Sunday, April 8, 2012
Vanilla: An Exotic History
The aroma of vanilla is unmistakable, instantly recognizable and utterly intoxicating. Vanilla is anything but ordinary -- it has a history as complex as the spice itself. The ancient Tononaca people of what is now Northern Mexico were the first to cultivate the wild vanilla orchid and harvest the wild vanilla bean.
Surprisingly, the Tononacans did not grow the vanilla bean to eat. Instead, vanilla was used as an important sacramental fruit and powerful aphrodisiac, with Tononaca maidens weaving the beans in their hair to attract lovers. It was only after the Tononacan people were conquered by the Aztecs that vanilla became and ingredient in cooking.
Vanilla was taken back to Tenochtitlan and combined with chocolate to make a rich drink consumed by Aztec royalty -- the firs known culinary application of vanilla. When the Aztecs in turn were conquered by Hernán Cortés, vanilla (along with chocolate) made its way to Spain where it was enjoyed again by royalty in a chocolately drink.
Amazingly, it would be almost one hundred years before anyone thought of trying vanilla independently of chocolate, when Queen Elizabeth's I's court chemist suggested it be used as a flavoring on its own.
Nowadays, most vanilla flavoring in products is actually "vanillin", a chemical compound which can be found naturally or manufactured in a lab. The best way to incorporate the sweet intoxicating aroma of real vanilla in your kitchen is by making your own extract.
Make Your Own Vanilla Extract
With a sharp knife, slit three to four whole vanilla beans from tip to tip, scrape out the fleshy interior and place it in an 8 oz. dark tinted bottle. Next, chop husks into small pieces and add to bottle contents. Fill the bottle with 80 proof vodka or dark rum and secure lid tightly. Store in a cool place for three to six months, shaking the bottle weekly. Of course, the longer the flavors infuse, the stronger the extract. Once ready, your extract can be used in pastries, puddings, cakes and confections of all kinds.