Israel tour inspires a taste of roses
Photo: Dave Carlin
Persian Mast o Khiar — Cucumber Yogurt Salad

By Tina Wasserman

I just returned from Israel touring with my niece’s family. Still proud of the industriousness of Israel, I marveled at the newly designed Diaspora Museum, felt connected to history at Yad Vashem and was totally absorbed in Israel’s markets. Yes, I bought candles from Safed, but my suitcase was laden with spices and a kilo of assorted halvahs and dried rose petals! And my scale cried out when I returned from sampling foods every chance I got.

Many dishes I will share with you in the future but this time I want to focus on rose petals and rose water, which scented so many of the dishes I tried or have tried in my travels to Israel and Morocco.

This trip I was on a mission to taste as many Muhallabeya as I could. Which ones were the smoothest, which ones had a strong taste of rose, which ones were made with milk (I found out the hard way!) and which ones were pareve?

Muhallabeya are milk puddings thickened with rice flour found throughout the Middle East. In the Balkan region it is referred to as Sutlage. The most common variety offered in Israel is flavored with rose water or orange-blossom water. Turkish Jews often add vanilla and lemon zest. Indian, Iraqi and Persian Jews add cardamom with the rosewater. However flavored, it is delicious, light and, in my mind, very celebratory and elegant in spite of the fact that it is as common on the street food scene as hummus.

I ate Muhallabeya or Malabi at every breakfast and for dessert at most dinners. I like them smooth as silk and firm like gelatin. Traditionally the use of rice flour made the consistency more like a thick pudding. In Israel, today, cornstarch is often substituted for the rice flour and a smoother consistency is achieved.

Here are two classic recipes: one based on a recipe by Claudia Roden and the other based on a more modern interpretation by Einat Admony. I have tweaked both to accommodate my love of rose water.

Classic Middle Eastern Muhallabeya

  • ¾ cup rice flour
  • 5½ cups milk (whole or 2%)
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1½ tablespoons rosewater
  • Rose petals or chopped pistachios for garnish
  • Syrup:
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tablespoons rose water
  • 1 drop of red or pink food coloring, optional
  1. Combine rice flour and 1 cup milk in a 1-quart bowl, stirring rapidly to prevent lumps from forming. Set aside.
  2. Combine the remaining milk, sugar and salt in a 3-quart saucepan and bring to a boil on medium-high.
  3. Lower temperature and, stirring rapidly with a flat wire whisk, slowly add the rice flour mixture to the saucepan. Continue stirring the contents of the pot until the mixture becomes very thick; this should take about 15 minutes. Do not scrape the bottom of the saucepan too hard or caramelized milk with come up and discolor the mixture.
  4. Remove the pot from the heat and cool slightly. Add the 1½ tablespoons rosewater and stir well.
  5. Pour into individual-sized ramekins. Tap ramekins on the counter to remove any air bubbles from stirring with the whisk. Cool completely, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until cold and firm.
  6. Meanwhile, make the syrup by bringing the sugar and water together in a 1-quart saucepan. Bring to a boil and stir only until the sugar has completely dissolved. Chill until serving.
  7. To serve, pour 1 or 2 spoonfuls of syrup on top of each cup. Serve as is, or sprinkle a few rose petals or chopped pistachios on top and serve.

Makes 6-8 servings

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • To make the Malabi pareve and more in the Israeli way, substitute 1/3 cup cornstarch for the rice flour and 2 cans of coconut milk plus ¾ cup water for the milk. Follow the recipe above.
  • Cornstarch will give you a smoother custard, almost like a flan.
  • For Passover, substitute potato starch for cornstarch and you have a great dessert for the Seder.
  • Bringing equal parts water and sugar to a boil and cooking for 3-4 minutes will create a basic simple syrup that can be flavored with rosewater, orange blossom water or a few drops of jasmine oil. This keeps well in the refrigerator and is great poured lightly over a fruit salad or ice cream or cake.

Rose Petal Cookies

I created these cookies after I came back from Israel. I love the flavor of rose and the petals on top make this a pretty addition to a cookie tray.

  • 1½ cups shelled pistachios (if salted, omit salt below)
  • 2 sticks unsalted butter
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 2 cups flour
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ½ teaspoon vanilla and/or ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom, optional
  • 1 tablespoon rose water
  • 3 tablespoons dried rose petals
  • ¼ cup confectioners’ sugar
  • A few drops of milk for a glaze
  • Additional rose petals for garnish, optional
  1. Place the nuts in a food processor work bowl and pulse on and off until the nuts are ground very fine. Remove to a bowl.
  2. Cream the butter and sugar together in the processor using the metal blade. Add the vanilla and process for 5 seconds.
  3. Combine the flour and salt with the ground nuts.
  4. Add the flour-nut mixture to the work bowl and process 10 seconds.
  5. Add the rose water and rose petals and pulse until the mixture just begins to form a ball.
  6. Place the dough in the leftover flour bowl and cover and refrigerate for 1 hour.
  7. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and use parchment paper to line 2 cookie sheets.
  8. Form cold dough into 1-inch balls and place 1 inch apart on the baking sheet. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until golden. Allow to cool for 10 minutes.
  9. Combine the confectioners’ sugar with enough drops of milk to make a smooth glaze the consistency of heavy cream. Brush on each cookie and then sprinkle with a light dusting of rose petals.
  10. Completely cool before storing in an airtight container. They taste even better if allowed to sit for a day.

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • When using a processor to make a pastry, take care not to process the dough into a ball. By doing so you will have overworked the gluten in the flour and your pastry could be tough and hard to handle.
  • Adding rose petals last to the dough prevents overchopping and allows them to still be visible in the dough.
  • Confectioners’ sugar glaze can be made with water but will create a slightly more transparent glaze.

Persian Mast o Khiar — Cucumber Yogurt Salad

I first ate this dish in a Persian restaurant in Toronto when I was premiering my first book at the URJ Biennial. Its ingredients epitomize the use of fresh herbs in Persian cuisine and it was the first time I had ever had rose petals incorporated into a dish. Rose water and rose petal use spread throughout Europe in the Middle Ages but lost favor in Europe after the discovery of vanilla in the new world.

  • 1 cup thick Greek yogurt, preferably whole or 2%
  • ¼ cup toasted walnuts, finely chopped
  • ¼ cup golden raisins, coarsely chopped
  • ½ of 1 cucumber cut into ¼-inch dice (approximately ¾ cup)
  • 2 tablespoons fresh mint, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chives, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons fresh basil, finely minced
  • 2 tablespoons dried rose petals, crushed or minced
  • 1 clove garlic, finely minced
  • Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • Whole dried rose petals for garnish, optional
  • 1 tablespoon finely ground walnuts for garnish, optional

1. Place thick yogurt in a 2-quart bowl. Stir with a spoon so that yogurt is smooth.

2. Add all of the ingredients together. Check for salt and pepper.

3. Pour finished mixture into a serving bowl. Refrigerate for at least one hour or preferably overnight to allow the flavors to blend.

4. Just before serving, sprinkle bowl with some reserved rose petals and additional ground walnuts if desired.

5. Serve with soft Middle Eastern bread. This recipe can easily be doubled.

Serves 4-6

Tina’s Tidbits:

  • NEVER use dark raisins for this dish. The raisins discolor the yogurt. If you don’t have golden raisins, chopped dried apricots will suffice.
  • A few drops of rose water are not traditional but will add a hint of roses to the dish.
  • This dish is perfect all year-round but specifically great for Shavuot, which is often called the Feast of Roses.

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