To cool down on a recent hot summer day, I added some vanilla bean paste to store-bought vanilla ice cream, bumping up the base flavor even more. It got me thinking about this Indigenous ingredient of Mesoamerica. The Totonac people of what is now the Veracruz area of Mexico are credited with growing it first. After the Aztecs conquered the Totonacan empire, at least from the 15th century forward, they added vanilla to their drinking chocolatl. The later Spanish conquest of the Aztecs was the impetus for vanilla going to Europe, probably initially with Hernán Cortés.
At first, vanilla continued to be used just as a flavoring for chocolate, which had become a hit in Europe as well. It’s thought to have been Queen Elizabeth I’s chef who, around the beginning of the 17 century, suggested to Her Majesty that vanilla might make a palatable flavor on its own. It became a sensation, especially popular in England, France, and Spain. It was there that custard-based desserts, like flan and natillas, came into popularity. In Spain, sherry producers clarified their spirits with egg whites. The surplus egg yolks went to convent kitchens where nuns came up with creative solutions for the largess. Vanilla became the favored flavoring for these custards.
VANILLA: ONE OF MEXICO’S GIFTS TO THE WORLD
Vanilla came back to where it started when Spanish settlement pushed throughout Mexico. Later, those of Spanish descent brought the flavoring to what later became New Mexico. In the interim, vanilla and its intoxicating scent were spreading around the world in other directions too.
Vanilla beans grow from the flower of a particularly finicky variety of orchid plant native to tropical Mexico near the Gulf coast, the area once inhabited by the Totonac people. The flower has to be pollinated on one particular day or it’s lost for another season. When vanilla was cultivated solely by the Totonac people, a local bee did the pollinating.
While cuttings from the orchid could be grown in some other tropical areas, such as Madagascar, Tahiti, Indonesia, and Réunion Island, there was no pollination without the bee. An enterprising enslaved 12-year-old on Réunion is credited with figuring out the hand-pollination of the flowers. The vast majority of vanilla now comes from that side of the world. Mexican vanilla is still prized, but the crop is much smaller.
WHY DOES VANILLA COST SO MUCH?
The laborious hand-pollination has something to do with the expense, second only to saffron in the spice and seasoning universe. However, after pollination, it’s a long slog until the vanilla beans are ready to be processed. There are weeks of sweating and curing in between. Five to seven pounds of green vanilla beans produce only one pound of fragrant processed vanilla. While subtle, vanilla is one of the most complex of flavors.
The expense of the real thing has created a hefty market for synthetic vanilla. It has just one of well more than 100 of the naturally occurring flavor compounds that make the aroma and flavor of the real thing so rich. If the price is too good to be true, whether here, in Mexico, or elsewhere, it’s likely this synthetic version. Much of it comes from wood pulp or petrochemicals. Buy the real thing to support the farmers who grow, pollinate, and harvest the real crop. I think of it as a small indulgence.
You can easily buy pure vanilla extract in almost every supermarket for sugar cookies, angel food cake, breakfast French toast, and other dishes. I always have some on hand, but I prefer to search out the beans. If they rattle in their container, they’re too dried out. The beans should be supple and pliable.
Speaking of the beans and French toast, I’m remembering how, some years ago, I made crème brulee French toast on NBC’s Today Show. I had to slice open a slim vanilla bean, then scrape out the mass of seeds, while smiling and talking to the host. I was afraid that I was going to slice his finger or mine instead of my bean!
Today, there’s an even better product to avoid the hassle of slicing open the beans. Vanilla bean paste has become widely available in recent years. It has an intoxicating intensity and is flecked with vanilla seeds, which makes it much easier to use than scraping out the vanilla beans, especially on national television. Nielsen-Massey is the most widely available in various local stores and online sources, but there are many other brands available. Vanilla bean paste can be used interchangeably in quantity with extract.
If you have the option of adding any form of vanilla late in the cooking process, as with a pudding or stovetop-cooked sauce, add it just as you remove the mixture from the heat. The flavor will be the fullest that way. I often mix vanilla extract or paste with butter or oil and a little sugar, brown sugar, honey, or agave syrup, to baste a procession of fruit on the grill from apricots to peaches to figs, pears, apples, and more.
What’s better this time of year than vanilla ice cream, which folks who track these things say is favored by at least 6 percent more people than chocolate? Make it yourself or, do as I mentioned previously, and just add some extra vanilla to store-bought ice cream.
I often think wryly about how the word vanilla — this singular aromatic elixir created first by Indigenous people so long along — is sometimes used to describe something bland or boring. Few tastes excite me more. Treat yourself to something vanilla-scented today, maybe the natillas recipe below.
Traditional natillas is a creamy custard lighted with beaten egg whites, in the style of “floating island” desserts. Spooning into a bowl of natillas feels like eating a vanilla-scented cloud.
A grating of fresh nutmeg, or a dash of cinnamon, can be a nice addition.
Serves 6 to 8
3 large eggs, separated
1 cup sugar (divided use)
3 tablespoons cornstarch
4 cups (1 quart) half-and-half (divided use)
Dash of salt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract or pure vanilla bean paste
Place egg whites in a mixing bowl with ¼ cup sugar. In a small bowl, combine the cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of the half-and-half.
Combine in a heavy saucepan the remaining half-and-half and sugar, as well as the egg yolks and salt. Whisk together and warm over medium-low heat. Continue heating the mixture, frequently stirring up from the bottom, until the pudding is somewhat thickened. It will still be runny but will cling thinly to the back of a spoon. Expect this process to take a good 15 minutes, or maybe a little longer. Make sure the pudding does not boil.
Add the reserved cornstarch to the pudding and continue heating. The mixture should quickly begin to thicken, adhering more readily to the spoon. Cook just long enough to eliminate the taste of raw cornstarch, about 5 minutes more. Lower the heat if necessary to keep the pudding from boiling.
Remove from the heat and stir in the vanilla. The custard can be used warm or refrigerated for up to several hours, which will thicken it a bit more.
Before serving, beat egg whites and sugar with an electric mixer until peaky. Fold the egg white mixture into the custard, leaving some of it in big puffs, and serve.
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com.