Vanilla – Precious Orchid

Vanilla – Spanish for ‘small sword’ or ‘pod’, is the pod of an orchid plant native to Mexico,  Central America and the W. Indies. Vanilla (Vanilla planiflora) is a member of the family orchidaceae.

In 1517 the Spanish landed in Mexico searching for the legendary gold of El Dorado.  Not only did they find gold, but cocoa seeds as well as vanilla bean.  The Aztecs used it to season their foods and drinks.

Bourbon Vanilla  has nothing to do with bourbon but has its name from the formerly named island group, of which Madagascar belongs, and from where the very best vanilla bean comes.  Other sources are Mexico and Tahiti.

In Europe, typically vanilla sugar is used not only for sprinkling over desserts or fruit, but for baking recipes as well.  It is especially practical when no added liquid is desired.

When using extract, make sure that ‘pure vanilla extract’ is on the label.  Vanillin, a crystalline component first isolated from vanilla pods and now made synthetically, is an imitation flavouring, not worth the money and you must use more of it.

I have a small tin that holds about a half kilo of sugar (about a pound) for my own vanilla sugar. A smaller tin is for the vanilla powdered sugar – wonderful when a delicate flavour and the smoothness of powdered sugar is important.

Vanilla flavoured powdered sugar is a must for whipped cream, sweetened crème fraiche, sprinkling on crepes or sifting on top of cakes,  or capuccino. Use it also for egg whites and meringues.

And with strawberries?  Unforgettable!

To make your own vanilla sugar: split open two beans with a sharp knife, scrape out the pulp and bury the bean and the pulp in a half kilo of fine sugar. Shake your vanilla sugar around a bit every few days or so. After two weeks it is ready to use but will intensify with time. Top up now and again with another bean and sugar (replace after 6 months). I use mine to replace part or all of the sugar in a recipe. Replace 1 T. sugar in recipe with 1 T. vanilla sugar for each 1/2 t. vanilla extract. Use at least 4 T. for a cake. If you use a whole bean for a sauce or pudding it can be re-used. Thoroughly wash, dry and store airtight.

Look for ‘fine vanilla’ marked on the typical glass tube containing one bean. Vanilla beans should be soft, plump and pliable, indicating freshness. There are many different varieties, however look for ‘Bourbon’. Experiment a bit.

Vanilla flavoured powdered sugar is a must for whipped cream, meringues sifting on crepes, cakes or capuccino!

“I’ll never forget that perfume you used when we were young! It drove me mad!” said he on their 50th anniversary.

Smiling, she recalled those days when she was too poor to buy perfume. It was vanilla, clove and cinnamon extract she had made herself

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