So, a reader asked if my cookies were orgasmic, and I promised to answer in the next few days or so.
They were delectable, as always. They were seductive, enticing, teasing little bites of bliss.
I always feel weird writing about my own food and talking about how good it is; such behavior is perilously close to bragging and bragging was something I was taught not to do as a child. It is tacky to boast, it is unseemly and only people with low self esteem and no sense of class brag, or at least, so I was led to believe as a child. Now, of course, I recognize this as the root of my utter inability to do my own PR as a chef, personal chef, caterer or instructor, much less as a plain old cook, so it is something I try to sidestep in my life these days.
I decided a while back that if I just report the facts about my cooking ability and my food, it isn’t bragging–it is merely telling the truth.
So, the truth about the Aphrodite Cakes is this: the are decadance in cookie form and they do cause oral orgasm upon ingestion. Only one person out of the hundreds who have tried them has not liked them, and that had more to do with his limited taste than anything to do with the cookies. He barely liked anything at all, so I discount his rather strong negative reaction.
Everyone else loves them, without fail, and will eat inordinate amounts of them.
Last Sunday, I used them in my presentation to the local Unitarian Fellowship on the subject of “The Sacred Table: Food and Spirituality,” to great effect. Not only did everyone get into the fun and sensual pleasure of feeding each other wee roseate bits of heaven, but the cookies garnered me requests for catering: one wedding and a big birthday party, as well as a possible contract to cater for some Ohio University employees.
Maybe, instead of talking about how good my food is, which still makes me blush, I should just pass out those cookies, and wait for people to fall at my feet and beg me to cook for them.
Sounds like a plan.
Photographs of the wee delights do not do them justice: they are tiny, pastel things which look somewhat washed out on the screen. When they are seen in natural light, they are unassuming and very innocent looking– ivory cookie bases topped with rosettes of creamy pink icing. But when you pick them up, and raise them to your lips, their scent gives them away as the breath of roses tickles the nostrils and whispers naughty thoughts into the olfactory centers of the brain.
When you bite into them, the tender domed cookie melts on the tongue, releasing the butter and vanilla cloaked in their hearts, while the icing dissolves, jolting the senses with the sweet kiss of rosewater, evoking sunwarmed summer skin, the laughter of a lover and the fleeting touch of trailing fingertips.
These cookies are potent.
I wrote an article about them entitled “Whispered Secrets of a Kitchen Tantrika” that was published a couple of summers ago in SageWoman magazine, and am reprinting it here for everyone to read, as it not only describes the origin story of these wicked morsels, but a good chunk of my own kitchen philosophy is contained therein.
Whispered Secrets of a Kitchen Tantrika
Some flavors haunt you, like a ghost of a half-remembered dream, hidden in a dusty, dark corner of your mind. Amidst the cobwebs and skittering shadow creatures live golden nuggets of crystalline sensation live, waiting to be discovered, dusted off and brought to life upon your tongue.
An unabashed sensualist, when I am in the kitchen working my alchemy, I continually seek to bring memories to life for people, to give them flavors that inspire the closed eyes, and the reverent rolling of the tongue that presages a whispered, wordless utterance of awe. Like Tita, the main character of Laura Esquivel’s novel, “Like Water for Chocolate,” I know that cooking is essentially a sacred act, and an intimate one. In making food for others to consume, I am giving part of myself to them, which, when they eat it, joins with them, and becomes a part of them, forever. With food, I can make love to the entire world, if I so wish, and never be considered a slut for it.
When I cook, I want it to be an act of kitchen tantra.
So, as a kitchen tantrika, a seductress and enchantress of the cookstove, there are a few flavors which I will use in order to induce the voluptuous pleasure that falling in love gives the human psyche. I think of these flavors as an extension of my own energy, as elixirs and philters which help transfer my life-giving force into a physical form which seeps into another person by way of their lips, tongue and tastebuds. These flavors are like my signature, and are very personal to me.
I am told by other alchemists of the culinary arts that I should hide my secrets, keep my flavor riches to myself, and cloak my magicks in mystery. To these assertions, I shrug and say, “Even if others use my flavors, they will not taste exactly as they do in my hands.” This has proven to be true, for even accurately reproduced recipes transcribed from my hand, and recreated by perfectly competent cooks have not resulted in a dish exactly like mine. That is because the energy is different, even if the flavors are the same, and not every cook knows the way to imbue every dish with their essential nature, such that they give a bit of their spirit away with each bite. Nor should they.
My Gram, a very wise old woman indeed, once told me that the saying, “Too many cooks spoil the broth,” did not only refer to the fact that if too many people work on one project, they will not agree. She said it also meant that too many people’s energy put into one thing, in this case, food, would make that thing confusing, and not focused or well directed. In the case of the broth, it might not taste good, because it would have the conflicting energy of disagreeing cooks in it.
What flavors, then, do I have in my palette, that I save for those moments when I want to entice, beguile and tantalize the senses?
There are several, but one of my favorites is the essence of rose: also known as rosewater.
Roses have been known as the Queen of Flowers, and a symbol of love and sensuality for thousands of years. Roses were one of the symbolic flowers of Aphrodite; the other was the lily. Interestingly, when the Virgin Mary came along, she took on much of the symbolic content of the mythos of Aphrodite, including the roses and lilies. I find that fascinating, that what had once symbolized sensuality and carnality, had become a symbol of purity and innocence.
But, be that as it may, the rose has emblematic of love and sensuality for a very long time. Think of it, the velvety petals, cupped and softly unfurling around a secret center, the intoxicating fragrance, both honey-sweet and musky: how could the rose -not- be seen as a potent avatar of love and beauty?
Rosewater is the distilled essence of roses, known as attar of rose, combined in minute amounts (for it is one of the most expensive botanical products in the world) with pure, distilled water. It is clear, and ranges in scent from light and sweet to heady and intoxicating. The brands made in Persia (Iran), Lebanon and India are among the most strongly scented, while some of the brands made in the United States and France are very sweet, and more light in fragrance.
Whatever can one flavor with roses one might ask? Well, it would do one a bit of good to know, first of all, that the use of rose petals, rose water and attar of roses in cookery has a long and noble history, dating back to the Greeks in the West and the Persians in the East, and likely they both got the idea at the same time, while they were at war with each other, during the age of Alexander the Great.
Rose petals have been candied and used as decoration for thousands of years, but roses have better uses than as a garnish. They have been made into sauces, jellies, preserves, liquors, and fillings for cakes. Rosewater and essences have flavored dairy products, drinks, primitive and refined sorbets and sherbets, pastries, main dishes and more for as long as mankind has been growing roses.
With a pedigree like that, you can bet that I wasn’t about to be shy with the use of rosewater. It is one of my “secrets” in my arsenal of flavors which are meant to induce diners to shed their dignity and become unabashed voluptuaries. And I have to say, every time I use rosewater, people know that there is -something- special in there, but they seldom guess what it is.
I mostly use it in conjunction with fruit. I find that it adds a breath of freshness, a spring-like innocence that belies a flagrant sensual nature that lies underneath the surface. It adds depth to a fruit salad, when combined with a dash of champagne. It is particularly effective when combined with its kin, the bramblefruits: raspberries and blackberries. Because they are cousins to roses, these fruits really shine when they are kissed with the essence of the Queen of Flowers. Rosewater is subtle with these fruits, sliding into the flavor mix like a nymph sinking into water, until she is but a shimmer beneath the surface: you know it is there, but you cannot tell what it is. It is only a flowery scent, a flicker of something familiar that is just maddening to the senses, but that cannot be grasped: the nymph dances laughingly beyond the satyr’s reach.
Last year, my friends, the very friendly and very healthy hippie organic farmers at the farmer’s market, had a banner crop of blackberries, so they were selling these plump, shining beauties for next to nothing. These berries were so soft, so yielding and so full of sugar, that you could barely pick them up without bruising them and being stained with roseate juice. Just driving home with them filled my car with a miasma of sweetness, and when I brought them into the house, my kitchen smelled like the very tumescent essence of summer Herself.
I ate some by themselves, but I also decided to create a fitting frame for these lovely wonders. I baked a batch of sweet cream scones, a very rich and short pastry that is still moist, due to the addition of cream. They are not overly sweet however, because they did not need to be: the berries were dripping with fructose by themselves. I took some of the berries, the prettiest, and left them whole. The others, I macerated with just a touch of sugar to get them to release their juices, a squeezing of lemon juice to balance the sweetness with a note of acid, a goodly dollop of Chambord to add richness, and a few crystalline drops of rosewater to deepen the flavors.
I split the scones while they were barely warm, and spooned macerated berries over the first layer, then laid a spoonful of softly whipped, barely sweetened cream over it. I capped it with the top of the scone, added another spoonful of berries and juice, then the cream, and topped it all with three whole, perfect berries.
Then, I served them, and watched the reactions. Ah, the eyes closed, and the corners of the mouths tipped up in soft smiles, and the inarticulate vocalizations began. Rosewater had done it again.
Rosewater is also very friendly with strawberries. There is something just special about the scent of strawberries anyway, that brings to mind a sun-warmed afternoon, with breezes carrying the scent of early summer blossoms to your nostrils. If you add a bit of rosewater to that, it carries one’s senses over the top, and there is no turning back from the fact that magic is taking place right there, inside your mouth.
For some friends from Pakistan and Bangladesh, I made an ice cream that included strawberries, cardamom (another of my secrets), a bit of vanilla and a smidgen of rosewater. They come from a culture which uses rosewater in cooking, but they were confounded by the flavor. It was indefinable, indescribable, and very, very intoxicating. They said that it almost tasted a bit sinful, it was so good.
My best use of rosewater came about as an offering for the wedding of two friends of mine. They were having a very sedate Pagan wedding: sedate in that they had Christians from the family coming and they didn’t want to upset them. But, they had a Pagan minister marry them, outdoors, in a very non-traditional wedding. But no God or Goddess was invoked, so, since they had me catering the affair, I decided to create a dish in order to invoke Aphrodite, and invite Her into their union.
The limitation was that it had to be something small, as it was an hors d’oeuvres buffet.
That let out most fruit preparations, like compotes, or salads. I could make individual tuile cups, and fill them with fruit, but that would be too strenuous a job. I thought of making meringues in the shape of swans and flavored with rosewater, but that, too, was too much work, considering that I was making a wedding cake topper in the form of a Norman castle with five towers out of sugar cubes and royal icing already. Besides which, southeastern Ohio is one of the most humid places on the planet, and meringues do not appreciate humidity. I could imagine an entire flotilla of graceful, airy, crisp swans turning into rubber as the moisture in the air attacked them and made their graceful S-curved necks droop until they looked like little indefinable globs of goo.
My sanity would not allow for me to make eighty individual swan-shaped meringues which were doomed to an early demise, rose flavored or not. If I were fool enough to attempt such a thing, I would have gone screaming down the street, pulling my hair out by the roots.
So, I thought. And puzzled. No petits fours, as I was making a large tiered cake, with a bloody castle on top. No fruits. No little swans to die prematurely, in a most unromantic fashion. I briefly thought of inoculating strawberries with a rosewater-filled syringe, then dipping them in chocolate, but that struck me as a bit difficult to control, and the use of the medical equipment in the process made it feel ever so unromantic and not Aphroditeish at all.
Finally, I hit upon it.
I could make cookies, and top them with icing flavored with rosewater, and tinted palest pink. I already had a cookie recipe handed down from my great-great grandmother by way of my dear Aunt Emma. This recipe had come all the way from Bavaria from before the days of Kaiser Wilhelm, and was a family heirloom. The cookies were white, tender, akin to shortbread, but much more soft and inviting. They were iced with a plain confectioner’s sugar icing that Aunt Emma said was always tinted pink with food coloring, though she remembered that her mother used beet juice.
So, I began to bake. The cookies were simple, the formula was already there. It was the icing that was crucial. I wanted it to be sweet, but not too sweet. I finally ended up making a cream cheese buttercream style icing which was flavored only with rosewater. No vanilla. And, I tinted it pink.
Instead of using a spatula to cover the cookie with a thin crust of icing as Aunt Emma used to do, I used a piping bag and a star tip, and made rosettes. Zak helpfully pointed out that they looked rather like perky little pale pink nipples on the tops of ivory colored breasts, and I shrugged and said, “Well, they are Aphrodite cookies after all.”
I let him taste one.
His eyes closed, and his mouth moved very slowly, as he savored it. Inarticulate utterings came next, and I knew I had done it right.
Those cookies are my best creation, bar none, for they never fail to induce a similar reaction. The cookie base is delicate and soft, yielding and sweet, but it is the dairy-rich icing that melts so willingly, embracing the tongue in a rush of summer-sweet flavor that is the grace note. They are, indeed, sinful delights, fully deserving to carry the name of the Golden Goddess of Love.
I have made them for every wedding I have ever catered, and have never failed to garner compliments. I made them several times when I was in culinary school, to the delight of my chefs and instructors.
My table service instructor took one bite, closed his eyes, went, “Mmmph,” then swallowed and paused. He opened his eyes, and said, “Roses. You put a garden full of roses into two bites of cookie. Hold on.” He ran out of the room, and got my advisor, Chef Rainer. He dragged him in, and said, “Rainer, you gotta taste this. Here.”
Chef Rainer, who is also from Bavaria, took a bite, and had a bit of a swoon. He finished it, opened his eyes, and said, in his accented baritone “It is like going to Church. It is better than communion. What do you call it?” I said, “Aphrodite’s Cakes.” And he smiled, and said, “Which would you rather eat, Christ, or Aphrodite?”
1 cup butter, softened
1 ½ cups powdered sugar
1 lg. egg
1 tsp. vanilla extract
2 ½ cups flour, sifted
2 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
½ stick butter
4 ounces light cream cheese
1 pound powdered sugar
3 tbsp. heavy cream
2 tsp. rosewater (or to taste)
food coloring as needed to tint icing pale pink (I use Wilton paste coloring in burgundy, with only the amount you get by dipping a toothpick into the jar then dragging said toothpick through the butter or cream cheese.)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Cream together butter and sugar, add egg and vanilla and beat well.
Sift together flour and remaining ingredients and gradually add to sugar mixture, beating until well combined.
Roll into 1” balls and flatten slightly unto an ungreased cookie sheet.
Bake ten minutes; do not brown. (If you have a convection oven as I do, you only need to bake for eight minutes.)
Allow to cool a minute on the baking sheet, then carefully transfer to wire rack to finish cooling completely.
To make the icing, blend together butter and cream cheese, then blend in the powdered sugar. Add rosewater and enough cream to bring it to a spreadable consistency.
Add food coloring to tint it pale pink, and pipe rosettes onto the cooled cookies.
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