Vanilla and Valentine's Day

... those who know me, know that I love to cook

by Betty Rossi

Those who know me, know that I love to bake and cook. Not only do I love to cook, I love to read cook books. Ethnic, Comfort, American, Bake Sale and any and all others. So many of them tell stories of where the recipes originated and family histories. While perusing....how do you like THAT word? While I was perusing a "Best of the Food Companies" book, I came across something that I'd love to share. It's the story of Vanilla. All of the years that I've cooked and baked, I've known that Vanilla came from Madagascar, but I didn't know how or why. Even while studying American History and Cultural Anthropology, I didn't know what I'm about to share. My Vanilla comes from the Back Bay Trading Company out of Georgia. I know, because I just checked the bottle. It's how it finally got to Georgia that's interesting.

Hidden on page 313 of the "Best of Food Companies" book was the following: "Vanilla has long been regarded as the premier flavoring ingredient for pastries, cake mixes, soft drinks, candies, liqueurs, and other sweetened foods. What we think of as the taste of chocolate would not be possible without the addition of vanilla. The cacao bean itself has a bitter taste and needs to be married to the sweetness of vanilla to become the flavor that chocoholics crave."

Like so many of the world's important foods, vanilla was brought from Latin America by New World Explorers. In 1520, an officer of Cortes' expedition hesitantly accepted a taste of a frothy brew the Aztecs had prepared from ground cacao beans and corn, water, honey and a flavoring agent they called 'tlilxochitl'. Learning that the sweet new flavoring agent was from long, thin pods, the conquistadors called the addictive 'vainilla' from the Spanish word meaning 'little bean'. They liked the taste so much that they made room for vanilla on their voyage back to Spain....the Spanish brought cuttings of the plant back to the homeland. The tropical plants flourished in greenhouses, but the fragrant orchid flowers never developed into bean pods. Finally, in 1836, a Belgian botanist, Charles Morren, discovered the reason for the problem. The bees and hummingbirds attracted to the orchids to pollinate the plants lived only in the New World. A method of hand pollinating the flowers with a bamboo stick was developed. This method is used for commercial cultivation to this day.

Most of our vanilla comes from the island of Madagascar, an island off of the southeast coast of Africa that is three times larger than Great Britain. The vanilla beans are harvested by hand, then immersed in boiling water for two or three minutes. Daily the beans are spread to heat and dry in the sun, then wrapped in coverings to sweat until morning, for a period of ten to twenty days. A
fermentation process occurs. The beans become dark brown, and the crystals that will frost the pods and impart the characteristic smell and flavor of vanilla begin to form. The beans are sun dried for up to six more months."

The story goes on to state that McCormick and Company are the largest purchasers of the vanilla beans and that they import crates in shipments to New York and treat and process each batch to the final steps to gain the flavor and mellow sweetness of excellent vanilla. Now, every time that I put a teaspoon full of vanilla into a recipe, I will think of the origin.

I'll share a Valentine Cookie Recipe with you and yes, you'll need vanilla.

Cousin-in-Law Carol's Cut-Out Cookie Recipe

2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon Salt
1/2 teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 teaspoon Baking Soda
1 cup Sugar
7 tablespoons Butter
1/2 teaspoon lemon Extract
1/2 teaspoon Vanilla
1 Egg, beaten

Mix all ingredients together, roll the dough out onto a lightly floured board and cut-out heart shapes with a cookie cutter. Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for ten to twelve minutes. Frost the cooled cookies red or pink and decorate them with sprinkles.

February 5, 2016

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