There are a number of scents that invoke memories of childhood: the earthiness of cigar smoke, the smell of dry, dusty sand, the saltiness of the sea, and the intoxicating scent of orange blossoms on an evening breeze. But nothing brings back more emotion in me than the smells of incense and rosewater. I remember evenings spent at my grandfather’s house, the moon heavy in the sky, the breeze not much cooler than when the sun was at it’s highest. We played outside in the walled garden, my siblings and cousins, hours at a time, whilst our parents enjoyed each other’s company, discussing politics, the past or anything in between, bellies full from all the feasting we had all done hours earlier. Rosewater-scented chicken, saffron coloured rice and a rose and cardamon flavoured milk pudding dusted in pistachios. A feast for the senses as well as the stomach.
But I remember, somewhere, close-by, perhaps from the open windows of a neighbouring house, an arcane scent would always emerge: thick, spicy and woody. We would all stop and inhale the fragrance. Incense. But not just any incense. It would be the indisputable smell of oudh, agarwood to those unfamiliar to it’s ancient name. Every family I knew would own a large incense holder and would fragrant the house with the most heavenly scents, particularly after a large meal or when guests would be visiting. It would be no lie to say that it was almost an act of instinct, to walk around each room, charcoal burning in the incense cup, leaving a trail of heavy, white smoke behind you.
Scents and smells are important in Arabian culture and alongside the gold souks that still remain prevalent, the perfume and bakhoor industry is exceptionally loved and continues to prosper. In essence, these marshmallows are somewhat of an ode to Arabia. For it’s ability to capture the most romantic of imaginations. Envision the smells of sweet floral and spicy woodiness and you have these marshmallows.
Smoke + Damask Rose Marshmallows
Cooking time: 25 minutes, plus cooling
Makes: 36 marshmallows
Musk is still a highly sought after fragrance in Arabia, and, like wild orchid powder (salep), it is something I refuse to buy due to its destructive and irreversible collection methods (musk comes from the glands of an endangered deer). Instead, I use an alternative, sustainable, and animal friendly alternative: ambrette seeds. Used in the Arab world to flavour hot beverages like tea, it imparts a slightly musky flavour. If you are not able to find ambrette seeds, do not worry, as these marshmallows taste wonderful without them, as well.
150g oudh smoked sugar (recipe below)
290g caster sugar
6 gelatine sheets
10tbsp confectionary sugar
50ml golden syrup
4 large egg whites
2tbsp ambrette seeds, finely ground (optional)
1tsp damask rosewater
1/4tsp vanilla extract
1tbsp vegetable oil (for greasing)
Finely grind the ambrette seeds and then mix with the confectionary sugar and the cornstarch. In a baking tray, place a sheet of baking parchment and grease well. Scatter about 3-4tbsp of the amount of the ambrette cornstarch mixture evenly onto the baking parchment and set aside.
Place the 6 sheets of gelatine in a bowl of cold water and set aside for 10 minutes. In a saucepan over a medium heat, allow all the sugar (minus 3tbsp of the oudh smoked sugar), water and golden syrup to reach a temperature of 116ºc (241ºF) without stirring. Meanwhile, whisk the egg whites with the 3tbsp of smoked sugar until soft peaks begin to form.
Remove the gelatine from the water and squeeze out any excess water.
When the sugar reaches the required temperature, remove from the heat, stir in the gelatine, vanilla, and rosewater before slowly pouring into the egg whites, whisking continuously as you do so.
Once all the sugar syrup has been added to the egg whites, continue to whisk for a further 5-10 minutes or until ribbons begin to form and are able to hold their shape in the marshmallow batter for a few seconds.
Pour the marshmallow batter into the prepared baking tin and allow to set completely overnight at room temperature.
When ready, remove the marshmallows out of the baking tin by lifting up the baking parchment and placing on a cutting board. Using a greased knife, cut the marshmallows into squares before further dusting them in the rest of the cornstarch mixture. Eat immediately or within 4 days.
Oudh Smoked Sugar
Cooking time: 3 hours
Oudh in Arabic means agarwood, a tree bark that is used for incense. The oudh has a woody, spicy, slightly floral scent to it. There a few things that need to be explained:
- The tree itself is being conserved due to the over-harvesting and illegal logging of the bark (particularly in the wild) and is being re-established and reintroduced into countries like Malaysia and Sri Lanka and is now a protected tree.
- My oudh was from a company that sources their agarwood from a sustainable plantation and who plant two more trees in place of one when a tree is harvested. So please ensure that you buy your oudh from a reputable company.
- When looking for bakhoor, make sure that you source a natural type, as many use artificial chemicals to enhance their scent (or to provide different scents all together).
- I used an ornamental glass dome bell jar with a base to capture the smoke and infuse the sugar as it was (relatively) airtight and it is large enough to hold my incense burner in it. However, most people may not have these objects at hand, so instead, simply cover the bottom of a baking tin with baking parchment and use an ashtray or other small heatproof plate to hold the charcoal rolls and the incense, then simply cover the whole tray, with incense burning, with aluminium foil (tightly) and place in the oven.
3 small pieces of agarwood
1-2 charcoal rolls
Cover the bottom of a baking tray with parchment paper. Place a small heatproof plate or ashtray in the middle. Evenly pour the sugar around the plate. Next, place 1 charcoal roll on the plate and using a kitchen torch, begin to scorch the charcoal until it is red and begins to crumble slightly. Gently place 3 small pieces of agarwood onto the charcoal and allow it to begin smoking before tightly covering the entire baking tray in aluminium foil. Place in the oven (which should be off) and allow to infuse for one hour. When the hour is complete, check the sugar and shake it around a little (to ensure that all the sugar is infused), check the agarwood (in case it needs replacing) else, repeat the process twice more: remove the agarwood, and begin scorching the charcoal until it begins to redden again. Place the agarwood onto the charcoal and cover with the foil before placing in the oven for another hour. (Note: if the charcoal or agarwood is completely used up, simply use another roll or use 3 new pieces of agarwood).
When the 3 hours are done, check the smell of the sugar (it should be very fragrant). If it is not yet fragrant enough for your taste, repeat the process a 4th time. Store in an airtight container. Use within 6 months.
Thank you for reading.