There are not many things that at my age, I can put on a Christmas wish list. I really do not need anything. And my wants are few. I think back to my childhood Christmases and remember that my old grandmother always got a nightgown each year. When she died in bed, wearing a washed-out flannel nightgown, still good, though with paper-thin elbows; we found seven brand-new nightgowns in her dresser drawer. She did not need or want a nightgown every year. So, let that be a lesson, friends.
What I did think I needed for Christmas this year, though, was a bottle of vanilla. Pure vanilla. Pure Mexican vanilla or pure Madagascar vanilla. That’s because I bake almost every day, obsessive behavior I cannot seem to squelch. And when I am not baking, I watch baking shows on television. And always, these renowned bakers, the Barefoot Contessa, among others, shame me into using, not just pure vanilla, but good pure vanilla. (I noticed Ina measuring a teaspoon out of a Penzeys bottle. Penzeys is the premier vanilla seller.)
Pure vanilla, of the Mexican or Madagascan variety, is very expensive. It costs more, per ounce, than some popular perfumes, per dab, spray or teaspoon. A two-ounce bottle from Penzeys goes for $12. Two ounces of vanilla equates to 12 teaspoons, or one dollar per teaspoon. Most recipes call for just one teaspoon, but some, like vanilla ice cream, call for a tablespoon. So one small bottle will make only four quarts of ice cream. I don’t make ice cream every day, but I do bake almost every day. And everything I bake, except bread or coconut cream pie, calls for at least one teaspoon of vanilla. Even my Christmas fudge recipe calls for a teaspoon. (I used my last teaspoon in that batch last week.) So I’m hovering on the brink of depletion every few weeks throughout the year.
Why is pure vanilla so expensive? It is not because it contains 35 percent alcohol. It is because the beans are very labor-intensive to cultivate and harvest. One two-ounce bottle of pure vanilla contains 200 vanilla beans. (And three whole vanilla beans sold by Penzeys cost $19.95.)
I am not in the poor house. Although on a limited budget, I could certainly go on-line to Penzeys or King Arthur Flour (where I actually run a tab) and buy a pint bottle of pure vanilla for $69 or $89, respectively. (Actually KAF is running a sale: the $89 bottle is marked down to $54, but still a lot of money!) But something is holding me back. Is it my secret wish for a bottle of the world’s most popular flavoring in my Christmas stocking? Wishful thinking?
I decided to do a little more research on the whole subject of vanilla, because it does play an important and budget-zapping role in my life.
As a noun, vanilla refers to our most fragrant and complex flavor, the one we use to improve everything going in and out of the oven. But as an adjective, it is a pejorative, used to describe anything plain, generic, common or bland. (When Prince Charles married his much-maligned sweetheart, a British newspaper branded her “Plain Vanilla Camilla.” A bit harsh, I think.)
But as for vanilla extract, it made sense for me to look a little deeper into the matter. Cook’s Illustrated, a magazine offshoot of America’s Test Kitchen, the most trusted arbiter of all things culinary, tested pure vanilla against artificial vanilla, which contains vanillin, made from wood pulp. Yes, vanillin is a vanilla extract alternative made from wood pulp. (Oaks or maples, maybe?) The kitchen “ran several taste tests pitting vanilla against vanillin in baked goods and other applications, and to the consternation of the magazine editors, tasters could not differentiate the flavor of vanillin from vanilla.” So! I can cancel my request for pure vanilla as a Christmas gift because I have an 11-ounce bottle of Watkins “naturally and artificially flavored” Vanilla extract that I received for Christmas last year. (I thanked the giver, but took the Barefoot Contessa too literally at her word and relegated the bottle to the back of my spice shelf.)
Christmas is again upon us, and it’s time to rethink my wish list. I do not want or need pure vanilla for Christmas. (I won’t turn it down, though, if it’s given.) I do not need a new nightgown. So, what would make a happy Christmas for me? Not the receiving of gifts, but the giving. (It truly is more blessed to give than to receive.) I made so many Christmas family favorites this year, including my “never fail” fudge, all with at least a teaspoon of pure vanilla in them. I am giving these treats as gifts to my friends. My wish is that they do not think them common or bland, but relish the flavor that vanilla extract brings to their goodness.
All in all, I think I will have a merry, very vanilla Christmas this year. And what do I wish for, most of all? A very Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to everyone!
Sandra Humphrey is a resident of Tomah.