Feb 9, 2009

Scary Vanilla

It actually all started a couple of years ago when I (finally) had the time and started getting more into baking cakes, cookies, and other yummy desserts for my friends and family. I soon found myself using copious amounts of various extracts; almond, lemon, cherry, peppermint, and of course, more than anything, vanilla. It wasn't long that I discovered from foodie groups that the imitation stuff was "bad", while "pure" vanilla was "good". I began buying the "pure" vanilla in stores and shelling out about $8-9 bucks for a measly 4 oz bottle....that come to find out, wasn't as "pure" as promised after all. This (and watching the "food network") got me to thinking about using the real whole vanilla beans to flavor my sweet creations. So I began pricing whole vanilla beans in my local stores. At prices of about $4-5 per bean (gasp, sticker shock), I quickly decided that maybe this wasn't such a good idea (for my budget that is). After all, I am giving this stuff away, it's not like I'm baking goods for profit. So I shelved the entire notion. (yeah, sad pun intended)

That is until, I received a gift of "Pure Mexican Vanilla". It did have a wonderful aroma, and like they say, nothing even close to what I had been buying in the store. I have to admit, it was bothersome that it came in a flimsy plastic bottle (like a large water bottle) and had a tried-to-be-professional-type computer printed label. Now, this probably would have been OK, if, I were sure where the extract had actually came from, like, say an aunt or a loving grandmother of someone I knew. (I LOVE homemade gifts) However, the label was in Spanish, and after a quick interpretation, via my daughter (yeah, 4yrs of Spanish finally paying off), I find that the ingredients only listed, "special ingredients". I have to admit, that scared me. What are they trying to hide? I mean, if it were a "pure extract" made from real Mexican vanilla beans, why not brag about it? right? I didn't know much about vanilla at this point and time, but I did know that a truly pure vanilla extract consisted of two things; vanilla beans and alcohol.

So I started doing a bit of research and almost immediately discovered that some (not all I'm sure) of the extracts coming out of Mexico aren't made from real vanilla beans after all, but rather a cheap substitute called "tonka beans". Upon further research, I discover that the use of tonka beans in food products has been banned by the FDA because they contain coumarin and in large doses can be fatal. (gulp) OK, granted I don't think a teaspoon here and there in my chocolate chip cookies is going to kill my fam, nor leaving them lying on the kitchen floor bleeding out, but my main concern was, if that particular toxin could be present, what else was in there? Seriously, I'd rather read a long list of chemicals that I can't pronounce (but can look up) than the mysterious "special ingredients".

Now, according to Wikipedia, the tonka bean;

..."is known mostly for its fragrance, which is reminiscent of vanilla, almonds, cinnamon and cloves: it has sometimes been used commercially as a substitute for vanilla."

Could it be just a coincidence that my vanilla gift smells and tastes exactly as described above? Or that the producer on the label has a somewhat sketchy history plastered all over the net? (and yes, I'm withholding the name/brand on purpose) Mmmmmmmm. Well that got me to thinking even more. I did another search specifically for "pure" vanilla extract. I quickly learned that even the (high priced) commercially sold products that claim to be "pure" (and safe) often may contain: sugar, corn syrup, caramel colors, and/or preservatives. HUH? That didn't sound very "pure" to me. Perhaps if I really wanted a truly "pure" vanilla, and wanted to be absolutely sure of what was in there, and even more importantly, be certain of what was NOT in there, then the safest bet would be for me to make my own.

In addition, because I use vanilla for baking, cooking, as well as flavoring for teas, coffee and cocktails, it stands to reason that it would, in the long run, be more cost effective for me to make my own extract. Even if you only use it occasionally, it is well worth the effort to make at least a small batch for yourself, or, make a large batch and share the love with friends and family. It does (according to what I've read) have an infinite shelf life, so you'll use it up eventually, right?

So I set out to make my very own mahogany colored liquid gold, which led me to even more research, this time, my quest was to find recipes, methods and of course, affordable vanilla beans that I could purchase on the net. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. While the actual making of extract is pretty simple and straight forward, there's a whole vast vanilla bean world out there and I kept asking myself, "who knew?". Well my research, time and efforts have paid off and as it turns out, I was able to make two big batches (wine sized bottles) at a fraction of the cost of what I could purchase anywhere. If you want to know how I made it, which beans I used, where I got them, and how it turned out, just read my next blog entries; "More about Vanilla Beans" and "Making Vanilla Extract".

You're probably wondering, what ever happened to my "scary vanilla"? Well, I did indeed kept it and I'm currently using it here and there for baking. (only until my new vanilla extract is cured and prime for use) Since I hate for things to go to waste....I'm thinking maybe I'll eventually use it in making hand soaps, candles, or essential oils? Afterall, it does have a strong, sweet, heavenly scent. Aphrodisiac perhaps? I can't help but think of the movie "Michael"....where John Travolta is an angel that "smells like cookies"....maybe I should dab a bit behind my ears for my hubby. (oooh-la-la)

7 comments:

Bob said...

I actually used to date a girl who wore vanilla...
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Huh? Oh, hi. Uhm, yeah, homemade vanilla sounds great. Can't wait to see the recipe. ;)

DDpie said...

LOL Bob, did I take ya back there for a moment?

Spryte said...

Thanks for sharing in the benefits of all your hard work!!!!!

Culinary Alchemist said...

I love this post... Bakers Unite!!! Rebel against the Vanilla Extract Machine!!!
About the soap... If that extract is too high in vanillin, it may cause you soap to seize, I learned that the hard way..

DDpie said...

Thanks Spryte and Shane, glad u liked it ;)

Michele said...

You're soo funny! I also love this post! Steve and I used to go grazy for this White Barn Candle called Tonka Bean. They don't make it anymore. Maybe you could make one!!! I think Shane knows how to make his own candles!

Can't wait to see your photos of wine sized bottle of vanilla extract and find out where you got the vanilla beans for a good price! They are so expensive!

DDpie said...

Shels- oh I'll be trying candles for sure!