Wait. Isn't vanilla expensive? Good vanilla beans can be a dollar or more - each! The seed pod of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia), vanilla beans are an exotic crop, requiring a good deal of time and labor to produce. Vanilla has a long history as a rare commodity. First cultivated in the jungles of Mexico, beans and plants have been exported all over the world. Thanks to modern methods, such as greenhouse propagation and hand pollination techniques, vanilla farming is now widespread. You could grow a vanilla orchid as an indoor curiosity in nearly any climate, but vanilla plantations are generally found in tropical areas like Madagascar and Tahiti. There, the orchids thrive outside, hung in trees to mimic their native habitat.
Although more readily available to the average person, vanilla beans and extracts are still considered high-end products. Vanilla sugar, however, is not expensive if you make it yourself. One bean will flavor one to two cups of sugar, making it a bargain compared to purchasing a half-cup jar of vanilla sugar for $5.99 at a gourmet store. Stretch your money further with this "insider's tip." You don't need Grade A beans for vanilla sugar. An online search will turn up a variety of places willing to sell you Grade B beans for a fraction of the price. The more you want to buy, the better the discount, so consider making your own vanilla extract while you're at it.
Sugar & Spice & Everything Nice,
that's what Little Girls are made of.
Making vanilla sugar is an easy, kid-friendly process. My daughter loves creating in the kitchen with me, and she was excited about making something that tasted so very wonderful. She told me we needed to make lots and lots, because everybody would want some, and we needed to save some for her, too. We started by investigating the vanilla pods. I slit one down the center, and she touched the moist center with her finger, coming away with a lot of tiny dark specks. Chefs refer to this as vanilla "caviar," but she had no doubt about what to call it. "Look! Seeds!!" she exclaimed with a grin. Then she discovered that, like extract, the "seeds" smell way better than they taste.
We armed ourselves with scissors and snipped the pods into pieces about an inch long. This turned out to be a good lesson in using scissors. Paper can be cut with just the tips of the blades, but vanilla beans need to go far back into the wide-open jaws of the scissors to get chomped. When we had a good pile of pieces from about a dozen beans, we got out the bag of sugar and the food processor. She's helped me with the food processor before, but a quick review of safe use (like not touching the sharp blades) is always a good idea when you have kid help.
We decided to make extra-strength vanilla sugar, because we had a good-sized pack of grade B beans. Two cups of regular granulated white sugar went into the processor bowl, and then we tossed in 3 or 4 beans' worth of pieces. We processed this until the beans were in fairly small pieces. Running the food processor is a great kid job, especially when the end result can be variable. This isn't like whipping cream, where being over-enthusiastic results in butter. The little vanilla "seed" specks can be seen throughout the sugar, along with chunks and smaller flakes of the outer pod. The sugar itself turns from regular granulated to extra-fine, adding another gourmet touch.
We wanted to fill about a dozen little shaker jars, so we repeated the above process several times. You could sift out those chunky bits of pod right away, but they still have a lot of flavor in them. Leave all the bits in the sugar for now, and put it in a glass jar with a tightly fitting lid. Let the vanilla sugar age at least a couple of weeks, and the flavor will both mellow and intensify. Leave the jar within reach on the kitchen counter, so you can shake it occasionally to prevent clumping. When it's ready, sift the sugar so only the vanilla specks and some tiny bits remain.
Some projects get more involved as you go along. As we were making and tasting our vanilla sugar, we decided it would be an even better gift if we made sets of vanilla sugar and cinnamon sugar. For the cinnamon sugar, we used one part vanilla sugar to two parts regular granulated sugar. For every 1 ½ - 2 cups of sugar, we added a tablespoon of cinnamon. Our favorite spice company* has recently started offering a blend of several cassia-type cinnamons plus Ceylon "true" cinnamon. Talk about a gourmet delight! We're still debating whether "the best cinnamon sugar ever" needs a small additional measure of colored decorating sugar (pink, of course).
While we waited for our vanilla sugar to age, we searched for just the right containers at the dollar store, with tops that could be used to sprinkle or to pour. My daughter had a grand time with a bucket of warm, soapy water, getting off those dratted labels. I helped by scoring each label several times with a serrated table knife before she slid it gently into her bucket to soak. Little fingers are good at picking off the stubborn bits! While we rinsed and dried the bottles, we discussed how they could be decorated.
I'm thinking about etching or painting the glass, while my daughter wants to dip the jars in glitter or layer them with stickers. Of course, we could just print out sticky labels or make paper tags to tie on with pretty ribbon. For that matter, they look pretty elegant as they are, and nobody with a nose will really need labels. If we don't bother, we'll have time to bake snickerdoodles instead.
Photos by Jill M Nicolaus. Thanks to my daughter Joyanna for her help with this project!
* Check out "Penzey's Cinnamon" at Penzeys.com If they don't have a store near you, don't fret; they do most of their business via mail order.