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Dec. 5th, 2005 | 10:30 am
posted by: meryddian in tastycreations

Much of the vanilla used in cooking these days is called "vanilla extract" but is, in fact, artificial. The Spice House has several varieties of vanilla, and not just beans, but extracts and vanilla paste, as well as a lavender-vanilla sugar and a "Spiced sugar", with vanilla, cinnamon and cardamon. (The lavender sugar actually makes me think of the lavender cookies I had several weeks ago, which were just amazing).

Vanilla is an edible by-product of certain varieties of orchid, which is why you will see pictures of orchids on ice cream or extract containers. The plant originated in Mexico and was brought to Europe by Cortez in 1518. This particular orchid only blooms once a year, and to produce the bean pods, it must be carefully hand-pollenated during this time. Melipone bees could do this; but apparently only certain kinds of bees like to pollenate these flowers, so man figured out it could be pollenated by hand instead. Today, vanilla cultivation is a profitable industry in many tropical parts of the world.

While there's several varieties of vanilla available, I really like both the Madagascar beans, and the Tahitian beans. Of the two, Madagascar beans are far gentler on the wallet, at about 1/3 the cost of Tahitian beans - this is due to the Tahitian beans being produced in much smaller quantities. Open up a jar of these and take a deep whiff... you can practically taste it; at the very least, you feel your mouth water. Fresh vanilla is anything but boring!

While I've used fresh vanilla in the past for flavoring, I was always curious about making my own extract. I stumbled upon the following recipe from from The Natural History of the Senses by Dianae Ackerman (p. 157-161):

Make-your-own Vanilla extract

- split a vanilla bean lengthwise
- set in a GLASS jar
- cover with 3/4 cup vodka
- let steep 6 weeks

As you use the extract, add more vodka; the bean will stay redolent and continue oozing flavor from some time.

Vanilla sugar

- Split 1 vanilla bean from top to bottom and cut into pieces
- mix with 2 cups of sugar
- cover and let sit for six weeks; the longer the vanilla stands, the more intense the flavor

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Comments {2}


(no subject)

from: antikythera
date: Dec. 5th, 2005 11:30 pm (UTC)

I wonder where I can find a vanilla bean to put in vodka. Am I going to have more luck in a part of town where the grocery stores cater to an African or South Pacific audience, or should I just go where the gourmet chefs go? I'm not sure I've ever seen a vanilla bean up close. I must go exploring.

If I put one in a big bottle of vodka, I'd have vanilla-flavoured vodka. Hmm.

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from: meryddian
date: Dec. 9th, 2005 02:34 am (UTC)

I don't think you'd need to find a grocery store that caters to any particular population. Check your local yellow pages for health food grocers (ie. Whole Foods - www.wholefoods.com) or spice stores... whole bean vanilla isn't very unusual. If your grocery store even has a big enough spice selection in the baking aisle, you may even find it at your local grocery.

Vanilla beans look like char-broiled string beans. :)

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