Vanilla, plain vanilla--it’s the flavor Americans just can’t object to. We smell it and we think of comfortable home cooking. Rosewater, though, is strange and exotic. Many even find it oddly revolting in food.
It’s lucky for rosewater haters that time travel hasn’t been invented, because they’d find rosewater all over the place in America (and most of Europe as well) right up till the middle of the 19th century. It’s in the very first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ “American Cookery” (1796). Simmons put rosewater in bread pudding and poundcake, even in apple pie and gingerbread.
Roses have a charming aroma, of course. But centuries ago, rosewater’s special charm was the simple fact that you didn’t have to buy it. The home cook could make her own in the “still-room” where she made the family’s liqueurs and medicines. It didn’t need a lot of special equipment. You could just boil rose petals and use the water.
Its traditional home was in puddings, cakes and custards, though it could show up in just about any sweet--one 1755 English cookbook put rosewater in “whafles” and an American-style pumpkin pie. Like almonds, it had been a favorite ingredient in the Middle Ages, and rosewater and almonds still kept company well into the 19th century. Cookbooks often warned that when you’re grinding almonds, you should always add a little rosewater to keep them from oiling.
But taste was slowly abandoning rosewater. Wine and brandy started elbowing it aside in the late 18th century, and cookbooks began calling for them where you might have expected rosewater. Still, two of the most popular cookbooks of mid-19th century America, Eliza Leslie’s “Directions for Cookery” (1837) and Sarah Rutledge’s “The Carolina Housewife” (1847), used rosewater in dozens of cakes, cookies and puddings.
In the meanwhile, vanilla had already started to show up. “The Virginia Housewife” (1824) gave a recipe for vanilla ice cream, and in the following two decades Leslie and Rutledge used vanilla in a few ice cream and custard recipes. Vanilla was also essential for charlotte russe, a highly fashionable mid-19th century dish consisting mostly of gelatin-stiffened whipped cream.
Rosewater goes fine with almonds--not just in European dishes of centuries ago but in Middle Eastern pastries today. In the 19th century, though, European and American desserts had been turning away from almonds in favor of cream and chocolate, with which vanilla has a special affinity. So the real question is why vanilla took so long to make its move. The reason is simply that there had just never been much vanilla to go around.
As late as the 1830s, every vanilla bean in the world had been gathered wild in Mexico. But then people started raising vanilla on islands in the Indian Ocean, and it was there that a freed slave named Albius invented the process of artificial pollination that made it possible to produce vanilla on a mass scale. Today 80% of the world’s vanilla still comes from the Indian Ocean islands of Mauritius, Reunion and Madagascar.
It was after the Civil War that vanilla really made its move. One sign is that cookbook writers started calling for undefined “flavoring,” which could mean either rosewater or vanilla (or wine, lemon juice or peach-leaf extract, for that matter).
By the time of “The White House Cookbook” (1887), the triumph of vanilla was at hand. Chef Hugo Ziemann called for vanilla in 32 of his recipes, a choice of flavoring in 23 and rosewater in just eight. Vanilla had become such a staple that it was mostly being sold in the more convenient form of vanilla extract, and recipes now measured vanilla by the teaspoon rather than explaining how to use vanilla beans.
By the 1890s rosewater was a goner. Fanny Farmer’s “Boston Cooking School Cook Book” (1896) mentioned its existence, but not one of her recipes called for it. The rosewater era had ended in this country, though perhaps the fragrance lingers on.