“Do you remember Asya’s recipe for rose jam?” I ask my grandmother as I return to the house with a basket full of rose petals. A craggy shrub by the fence has suddenly sprouted into a mass of frilly pink blossoms, and I feel inspired. “No,” says Valentina, with an expression that accepts no arguments. “She wasn’t much of a cook. She never made jam.” I’m confused, because I do recall gathering roses for jam with my great-grandmother. Did I make it up, just like I concocted the story of my father being a Bollywood actor? Then my grandmother reconsiders. “You’re right, she did. Every summer. But it was terrible. Dark and overcooked.”
The saccharine stories that preface many cookbooks, of learning cooking at grandmother’s side as she tenderly explains the right way to cut carrots or hull strawberries, aren’t part of my childhood recollections. Valentina has so little tolerance for imperfection, or deviations from her way of doing things, that cooking with her is as relaxing as being a Top Chef contestant. Asya, her mother, had no patience for mincing and sauteing; her passion was the garden. Perhaps, this is why I don’t remember eating her jam, only the intense honeyed fragrance of roses as we picked them.
So I turn to another great-grandmother for advice. Olena, Valentina’s mother-in-law, is venerated in our family as a cook of incomparable skill. She left many notebooks filled with recipes and beauty advice, and while I don’t remember her–she passed away when I was an infant, I like to imagine that she would be the perfectly patient grandmother in the kitchen. The measured, calm tone of her notes feels reassuring, and the range of her recipes makes me envision endless feasts.
As in any place situated on major trade routes, Ukrainian cuisine is diverse and rich. This land was the crossing place for anyone who felt like crossing it–Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians, Moldovans, Russians, Ottoman Turks. Some outcomes of contacts with other cultures were—and remain—traumatic. Others, like food, were more felicitous. The blend of imported foodstuffs with local traditions produced such favorites as hearty borsch and elegant fish soups, pork charcuterie and cheeses, dumplings and noodles in all shapes and sizes, intricate cakes and breads, pastries and crepes, and a bewildering array of liqueurs and preserved fruit. Open any old Ukrainian cookbook, and you will see enough rosewater and saffron to inspire you to recite Persian poetry.
Olena likewise includes several recipes for rose jam. The simplest one is to crush petals with lots of sugar to make a thick paste. “200g of sugar for every 100g of petals; use it to stuff sugar dough crescents,” I decipher from her messy scroll. But I’m after the real rose delicacy—petals slowly cooked in sugar syrup until they form into a dark pink marmalade that would make the roses of Shiraz envious. Just like recipes on the internet, Olena’s cookbook overwhelms me with information. Apparently, you can cook rose jam in a number of ways, but which one is the best? Why should you do the fiddly work of trimming the petals? Should you macerate overnight or skip the step altogether?
Asya’s rosebush takes pity on me and releases a generous batch of flowers every morning. I experiment until I’m satisfied with my creation. Along the way, I learn a few important techniques: You must trim the white ends of petals; they taste tannic. Boiling roses in water till they soften completely and letting them macerate overnight results in a vivid color. (But ignore delusional cookbook instructions to blanch petals in water and then discard it, unless your aim is a tasteless brown paste.) Don’t skimp on sugar; roses smell sweet but they taste bitter.
Think of rose jam not as a preserve but as a sweetmeat with a complex flavor. Sweetness hits the palate first, with the sensation of a thousand petals unfolding in your mouth, but what lingers is bitterness, the mellow bitterness of almonds, unripe apricots or green figs. The contrast is addictive. Rose jam can accompany ice cream, garnish crepes, cakes or bread, but here I advocate for simplicity. A small saucer of jam and a cup of black tea is all you need for the ultimate rose flavored bliss. My grandmothers are sure to approve.
Rose Jam (Варення з Пелюсток Троянд)
I realize that few of us have access to fresh, unsprayed rose petals, but Olena writes that you can also make jam with dried flowers. Select brightly colored, fragrant petals. Rehydrate them in water. Once softened, bring them to simmer and cook till the petals are soft. Follow the rest of the instructions below. The proportions if using dry petals are 100 g (4 cups) of petals to 500 g (2 ½ cups) of sugar. Some roses are more bitter than others, so taste the petals before cooking and adjust the sugar amount. Add 1 teaspoon of rosewater once you take the jam off the heat. I haven’t yet experimented, but it’s already my next project. As I write this, the table around me is covered with drying flowers.
Makes 2 one pint jars
250 g (1/2 pound) fresh, unsprayed and fragrant rose petals (after cleaning, see below)
600 g (3 cups) sugar
Juice of 1 ½ lemons
If you’re picking roses yourself, gather whole flowers in the late morning when their perfume is at its strongest. Spread them out on a towel. Holding each flower upside down, snip the petals around the heart of the flower, using scissors. The idea is to cut off the white ends of the petals, which taste tannic. Shake the petals in a colander to remove any yellow stymens and weigh them. You should have 250g.
Cover petals with 2 cups of water and bring to a slow simmer. Let the petals shrink and soften, about 5 minutes. The petals will lose their bright color, but don’t worry, it will be revived later. Take the pan off the heat. Cover the pan with a towel, set aside in a cool place and let them macerate for 24 hours or overnight.
Next day, drain liquid from the petals. Add extra water to make up 2 ½ cups. In a large pan, add sugar and water. Bring to a boil and skim the foam. Add the petals and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 5 minutes.
Add lemon juice and watch the color become vibrant. Simmer until the petals are translucent and tender and until the syrup thickens and drips slowly from a spoon, about 40-45 min (how to judge if the jam has set).
Ladle the hot jam in sterilized jars (how to sterilize jars). Seal immediately by closing the lid of the jars tightly. Store in a cool, dark place. Refrigerate after opening.
Photography by Bois de Jasmin