Planning ahead for holiday baking, I recently did an inventory of one of the most important and pricey flavorings in my pantry — vanilla.
Vanilla was first grown in the highlands of Mexico, where 15th-century Aztecs called the mature seed pod the “black flower.” After the French discovered Mexican vanilla, they started plantings in the Comoros Islands, Reunion and Madagascar. Today, Indonesia and Madagascar produce 80% of the world’s vanilla.
Vanilla is a tropical orchid that grows on a vine. The main cultivars are Bourbon vanilla (from the Indian Ocean region), Mexican vanilla, Tahitian vanilla and West Indian vanilla. Vanilla beans and extract cost so much because harvesting and preparation are extremely labor intensive. For this reason, saffron is the only spice more expensive than vanilla.
Because it seems like I use it by the gallon, I’ve learned to brew my own from pods I buy in bulk. To make a pint of homemade vanilla, just slit three vanilla beans all the way down, place in a clean glass pint jar and cover with a distilled spirit such as vodka or rum. Let the covered jar sit for a month and, voila, you have vanilla extract!
And guess what? I just found a jar I’d started brewing a few months ago and had forgotten about. Now, on to baking those Thanksgiving cake and pies — and I won’t have to scrimp on expensive vanilla.