcher closely covered during the process.
Now if only I hadn't ripped out all those rose bushes...

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