(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on December 20, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
With the arrival of the holiday season comes an expectation. We all expect to have what has been dubbed "The Christmas Spirit". If we don't have this so called Christmas Spirit then something must be wrong and what should be a joyous time turns into a distressing time. As I typed those words I recall Charlie Brown saying to Linus: "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel." I personally don't think there is any one correct way to feel. The holiday season can be whatever you want it to be and only you know what will bring your own personal peace and tranquility. There are so many facets to the holidays and it can be so incredibly difficult not to lose track of what the time should be about. For me, when I get lost within the formidable grasp of the more stressful aspects, I only need a fragrance or two to release the calming peaceful nature of this glorious season.
There are so many aromas of the season I cherish so highly. I chose to write about the scent of vanilla because I guess perhaps it evokes some of the more simple memories of my childhood. When pure vanilla extract is mixed with cream and sugar I am seven again and it's Christmas time. My mom is in the kitchen performing her magic as she always did this time of year. When it was time to begin the desserts I was right there by her side, mesmerized by her elegant style. She had no recipes, just years of experience working for her. The measurements were perfect and the result was a lovely homemade whipped cream and that fragrance! Oh that lovely fragrance! Vanilla extract has an aroma that is so mystical and enchanting. When being mixed feverishly with a blender, that intoxicating scent meant sweet pumpkin pie would be served shortly only to be preceded by the best treat of all: licking the beaters.
Today I realize just how lucky I was growing up. My mom was a housewife, and that meant she was always there for me. We had a routine and that routine included well-prepared meals and desserts. Holidays were exceptional and had traditions all their own. My favorite was always the making of the desserts and still today I refuse to buy prepared whipped topping. The satisfaction gained from making your own is simply too rewarding to pass up.
If I lived in the Tropics I would love to grow a vanilla vine. I suppose since I live in Arizona, I could push the zone envelope a bit and give it a go. Then again, for me, part of the mystique of vanilla is the exotic nature of it and if I were able to grow it in the garden, some of that mystique might be lost. I wouldn't want that so I will stick with my scentimental memories of childhood and admire this glorious plant from afar.
Saying that, there certainly isn't anything wrong with trying to make your OWN vanilla extract. That could be a lot of fun couldn't it? A while back I was browsing through my Logee's catalog and I stopped at an item called Perpetual Vanilla. What you get is a bottle with organic Madagascar vanilla beans and instructions on how to make your own extract by adding vodka and waiting a few weeks. FASCINATING! Here is the link. I ordered some as a present to myself for Christmas. I shall eagerly anticipate making my very own homemade vanilla extract. The only thing better would be to have my mom there in the kitchen with me as I made the whipped topping. Perhaps I will send some to her too with a note saying how much I love her and thank her for teaching me how to appreciate the simple things in life. She'd like that.
I dedicate this story to my mom. Though I credit my grandfather for my love of gardening I know my mom also provided such a wonderful influence. From her African violet collection to her embracing the notion of my wanting to grow dandelions, I owe a lot of my fascination with the plant world to her. Merry Christmas mom. I love you.
Prior to this article being approved, it was brought to my attention that in Dave's new "Today In History" section there was a bit about the person who introduced the word "vanilla". Here is this information again:
December 19, 1771: Philip Miller, Scottish botanist, died at age 80. He was chief gardener at Chelsea Physic Garden and introduced the word "vanilla" to the English language in his "Gardener's Dictionary."
Finally, Terry had some good advice about making your own vanilla extract and that has prompted me to create a future article dedicated to how to do this. Once I get my kit, I will get started.
Photos are all stock photos from iStock Photo.