Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Very Versatile Vanilla Sugar

If you didn’t already know, the funny looking thing pictured above is a vanilla pod (sometimes referred to as a vanilla bean). Vanilla pods are the dried, cured pods of the vanilla orchid which grow most commonly in Mexico and Central America. Vanilla is also cultivated in Madagascar. Pollination of these plants is only done by certain breeds of bees and hummingbirds, so vanilla often has to be pollinated by hand - a very time consuming and laborious process. It is one of the reasons vanilla can be so expensive.

Now there is nothing wrong with vanilla extract, provided you use a good brand (not one that is artificially produced). However there is something else that you can use as well to give a lovely deep vanilla-y hit to your cooking and baking - vanilla sugar.

Vanilla sugar is often looked on as a luxury ingredient, most likely because of those tiny pots of very expensive vanilla sugar you see in the supermarket or speciality stores. I urge you to ignore these (except for gift inspiration, but more about later). For a less than the cost of one of those tiny jars you can buy a vanilla pod - and with it you can make lots and lots of lovely vanilla sugar. I’m not denying vanilla pods are themselves expensive - it is always a shock to pick up a very light, virtually empty jar containing one little pod and have to fork over quite a lot of money for it (they cost about £4 in the UK, and about $5 in the US and Canada). However you can make so much vanilla sugar with just one pod, it is a very good investment indeed.

To make vanilla sugar, all you need is the aforementioned vanilla pod and a pound (or about half a kilogram) of granulated white sugar. Pour half the sugar into a container you can seal tightly. I use one of these:-

but any container that seals well will do.

Cut the vanilla pod in half and put both halves in the container on top of the sugar. Pour the rest of the sugar on top. Seal and leave for at least two days. That’s it. The flavour gets deeper the longer you leave it and you can keep topping it up with more sugar as you use it. Just remember to give the container the odd shake from time to time so the vanilla flavour gets distributed evenly. One vanilla pod will flavour as much sugar as you can use for at least six months. I tend to run the contents of my container down when it gets close to being six months old - refraining from adding any more sugar - and then start fresh. I just give the container a good wash, dry it thoroughly and start with a fresh vanilla pod and fresh sugar.

You can substitute vanilla sugar for white sugar in almost any recipe, except for ones in which the primary flavour is savoury. For example, I use a teaspoon of sugar in most tomato based sauces and I sure would not use vanilla sugar in that case! But it is fantastic for baking - in everything from cookies to cakes and pies. It is worth pointing out here that I still use vanilla extract if it is called for in recipes in which I have substituted vanilla sugar for ordinary white sugar. It has never given too strong a flavour in my opinion. In fact, the flavour of vanilla extract is slightly different from that given by vanilla sugar and in my experience one enhances the other.

You can also get very creative if you feel so inclined and make a variety of different sugars based on vanilla sugar using smaller containers and smaller bits of vanilla pod. I like to keep a small container filled with sugar, a piece of vanilla pod and a couple tablespoons of ground cinnamon. It’s gorgeous on toast or stirred into hot milk or cocoa. You could also make versions with ginger or mixed spice if you wanted to.

You can even give vanilla sugar - or vanilla cinnamon sugar - as gifts. Just find a pretty storage jar to fill with sugar and a vanilla pod, tie with a ribbon and you are done. (If it is a smaller jar, just use half - or a third - of a vanilla pod.) It is a great idea for anyone who likes baking and is a lot nicer than those jars of vanilla sugar you buy in speciality stores! You could even tie a little recipe card on the container with a ribbon giving instructions on how to keep the “starter” you have given going. It’s a really reasonable gift (depending on how much you spend on the jar!) and yet it looks like a lot.

There is nothing like vanilla sugar for baking your favourite treats, especially at Christmas, and if you start a container now it will be ready in plenty of time for either baking or gifting!