Summer finally arrived in Boston–you guys, I was still wearing a coat THE FIRST WEEK OF JUNE. A wool coat. Bitter complaints aside, we’re ready to offer you Palestine’s best warm-weather recipes, beginning with Saffron + Rosewater Booza (ice cream).
Arabic ice cream? Yes, there is such a thing, and it’s most commonly found in the Levant where it originated. Semitic people like to claim that we discovered the oldest, original version of everything: the concept of zero? Algebra? Arabic numerals? We gave you those. And sure, we can be excessively proud (I am as endearingly pedantic as the equally as proud Greek, Mr. Portokalos):
But, in the case of ice cream, Arabs actually have a claim to fame. Although ice cream in pre-biblical times was mostly some combination of ice and fruit, and was prevalent in the ancient Fertile Crescent where agriculture and civilization first developed, we in the Levant elevated it with the addition of the ingredients sahlab and mastic.
Sharaba, the Arabic root word for “drink” is where sharbat or the French word sorbet comes from. The Arabs had been cultivating sugar cane (sukkar) in Syria under the Umayyads ruling from Damascus, who introduced it to Sicily with the Arab
conquests of that island in the early 9th century, and cultivated it on large plantation scale later in southern Iraq under the successor Abbasid dynasty. Sugar was henceforth introduced to Europe, as it was already being used in sorbet (fruit, ice, and sugar) and ice cream (milk, sahlab, sugar) by the Arabs, but did not hit the European palate in a widespread manner until the Crusades. During this time, European taste for ice cream, sweets, and candies (all originating in the Levant) developed and spread throughout the European continent. It is assumed the oldest ice cream parlor in the world is in Damascus, Syria, where the ice cream has been pounded and stretched on a cool surface, like dough, for at least 500 years. Food historians posit that the addition of sahlab and mastic increased the melting point for the ice cream, therefore making it ideal for hot weather. Arabic ice cream making technique spread to Greece, Turkey, and other countries in the Mediterranean.
Sahlab powder is the ground tuber/roots of a purple orchid called Orchus Mascula, and is commonly used as a thickener. Mastic, or Arabic gum (not to be confused with gum Arabic, from the Acacia tree in Yemen) is used in commercial products worldwide, and also in our ice cream, which contributes to the elasticity and chewiness of the dessert. Booza has a simple, uncomplicated sweetness, is dense and creamy like gelato, and contains subtle hints of a resin or herbal perfume scent and flavor from the mastic, making it ideal to be topped with crushed pistachios, hazelnuts, floral jams, or infused with saffron. Booza ashta (sweet cream) is the most basic iteration and contains only a rose or orange blossom water flavoring, although sometimes no added flavoring at all. We promise this ice cream, which in this recipe is made with saffron and rosewater, is unlike anything you have ever tried. It is finished off with homemade rose petal jam, the recipe for which is also provided.
**Because pure sahlab powder is very difficult to find in the States (there are mixes of sahlab, cornstarch, and sugar at some Middle Eastern markets), you may use cornstarch as an alternative. If you want the real thing, try Amazon
Mastic ‘tears’ are hardened pieces of resin from the mastic tree grown on the Greek Island of Chios. They can be found at a Middle Eastern or Greek market, but, like sahlab, can be difficult to track down. I dragged an undercaffinated and underslept Rasha S. two miles, on foot in the midday sun, to Al-Hoda Market in Cambridge to get the mastic, which of course was nearly $10 for 0.6 ounces. That expedition was a true test of our friendship and further evidence of her tolerance for my culinary OCD. Anyway, Sevan in Watertown also carries mastic, and of course, Amazon. **
Booza with Saffron + Rosewater
4 cups whole milk
1-2 cups heavy cream
1 cup sugar
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon ground mastic, which is roughly equal to 1-3 “tears”
1/2 cup Sahlab, or cornstarch if sahlab not available
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon rosewater
A pinch of saffron
1. Place 1-3 mastic pearls or tears in the freezer for 15 minutes. Mastic is very gummy and this is the way to harden it for grinding. When frozen, grind them into a powder using a mortar and pestle.
2. While the mastic is freezing, place a bowl and your electric hand mixer paddles in the fridge to prepare for the whipped cream.
3. In a medium pot, combine the ingredients cold: milk, sugar, salt, sahlab, or cornstarch substitute. Stir the ingredients together with a whisk, making sure to dissolve the sahlab completely in the milk until there are no lumps.
4. Turn on the stove heat to medium, stirring constantly. Add the saffron. The mixture should begin to thicken and bubble. Then add the mastic. Stir for another 30 seconds to one minute, and turn off the heat. Add rosewater. Cover the mixture and let it cool to room temperature.
5. Take out the cold bowl and mixing paddles. Whip the heavy cream until it is has stiff peaks. Fold the whipped cream gently into the milk mixture, or blend them together with the electric mixer.
6. Put ice cream mixture into an airtight container, and freeze for up to 8 hours. You may add a variety of toppings, such as chopped pistachios or hazelnuts, pomegranate molasses, or as we did, rose petal jam. Booza is generally best eaten within the first few days, since it has the tendency to harden the longer it is in the freezer. Let it sit at room temperature for 10-15 minutes before scooping.
Rose petal jam
Rose petals are widely used in Middle Eastern and Indian cuisine. This jam’s sweet, tangy, floral burst is refreshing over the dense milkiness of the ice cream. Always buy organic, pesticide-free petals, since you will be consuming them. Amazon, as usual, is a good resource.
2 cups dried rose petals, or fresh, if available. 40 grams of dried petals or 1.4 oz will yield about 1 1/4 cup.
1 1/2 cups water
1 3/4 cups sugar
3 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon cornstarch or pectin, if you have it
1. Place rose petals and water in a small saucepan or pot. Bring the mixture to a gentle simmer. You will notice the roses fade and lose color–don’t worry, it’ll return. It will look something like this:
2. Add sugar to the pot, then stir to dissolve thoroughly.
3. Dissolve cornstarch or pectin in the lemon juice with a little water at room temperature. The general rule is to never add thickeners straight to a hot mixture, or you will have lumps. Stir in lemon juice and dissolved pectin mixture, and watch the petals regain their vivid color!
4. Continue to simmer for about 10 minutes or more, until the mixture thickens enough to stick to the sides of the pot when spread. It will further thicken as it cools in the jar.
5. Pour jam into sterilized mason jars, screw on the lids, then let cool. The jam will keep a couple of months in the fridge. Serve over booza, toast, cake, or even roasted lamb.