16 May 2009

Spice Boy Chronicles, No. 1: Vanilla Sugar

I was rooting around in my tacklebox* full of spices and seasonings the other day, looking for something what I can’t remember, and I rediscovered an old favorite:

Ah, vanilla sugar. I shook the jar to break up the clumps, and opened it to get a big snootful of what I consider to be one of the most delightful aromas in the universe. Standing there, in the kitchen, eyes crossing and head swimming in the scent wafting up from the sugar, I had a song begin to play in my head:

You still come to me in dreams
This little bed can barely hold
The dark beauty of your eyes
Burn like a fire in the cold**

Yeah, it’s like that.

The vanilla I’m rhapsodizing about is not vanillin nor is it vanilla extract. Vanillin is only the main aromatic compound in the mix of more than 200 different volatiles that are found in vanilla beans***. Vanillin alone cannot give enough depth to it. Vanillin can be synthesized from a variety of sources, mostly industrial by-products like wood lignin and (get this) coal tar extracts. I don’t know about you, but coal tar doesn’t exactly make my taste buds want to sit up and beg.

Vanilla extract certainly has its uses and I like it. But it is best when you need more the taste than both taste and smell. Cooking and baking has the side effect of volatilizing many of the delicate compounds that make up the scent. Extract certainly can give you the sense of it, but for me the heavy alcohol smell is too cloying and covers up some of the other entrancing facets of vanilla-ness.

No, what I am talking about is the vanilla bean itself. Long, thin, deep mahogany, like a French green bean mummified by the sun. If you are lucky you might even get one or two that have vanillin and glucose crystallized on the surface. Sort of like a long-legged supermodel wearing a diamond-encrusted bikini.

The taste of vanilla I adore. When I used to drink coffee, I liked to put some vanilla sugar in it now and then. Kee-rist, that was good. I still sprinkle it on my cereal sometimes. I also discovered that it is awesomesauce to put it on some peanut butter toast dotted with melted chocolate chips. Yeah, man, a sure fire way to get the day started off right.

Nothing, but nothing smells quite like a fresh vanilla bean. Many of you probably already know that if you take a vanilla bean and bury it in an airtight container of sugar, the aroma and flavor will permeate the sugar in about a week or so****. Refined sugar for me is…meh. Vanilla sugar, on the other hand, is ohmygawdgetmyfaceoutofthesugarbowlbeforeIsuffocate. Few scents have quite the effect on me that vanilla does. I have always been drawn to the aroma, even before I learned to enjoy the taste. Aromatic exotica, I like to think of it. It smells spicy-warm-sweet-caramel-honey-flowers, if that makes sense. To this day I cannot come up with words that adequately describe the aroma, without breaking it down into dry, terse descriptions that do not convey the “vanilla-ness” of vanilla.

The smell of vanilla conjures up a lot of things, from a sense of hominess (grandma baking cookies) to faraway lands (Madagascar, Indonesia) to sensual adventures (I smell vanilla:I think boudoir). The aroma of vanilla is a delicious paradox, combining the pleasures of the known and the mysteries of the unknown in one deep, complex scent. This scent hits the pleasure buttons of the boy I used to be and the man I became. Not often one can find something that reminds of grandma, and things that one probably would be embarrassed to discuss with grandma!

So it was that cookies and lust were simmering in the kitchen of my mind. I was amusing myself with the notion that a flower, an orchid from places so far away could excite me emotionally and physically, could make me feel good and relaxed. I was also curious, so I did what any self respecting food nerd would do: research.

What I found was all sorts of information relating to the therapeutic, medicinal, stimulative and calmative (paradoxical, but there it is) benefits of vanilla. Many of these have been posited over the course of thousands of years, and have begun to attract attention from modern science. It is possible that vanilla, or its scent, can have positive effects on a variety of ailments and conditions. Things like respiratory conditions, digestion and heart problems, claustrophobia and anxiety, even mild erectile problems*****.

Goes a hell of a lot further than just flavoring ice cream, doesn’t it?

However, the one bit of information that really made my jaw drop, laugh out loud and turn on that little light bulb in my head was thoroughly unexpected. It had to do with the name ‘vanilla’. According to my information, it was the Spanish that were the first Europeans to have the privilege of tasting vanilla. As with so many things in history, them what are first get to slap a name on it. In this case, the Spanish named it vainilla, which is the diminutive term for ‘sheath’ or ‘husk’. As is often the case, vainilla was a word derived from a Latin word which literally meant ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’. That Latin word?


Well, then. Vanilla: smells good, tastes good, good for what ails you. I knew there was a reason I liked vanilla so much.

*That’s right, tackle box. What? Did you think I would keep them in a purse, or satin lined bag? Hell, no. My tools belong in proper boxes, dammit.
**From “I Dream An Old Lover” by Jeffrey Foucault, on the album ‘Ghost Repeater’. Great song.
***The geek confesses: I have on my bookshelf not 1 but 2 copies of “On Food and Cooking” by Harold McGee. All thanks to his work that I can spout food trivia like the 200 compounds bit. I have 2 different editions because I wanted to compare the updated version with the original. See? I’m a geek.
****Take a vanilla bean, split it or leave it whole – your choice – and bury it in a canister full of white sugar. Leave it for a week and then give it a sniff. You can take the bean out and use it for something else, or leave it in for a stronger hit. I was reminded of this while perusing the Penzeys Spices catalog. Jay-zus, I’m a geek.
*****There is recorded evidence that the scent of vanilla can improve ‘blood circulation to the male member’ i.e. it puts lead in yer pencil. I think I read that the same study showed a combination of black licorice and doughnut worked even better. Twizzlers and Krispy Kremes, anyone?
******I am not making this up.


  1. I was gonna write "I love vanilla!" but now? Ha!!

  2. Vanilla is indeed the aroma equivalent of the warm glow of electric sex. I was at a gig one time at a church and a crowd of people walked by. One of them was wafting a bit of vanilla in their wake. I turned to the guy next to me and casually explained how a girl that smelled like vanilla was frickin' HAWT! He casually explained to me in return that the girl wearing it was his mother. Oy.

  3. Loved the, "Sort of like a long-legged supermodel wearing a diamond-encrusted bikini," reference, but then you ruined it by mixing peanut butter with chocolate and vanilla sugar - yuk.

  4. Mmmm...vanilla.
    We use a lot of vanilla in different forms at our house. I don't know why I never thought of vanilla sugar!
    Must. Try. Right. Now!

  5. Educational, Gumby. I suppose I should stock up on supplies of vanilla-ish things and some twizzlers for the other half... you know, just in case.

  6. My husband and I are exploring this new area we just moved into and found a brewery downtown. He ordered the sampler and by God there was vanilla beer! Delicious! I buy one of those little bags of vanilla coffee and add a little to the regular grounds. I have vanilla candles, vanilla air-wick plug ins.....I'm gald someone else loves the magic of vanilla.

  7. I've had the same favorite perfume for about 4 years now. Honestly? Men go crazy when I wear it. It is kind of flowery or something but not overpowering at all. A few months ago a sales lady informed me there's a little bit of vanilla mixed in. I've never noticed vanilla in the scent so it must be very subtle. Apparently it must be the hidden ingredient to driving men ... wild?

  8. I love vanilla .. There are vanilla candles all over my house, vanilla potpourri, both dry and oils, I use vanilla shower gels, soaps, body spray, and lotion ... wanna come over? *grins*

  9. I used this years ago, and had it placed upon my 'forgotten' brain shelf; until now...

    Would you like to host my site a few days between 6/10-7/1, as I will be in Texas visiting, and sweating my arse off!

  10. I love the taste of chocolate, but give me the scent of vanilla any day.

    Once I began cooking with vanilla beans, I rinse and dry the husk and bury it in the sugar. I have a small canister of it on my kitchen counter as I write this, and it will all be ground together in the food processor in the near future and used for either a cake or cookies.

    As for extract - alcohol, even if cooked off, improves the way we sense the taste of things.

    Oh, and I believe the whole "vagina" thing 100%.

  11. I love that your spices are in a tacklebox. My sewing/button repair kit is in a tacklebox, because I'm totally fisherwoman that way!

  12. Mmm. Could I just add a couple of tablespoons to some heavy whipping cream, beat the hell out of it and eat it with a large wooden spoon?


  13. Braja: But vanilla is really good!

    Mister: And then you turn to him and say "Frickin' hawt in a totally platonic, non-sexual sort of way!"

    Chairman Bill: The bikini was an inspiration. Sorry about the other stuff :)

    Tera: Highly recommend, you won't be disappointed.

    OAM: A teachable moment, yes? and just in case, of course :)

    alphawoman: Vanilla fans unite!

    24@Heart: yeah, that has something to do with it. Must be them orchids...

    DivineChaos: (spittake)(wiping screen)(gulp) Um..er...what a kind offer! I am really dizzy...

    ChefE: Glad to provide the mental nudge. As to your offer? Perhaps. E-mail me at kms8gumbo(at)gmail(dot)com, we'll talk...

    Jan; Yeah, that aroma is something else...I dig it muchly. and I really dig vanilla flecked glaze on a chocolate chip/cherry scone. MMMM...

    SweetPeaSurry: Salute! Great minds thinking alike..

  14. Pearl: You rascal, how did you slip by me? (grin) And yes, do that. It tastes good..

  15. Wow! It puts vanilla in a whole new light. I think I am going to go change my panties now...

  16. I make my own vanilla for baking. It's super easy. Take one litre of booze, rum or vodka do nicely, and plunk in a vanilla bean. Let it sit for at least a month, and voila! Drinkable vanilla.

    And yes, The Mister does drink it straight from the bottle.

  17. OOOOOHHH!!! I DO love Vanilla...

    I use the Vanilla Brown Sugar from Bath and Body..My b/f goes crazy when I slather on the body cream!!!

    No wonder he loves my "chocolate chip cookies" down under!!! It's that vanilla!!!! LOLOL ;)

  18. Oh yes..and as for the peanut butter, choco chips and vanilla sugar on toast...well, I for one will be giving it a try...as soon as I make me up some vanilla sugar!

    Tks for that tip!!!!

    (I enjoy pb on toast with cinnamon and sugar and since I LOVE chocolate so much..why not!?)

  19. Well, no dam wonder women's vaginas are so popular! With the description you just used for vanilla, a woman can only DREAM of fitting into that context! :)

    Thanks for the vanilla bean tip. I had no idea, but I will be doing it today. Can't wait because I love the smell of vanilla beans!

    Oh and HI! Long time no see! :)

  20. Having a fondness for all things geeky, it's nice to see some food geekery round these parts - especially if it's really juts an excuse to finish on the word "vagina" on its own....

    Liking your description of the smell, too - I may steal that patented Gumbo method of smell description...

  21. So that's why vanilla perfume always gets me going?

  22. MDTS: Yes, it does! And so does your comment! (bellylaugh)

    Pamela: Very good idea! And the Mister would probably like a glass of Cisco porter with a shot of Triple 8 vanilla vodka in it. Damn, that's good!

    Anonymous: Nail on the head...:)

    BEW: I think that just shows your bf has good taste, yes?

    Simplicity: One of the many reasons for their popularity, my dear...how are you? :)

    TBF: You are on to me, good sir...shhhh...

    Captain: The secret ingredient, works like a charm...

  23. Ohhhhh myyyyy. I think I've got a case of the vapors. Whew! I had no idea vanilla could be so sensual. I think I need a cold shower. Vanilla porn -- who knew??? LOL

  24. You have GOT to be kidding me with that.


  25. I love the smell of vanilla, and have always been disappointed in the taste. I'm going to have to try making some vanilla sugar.

    And if that means I'm bi, it's too late to matter....

  26. mmm...vanilla....my favorite of all scents. I'm with Jeanne - if it makes me bi, well then too late!

    Now, do you think it'll work on my husband? I need all the help I can get!

  27. Madagascar Vanilla is my fave, but the vanilla you get in Mexico is a close second. Love love love it.

    Also, I'm seriously not letting you anywhere near my pantry. :)

  28. I'm sorry Irish, but the ONLY THING I can think about is when The Golden Boy was little- and when he didn't wipe properly, he would look at me while picking his butt and say "I'm SPICY!"

    I always called him "Spice Boy." hee hee.

  29. I never understood why people use "Vanilla" as a synonym for "plain" or "boring".

    Vanilla ice cream fregin rules!

  30. I do the same with icing sugar and add it to whipped cream, seriously unealthy, but delicious.

  31. So what you saying is I need to slather myself in vanilla and it will make my husband go crazy??? LOL, great blog. I love anything and everything vanilla! It's my all time favorite ice cream.


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