Take Time to Smell the Roses (and make Rose Jam!)
Eating rose petals? That concept is not as strange to me as it might be to some others. When I was a child, I remember wandering in the garden with my favorite uncle. He loved fragrances – fragrant flowers, perfumed soaps, colognes, fragrances. I watched him as he tilted his head down towards a rose and inhaled deeply, closing his eyes in deep enjoyment.
Then, he plucked a few petals off a rose and to my great surprise, started eating them! I stared at him, speechless. “Try it,” he exclaimed with characteristic excitement, offering me some petals. I shook my head. “Try it, it’s really good,” he persisted. My aunt, long-suffering, told me I didn’t have to. Seeing his eager, childlike anticipation, I took a petal and put it in my mouth. It tasted like…roses.
Years later, one day at my place of employment, I dropped by the office of Meredith, my friend and colleague.
This is how we first became friends. A few years earlier, we were both at my desk, talking science, and then speaking of visitors at the company booth at a conference, perhaps.
“They come and go,” she remarked, referring to the somewhat unpredictable traffic at the booth.
And then added casually, “Talking of Michelangelo.”
“Ohhhh.” I gasped, completely charmed. “Eliot. Prufrock.”
“Of course,” she said.
“My favorite poem,” I continued. (Read the entire poem here.)
We both laughed at this magical exchange and our newly discovered common love for poetry and literature. Our friendship was sealed forever.
Meredith also shares my interest in foods and cooking. In the cabinets in her office, amidst the books on anatomic pathology and boxes of slides, she kept some snacks: crackers, packets of Madras lentils, cans of soup, which she would generously offer to anyone who didn’t have time for lunch or needed a snack. Fast forward to the day I walked into her office to say hello. Meredith produced a small bottle with something pink inside.
“Rose jam,” she announced, and briskly poured some crackers out of a box onto a plate (she also kept plates and silverware in her office), smeared some rose jam onto one of one of them, and offered it to me. It tasted like… roses.
She explained that she made it from the petals of an 1857 damask rose growing in her garden. And that it needed to be prepared with pectin, lemon juice and sugar. Jam-making was not something I’d ever done, and I nodded politely.
Some months later, after the company we worked at together had folded and we had both moved on to find new work, I paid her a visit at her home. And there she showed me the damask rose from whence came the delicious jam. Meredith sent me home with a cutting which I stuck in the ground in my garden. It was hardy and took off without any fuss. The stalks are covered with very sharp little thorns and I learned to be cautious and gloved as I handled it. I planted it by a fence and trained the stalks to grow along it.
And one day, in several months, it bloomed. The fragrance was breathtaking.
Another season or two went by. By then I had a second plant, having cut a stalk from the first and planted it a few feet away from the first, also against a fence.
When the blooms appeared, it struck me that I could try my hand at rose jam. I swung into action. I asked Meredith for her recipe. Here’s what she sent me.
Rose jam recipe from Meredith, using damask roses
You need to collect at least 100 gm of rose petals (this would be about 8 to 10 roses, depending on size).
This should fill about 2 x 8-oz jam jars. [I boil these and cap set in a spaghetti pot for 20 min to sterilize. Can then lift out the insert and drain jars using sterile tongs to manipulate the hot glass. ] With small kitchen scissors, cut petals from central stamen, being careful to cut away the white pithy part of the petal where it inserts - this part never softens and spoils the taste. Wash the petals carefully and spin in a salad spinner to dry.
Using scissors or a knife, or your hands, tear or cut the petals into relatively small sections (this is a matter of taste - I like them finely chopped). Put torn or cut petals into non-reactive (glass) bowl and spritz with the juice of half a Meyer lemon. Let sit for 10-20 minutes. Meanwhile, In a sauce pan, make a syrup using > 1 c water > 1 c sugar Bring to a boil - make sure all the sugar is dissolved, then add the petals with the lemon juice. Cook about 15 minutes with a gentle boil. Prepare pectin: in a small glass prep bowl add and mix: > 1 tsp Ball’s Original Fruit Pectin > 2 tsp water > 4 tsp sugar Slowly add pectin mix to simmering roses and cook another 10 minutes. [You may add a small pat of butter to help stop foaming, but that is not absolutely necessary. Total simmer/boil time should be about 20-25 minutes. Fill hot sterilized jam jars with rose mixture. Do NOT fill to the top. Cap tightly and let cool. after it cools, tilt jars to evaluate how ‘solid’ the jell is. You can “re-make’ if it is not jelled.
To this I responded with two questions:
1. Where do you buy the pectin?
2. Sugar: turbinado sugar ok? Or do you stick with a particular kind?
Let's see if I make it with all the sterilizing etc. Never made jam before!
And Meredith responded with:
Oh, a novice!
I would google something about jam making. You buy the pectin at the same place as the jars - a hardware store is best. ACE will have them. The pectin will come with canning directions. EVERYTHING must be sterile.
I just checked my cabinet. My pectin type is Ball’s “Real Fruit Low or No sugar needed pectin”
If I make some this weekend I will call you.
Following her instructions, I went to Ace Hardware and bought pectin, as well as other jam-making paraphernalia, such as bottles, tongs, and white sugar (not turbinado, so the color of the rose jam would be its own.) I plucked a Meyer lemon from the garden. I followed the recipe.
The rose jam did not jell. This is what Meredith said to do, after congratulating me on making rose jam:
I would wait 24h and see if it jells then. If not, then put everything back in the pot and re-heat. Add more lemon juice and a little bit more pectin (use your judgment, on the pectin input, should be maybe 1/5 of what you started with). But don’t be shy about adding lemon juice. Remember, the pectin won’t form a polymer unless it is in an acidic solution and heated to a hard boil for 5 or 10 minutes.
I made my jam last week but I made the mistake of heating it too long so it is very concentrated and not ‘gloppy’ - but I could thin it with water if I want to use it as a sauce.
We learn by doing . . .
And so I remade with more lemon juice and pectin. It thickened (likely due to boiling and evaporation) but did not gel. Not even after 24 hours. Not even in the refrigerator.
Somewhat disheartened, I asked Meredith: “Is a round 3 warranted, or best to use as sauce in waffles and such?”
Said Meredith, “I am sorry about the jam not jelling - go ahead and use it as a sauce.”
Despite the less-than-ideal consistency, it tasted divine! I used it as a syrup and gave some to friends. And then I put away the jam making supplies and tools.
A couple of years after, this spring, all the roses and the garden came out in full force on all rosebushes. The damask rose plants were no exception. The fragrance was as stunning and intoxicating as ever. One day I observed a dozen or so flowers.
Rose jam! I thought. This time, I decided, I would add a lot more lemon. And perhaps more pectin. Or whatever. Make it gel.
I swung into action and sterilized a few glass jars and lids. Plucked eight roses, trimmed the whites off with a sharp paring knife, washed the petals and spun them dry in a salad spinner.rose jam
The pectin. It looked discolored. Nevertheless, I persisted. I wasn’t about to go out and buy more pectin). I scouted in the lemon trees in the backyard and found a huge lemon. Lisbon, not Meyer. Plucked it, washed it and got it ready to be deployed.
I added the prepared rose petals to a glass bowl and squeezed the lemon juice into it.
I prepared the sugar syrup, added the rose petals.
To ensure that I had sufficient pectin, I took some of the rind of the lemon and threw it into the whole mix.
The kitchen smelled like heaven. I spooned the warm jam into the sterilized bottles and it cool.
This round was thicker, more like jam. The petals just melt in your mouth. Great on pancakes, toast, mixed into Greek yogurt, or spooned over brie smeared on a cracker. Or (dare I say) all by itself!