Don't get the wrong idea. The party I describe below is not indicative of my general "lifestyle" (that is one of my least favorite words, by the way, and I use it a little bit sarcastically-- it's so deceptive; what is a life "style" anyway? the word implies that we are all living be some sort of grand design that we chose in consultation with some professional, and that we're careful not to veer off of it; as if; maybe that elusive 1%). Anyway, maybe once a year I manage something like this. But one of the reasons I'm currently aspiring to do some private cheffing is that I love to put together and execute menus. I would do it more if I had, well, more money, time, and energy!
Anyway, getting to the point, every year my neighborhood in St. Louis has a Spring House Tour (http://www.lafayettesquare.org/). Many home owners dress in Victorian outfits and proudly display their homes to tourists and aficionados of architecture. I haven't yet heard anyone expound, however, on the deep French influence in our Lafayette Square (for heaven's sake), in relation to the tour. They seem to lean toward the English expression of the period, totally. I hope to remedy that this year with a poetry reading in our Community Garden that includes both the Victorian and the French poets of the period. The French, while the Victorians were busy being all, well, Victorian about everything, just carried on being French, and so the two 'schools' play rather obviously off one another. It doesn't take a literary theorist to grok the implications. Imagine Victorian-costumed persons reading poems, with cocktails in their hands. Under the arbor in the garden. We're trying to get it together....
Anyway, last year I had just moved into the neighborhood. Molly and I had some friends over for the tour, and for a little pre-tour buffet I called A Brunch of Roses. I tried to make everything I could with edible flowers in it. It proved nearly impossible for less than a zillion dollars to find unsprayed flower petals and especially rose petals on shortish notice, so I worked with a lovely organic rose syrup from Tuscany (http://www.foodandwine.com/articles/ingredient:-flower-power-%7C-organic-rose-syrup) and culinary rose water (http://www.amazon.com/Monteux-Culinary-Flower-Flavored/dp/B000KDJLYS). The whole thing was divine. If I may:
Champagne Rose Cocktails
Rose Iced Tea
Fresh Squeezed Orange Juice
Porcini Tart with Walnuts and Wild Arugula
Smoked Salmon, Prosciutto, and Fresh Baked Bread
Floral Butter and Jam
Herbed Grilled Spanish Cheese on ‘Seeduction’ Bread
Berries with Rose Cream
Rhubarb and Rose Bread Pudding with Strawberry Rose Sauce
Saffron and Rose Ice Cream (a quart of Briar's vanilla, softened slightly, then swirled with the rose syrup and a pinch of saffron)
Home Made Deep Chocolate and Rose Truffles
I had an unfamiliar-food-squeamish guest who just totally fell in love with the bread pudding (as did everyone), even though she'd never heard of putting flowers in food. It was by far the most raved about dish we served. It really is lovely, subtle, not too sweet. The rose aroma is the perfect compliment to the rhubarb.
This very simple recipe comes from Everything French Gardening (http://www.frenchgardening.com/). I wish I could say I thought it up. But I am just happy enough to be able to eat it once a year. I'm giving it to you a little early so that you can be on the lookout for the rhubarb when it hits the markets. Definitely get it at its peak!
Rhubarb-rose bread pudding with strawberry-rose sauce
(Pain perdu à la rhubarbe et à la rose, coulis fraise-rose)
For 6 servings:
1 lb rhubarb, preferably pink
1/2 + 3/4 c. sugar
4 packed cups crustless brioche or good white bread
2 c. heavy cream, light cream, crème fraîche, and/or milk in any combination
2 whole eggs + 2 yolks
1 T + 1 t. rose water (or more to taste)
One pint very fresh, flavorful strawberries
Optional garnish: fresh organic rose petals or candied rose petals, mint sprigs
2 hours before serving, slice the rhubarb 1/4" thick and toss in a bowl with 1/2 c. sugar. After 2 hours, drain the rhubarb into a small enameled saucepan, pressing down on it with the back of a spoon, reserving the syrup. Chop the rhubarb medium texture by hand or in a food processor (if the latter be careful not to over-process). Toss in a bowl with the brioche cubes. In another bowl, whisk the eggs, yolks, cream mixture, 3/4 c. sugar, and 1 T. rosewater. Test for rose fragrance: the mixture should smell slightly of rose. Pour over the bread-rhubarb mix and toss gently to combine. Pour into a buttered 8" souffle dish or into individual ramekins for a more elegant presentation. Place in a larger baking dish and pour hot water around the container. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour, or until a knife inserted in center comes out clean. Allow to cool.Meanwhile, heat the reserved rhubarb syrup to boiling and cook for about 10 minutes until reduced and syrupy. Puree the strawberries with the cooled syrup, add 1/2-1 tsp. rosewater (to taste). Strain the strawberry sauce through a fine sieve if you want to remove the seeds. Serve the pudding with a swirl of strawberry coulis, a scattering of rose petals (if you have them) and a sprig of mint to remind us that these wonders come from the vegetal world.
Note: This wonderful spring dessert combines 3 naturally complementary flavors. In fact, rose and rhubarb are so magical together I can't understand why I hadn't thought of pairing them before! We had this as dessert after soup of petit pois à la française and roast spring chicken stuffed with ramps (wild leeks), spring garden leeks, and pearls of new garlic.
End note from Margaret: Cooking with rose water is very old fashioned. I have a very old pound cake recipe that calls for three drops. Rose water is also very calming to the nerves. And good for one. Since 1988 I have been misting my face with rose water every morning and every night. It is supposed to ease inflamation and all sorts of other things. It is a lovely way to start and end the day, if nothing else. Also, for those of you interested in the spiritual side, rose water works on the heart chakra, so it's very good for opening one to the love and beauty of the world, and for healing the hurts that naturally fall upon one in the course of living.