Video: Visiting a Vanilla Plantation

Vanilla from Sarah Lohman on Vimeo.

While I was honeymooning in Mexico this summer, I dragged my new husband to a remote part of Mexico to visit a vanilla plantation. To be honest, he kinda relished the dangerous drive through the mountains, including the switchbacks and hairpin turns by sheer cliffs.  We went way out of the way because I wanted to see vanilla grown at its point of origin, the state of Veracruz.

For a very long time, Vanilla was transplanted outside of Mexico in vain. The orchid owed its pollination to a small bee native to Veracruz, so transplanted plants blossomed, but never fruited. In 1842, a method for artificially pollinating vanilla was discovered and the industry was born. Ironically, the bee is no where to be found ion Mexican Vanilla plantations today; plantation owner Norma Gaya believes years of pesticide-laced vanilla crops are to blame.  The Gaya plantation, the largest in Mexico, is spreading organic growing practices in hopes this natural pollinator will return

We spent a day at the Gaya plantation, and got a hands on look at how vanilla is grown.  Check out the video to follow along on my adventure!

Oh, and if you’re wondering if my whole honeymoon was trekking through the jungle, fret not. The homeland of vanilla just happens to be closest to one of the most beautiful, undeveloped stretches of beach in Mexico, the Costa Esmerelda. Everybody’s a winner.

IMG_0892Beach time at the Costa Esmerelda.

By the way, the plantation tour was facilitated by Tia Stephanie Tours, who is designing a tour of the State of Veracruz. It’s off the beaten path and well worth it.

Summer Vacation

Hi Friends!

This post is hear to let you know I’m on a Summer Sabbatical until July 16th. That’s a long time to be gone, I know, but it’s for a good reason:

I”m getting married!!!!

Following the wedding, my fiancee Brian and I going on a honeymoon to Mexico City, followed by a trip to the Gulf Coast.  We’ll be staying in northern Verracruz, near Papantla, the native region of Vanilla. I’ll be taking a tour of a vanilla plantation, as well as generally devouring everything in Mexico. Follow me on Twitter for updates while I’m gone, but there will be lots of photos and a blog about the trip when I return.

If you’d like to give us a little something for our big day, we’re registered with the Human Rights Campaign.  We’re getting married in Ohio, a state that bans same-sex marriage in the state constitution; HRC is workings towards change. Please go here if you’d like to make a donation in our name.

I want to leave you with a wedding cake recipe from 1830, first published in The Frugal Housewife by Lydia Maria Child.  It’s very close to my heart because it inspired the name of this blog.


Events: Learn the History of Vanilla!

Vanilla: A History

Thursday, 28th @ 6:30 or 8:30

At the Brooklyn Brainery, 190 Underhill Ave. Prospect Heights, Brooklyn

$15 – Buy Tickets Here

America’s most popular ice cream flavor has only been in use for thelast 200 years. Where did vanilla come from, and what came before it? Let’s learn and taste our way through its history.

In this class:

-Learn the history of vanilla and its culinary uses
-See how vanilla is farmed and processed
-Taste three different regional vanillas and one “pre-vanilla”flavor.

All in all, you’ll be filled with facts you can bust out at your next dinner party and dazzle your friends, as well as make better informed choices when using vanilla in your kitchen.

(Class size: 15, lecture + discussion w/ samples)

Origin of a Dish: Vanilla Ice Cream

Sage and rosewater ice cream.

In the age-old question vanilla vs. chocolate, chocolate is the older ice cream, but vanilla has been the most popular ice cream of the last 200 years.

Ice cream as we know it descended from the European tradition of  dessert custards made with eggs.   The base for a “custard style” ice cream, or one with egg yolks in it, is the same as that for a baked custard.  So after the freezing process was discovered, it was a natural progression to frozen creams.  Some of the more interesting flavors from Medieval Europe include: saffron, honey & citron, sage & rose-water, laurel leaves, tarragon, celery, and crumbled cookies.

Vanilla was very hard to acquire before the mid-19th century.  It was only produced in Mexico, because of the vanilla orchid’s symbiotic relationship with the local bee–the bee pollinated the flowers.  Instead of vanilla, early ice creams were flavored with orange flower water or rosewater, ingredients commonly used in all sorts of desserts.

The first known written recipe for ice cream is from 1665,  handwritten in the recipe book of Lady Anne Fanshawe.  Notice she flavors her “icy cream” with mace, orange flower water, or ambergris (a ball of smelly brown stuff that whales puke up (ew)).  There’s a great article by culinary historian Ivan Day, who made ice cream from this recipe, here.

The first known ice cream recipe.

Vanilla doesn’t appear in ice cream recipes until the 1760s, and then it would have been used very rarely.  But Vanilla had been a favorite ice cream flavor even before the spice was readily available: there are about a dozen recipes in Thomas Jefferson’s papers, and one of them is for vanilla ice cream (see it here).  The earliest ice cream recipes published in American, in The Virginia Housewife in 1824, includes vanilla as well as almond, coconut, citron, and fresh fruit flavors (see it here, buy it here).   By the early 19th century, it was described as one of the most common ice cream flavors–despite the fact that the spice itself was still fairly uncommon.

I made an ice cream inspired by medieval custards from the pre-vanilla days: sage and rosewater.   I used a basic ice cream recipe and added one teaspoon of rosewater, and steeped a small handful of fresh sage leaves in heated milk.  I added one teaspoon of crumbled, dried sage leaves as the ice cream was freezing in the ice cream maker.

I wasn’t crazy about this ice cream, but I wouldn’t call it bad.  Many of the people who tasted it enjoyed it.   The flavors are extremely subtle: if you didn’t know what you were eating, it would be nearly impossible to identify the taste.  It’s vaguely like soap, but pleasant, if that’s possible.

Next: Ice cream of the future!


Research for this post came from:

Of Sugar and Snow: A History of Ice Cream Making by Jeri Quinzio
Lady Ann Fanshawe’s Icy Cream by Ivan Day



Origin of a Dish: The Ice Cream Cone

Waffle Cone?

I had some custard left over from demoing ice cream making at the Brooklyn Brainery over Labor Day weekend, so I decided to toss it in my ice cream maker and enjoy a little made-from-scratch ice cream at home.  Plus, I wanted to try out these neat tip I learned during class:  I team-taught my session with Soma, one of the founders of the Brainery.  At the end of the class, students could pitch their dream ice cream flavors, and Soma would explain how to make them by using different techniques to incorporate flavors.  To add a “swirl,” like chocolate,  you take the ice cream out of the ice cream maker and you layer it in a Tupperware  much like a parfait:

How to make a chocolate swirl.

Then you put it in the freezer.  When you scoop it, it comes out like a chocolate swirl. I layered my vanilla bean ice cream with U-Bet Chocolate Syrup.

For my class, I did a lot of research on the history of ice cream in America.  I got really curious about the origin of the ice cream cone when I stumbled across this article from Saudi Aramco World: Zalabia and the First Ice Cream Cone.  SAW is a cool publication from which I’ve previously cooked some medieval Middle Eastern recipes.

The idea of an ice cream cone has been around for a few hundred years–they were known as “cornets” in Europe.  But as far as modern American cones, SAW recounts and ice cream cone legend I have heard before:

The Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also called the 1904 World’s Fair, was the largest the US had seen since the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. It covered some 500 hectares (1235 ac) and showed off such inventions as the year-old airplane, the radio, the telephone switchboard and the silent movie… (There were also less memorable attractions, among them a butter sculpture of President Theodore Roosevelt and a bear made out of prunes.) With more than 18 million visitors passing through the Exposition over its seven-month run, there were also scores of vendors offering much to eat.

(Ernest) Hamwi and his wife, the story goes, took their meager life’s savings and invested them in a zalabia booth, joining other like-minded immigrants from the Levant in attempting to transplant to the US the crisp, round, cookie-like snack so popular back home. Each zalabia was baked between two iron platens about the size of a dinner plate, hinged together and held by a handle over a charcoal fire. They were served sprinkled with sugar. The Hamwis wound up doing their cooking next to one of the approximately 50 ice-cream stands dotted around the fair, though exactly who owned the stand is in some doubt: It was either Arnold Fornachou or Charles Menches. Whoever it was, his ice cream sold faster than Hamwi’s zalabia—so fast, in fact, that one day he ran out of clean glass cups. At this moment, some say, the ice-cream man saw the possibilities of the zalabia; others claim the zalabia man saw the possibilities of the ice cream.

It’s Hamwi himself who originated this story, in an ice cream trade journal, and is generally credited with inventing the ice cream cone.   However, his story has never been proven, nor has there been any evidence found that he had a booth at the fair at all.

But people do seem to think that the 1903 Exposition is the time and place that ice cream and cone met, and that the pizzelle-like zalabia had something to do with it.  I got curious to make a zalabia, which hail from Lebanon, Syria, Greece and Turkey.  However, when a scoured the internet for a recipe, all I could come up with were recipes for north-African zalabia, a yeast-risen, deep-fried dough with honey syrup.  Not the same.

I ended up trying out this Martha Stewart recipe for waffle cones, but being that I don’t have a pizzelle maker, I ended up making waffle cones.  The result was freaking delicious, but not what I had set out to do.

If anyone out there has a zalabia recipe, hit me up! In the meantime, read the rest of the fascinating Saudi Aramco World article here.

The Gallery: Thomas Jefferson’s Ice Cream

After the revolution, Jefferson spent a number of years in France before becoming President.  In this time, he amassed an amazing culinary collection that would influence his dinner table for the rest of his life.  One of the dishes he enthused about was ice cream; not only did he buy an ice cream maker while abroad, but the Library of Congress also holds the vanilla ice cream recipes that Jefferson jotted down in his own hand.

1780s – Thomas Jefferson’s Handwritten Recipe
2. bottles of good cream.
6. yolks of eggs.
1/2 lb. sugar
mix the yolks & sugar. put the cream on a fire in a casserole, first putting in a stick of Vanilla. when near boiling take it off & pour it gently into the mixture of eggs & sugar. stir it well. put it on the fire again stirring it thoroughly with a spoon to prevent it’s sticking to the casserole. when near boiling take it off and strain it thro’ a towel. put it in the Sabottiere then set it in ice an hour before it is to be served. put into the ice a handful of salt. put salt on the coverlid of the Sabotiere & cover the whole with ice. leave it still half a quarter of an hour. then turn the Sabottiere in the ice 10 minutes open it to loosen with a spatula the ice from the inner sides of the Sabotiere. shut it & replace it in the ice open it from time to time to detach the ice from the sides when well taken (prise) stir it well with the Spatula. put it in moulds, justling it well down on the knee. then put the mould into the same bucket of ice. leave it there to the moment of serving it. to withdraw it, immerse the mould in warm water, turning it well till it will come out & turn it into a plate.


Below, an adaption of this recipe for the modern kitchen.  And if you’ve always wanted to know how to make ice cream from scratch, sign up for my class at the Brooklyn Brainery a week from today, on Sunday, September 4th.  I’ll go through the process step by step and talk about the origins and science of ice cream making.  See you there!

Basic Ice Cream Recipe
Inspired by Thomas Jefferson’s recipe, with some modern instructions pulled from “Martha Stewart’s Easy Ice Cream

6 large egg yolks
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon coarse salt
1 quart heavy cream (for a lighter ice cream, use 2 cups cream and 2 cups milk)
1 vanilla bean (or, other flavoring of your choice)
Additional mix-ins

1. In a glass bowl, whisk together egg yolks, sugar and salt until blended.
2. Add split and scraped vanilla bean to 1 quart of cream; bring to a boil, then pour slowly into the egg mixture, whisking constantly.
3. Cook egg and cream mixture over a double boiler, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until custard thickens slightly and evenly coats back of spoon (it should hold a line drawn by your finger).  Pour custard through a fine-mesh sieve into a bowl set over ice, or place in refrigerator, until chilled.
4. Churn in an ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions, adding mix-ins like nuts or fruits in the last few minutes. Transfer ice cream to a resealable plastic container and freeze until firm, about 2 hours.