Gayle L. Squires
Call it a fortuitous calendar coincidence, this year the Persian New Year festival Norooz falls during the same week as Purim. Much like the bump Hanukkah gets from Christmas, “Purim in Iran gets a boost from Norooz, the biggest Persian holiday of the year,” writes Louisa Shafia in “The New Persian Kitchen”. The two holidays play off one another in delicious ways — both are celebrated by visiting family with gifts of food and hosting celebratory feasts (the Purim Seudah and the Norooz Haft-Seen centered around seven symbolic foods.)
In light of this year’s Purim-Norooz near-concurrence, I decided to ditch traditional Ashkenazi fare and send friends and family traditional Purim baskets (mishloach manot) filled with goodies inspired by Persian ingredients: rose water and orange blossom water that are pervasive in Persian sweet and savory cooking. These floral essences were popularized in the ninth century, a thousand years before vanilla cultivation and commercialization, when Persian Arab scholar, alchemist, and pharmacist Jabbir ibn Hayyan developed a steam distillation technique (also used for alcohol) to extract and concentrate the flavors of damask rose and Seville orange blossom petals. Quickly, these distillates migrated to neighboring Arab countries — where they were adopted by Sephardic Jews — Europe, and, eventually, the New World.
You’ve probably tasted rose water in baklava, Turkish delight, or the Indian dessert ulab jamun. It adds a subtle floral note, but rose extract strengths vary, so use it sparingly to avoid overly perfuming your dishes. The biscotti recipe below is inspired by the flavors of baklava with rose water and pistachios, perfect for a dunk in a glass of strong Persian chai tea.
If you’re not familiar with orange blossom water, a great gateway treat is the Lebanese café blanc, or white coffee, made by mixing a few drops into a mug of boiling water with a pinch of sugar. Orange blossom water is more subtle than rose water, its dulcet tones tempered by a tinge of bitterness, the dark chocolate to rose water’s milk. It pairs perfectly with chocolate in this recipe for chocolate-dipped candied orange peels.
A few drops of these Persian blossom waters will add an exotic touch to your Purim celebrations.
These biscotti are inspired by the flavors of baklava, studded with pistachio and tinged with rose water. Make sure to buy shelled, unsalted pistachios. Like traditional Italian biscotti, these are made without any added fat. Make sure to whip the sugar and eggs until thick and frothy, incorporating as much air as possible so the cookies will be light rather than dense.
Makes about 3 dozen biscotti
1 Tablespoon rose water
7/8 cup sugar (i.e., one cup minus 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of kosher salt
3 cups flour
1 cup shelled, unsalted pistachios
Preheat. Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Mix. Using a stand mixer fitted with the whip attachment, beat together the eggs, sugar, and rose water on medium-high speed for 5-6 minutes until the mixture is light and thick and lemon colored. Add the baking soda, salt, and flour and mix until everything is well blended. Fold in the pistachios. The dough will be slightly sticky and similar to the consistency of sugar cookie dough.
Shape. Cover a baking sheet with parchment paper or aluminum foil. Dampen your hands and shape the dough into two long, skinny loaves (about 15 inches long and 2 inches wide). They will spread a lot during baking, so make sure to leave enough room between them.
Bake. Bake for 30 - 40 minutes until firm and golden brown. You should be able to easily lift each loaf without fear of its sagging in the middle.
Cool. Let the loaves cool for about 5 minutes until you can touch them. Lower the oven to 275ºF.
Slice. With a serrated bread knife, slice the loaves on the diagonal into 1/2- to 3/4-inch wide slices.
Bake again. Fit a drying rack on top of your baking sheet. Lay the slices flat on the rack and bake for 10-15 minutes until the biscotti are lightly toasted and dry.
Store. Keep the biscotti in an airtight tin or jar.