I'm amazed at how superior your vanilla is!
- Des, The Grommet

Gingerbread Houses and Christmas Candlelight Teas

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Maria Reisz has of way of creating magic and beauty, whether it’s her exquisite European baking, sumptuous parties and teas, her rose gardens, flower arranging, or just about anything else her talented hands touch. Now Maria has brought out her much awaited book, Gingerbread Houses and Christmas Candlelight Teas: How to Create Your Own Holiday Traditions. This lovely book is filled with detailed instructions and lovely photos on how to help children create their own delightful gingerbread houses and how to turn simple-to-prepare foods into a celebratory meal with family and friends.

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Winter Mandarin and Pineapple Shrubs

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After experimenting with berry shrubs last summer, I could hardly wait to try my hand with autumn and winter fruits. Apparently I’m not alone on this adventure. Specialty Food Magazine just published an article on the popularity of the sour (I prefer the word tart) flavors that were very popular in the US until sugar became more available and less expensive. The trend is driven by concerns over the negative effects of a sugar-heavy diet and a greater commitment to good health as well as by those of us who are willing to explore new ways to use foods and flavors and expand our boundaries (which I am except when it comes to chocolate-coated grubs and other oddities). I do find it exciting that fermented foods like kefir, bitters, shrubs and tonics are gaining popularity as are sour cherries and berries and other “old fashioned” flavors.

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Chocolate Cream Scones

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Who wouldn’t want a plate of scones fresh from the oven? Especially cream scones! Delicate, tender, with flecks of melted chocolate, these scones were originally the brain-child of the chocolate diva, Alice Medrich. My friend and co-instructor of classes on vanilla at our local community college, Anne Baldzikowsky, tweaked the recipe slightly by dusting Rain’s Choice Vanilla Sugar over the tops of the dough, making them sparkly and slightly crunchy.

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Vanilla Cupcakes with Mascarpone Vanilla Cream Frosting

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Have you noticed how many baked goods will lead with “Vanilla” but the cake, cookie, etc. tastes completely bland and doesn’t have the signature flavor of pure vanilla? If so, you will really enjoy this recipe. Not only does vanilla flavor come through loud and clear, the Mascarpone frosting is so good you’ll want to eat it by the spoonful right from the bowl! A perfect recipe to give as a thank you gift, but make sure you make extra for yourself!

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Does Mexico Still Produce Vanilla?

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Beautiful, exotic Mexico. Warm weather, gorgeous beaches, a rich and varied culture, delicious food, and…the birthplace of vanilla. Some of you may be thinking, “Well, duh! I buy my fabulous vanilla there every time I visit.” In which case you should take a moment to read about your fabulous vanilla here. Otherwise, here is a brief overview of the history of the Mexican vanilla industry and why Mexican vanilla beans are difficult to come by today.

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How to Make the Best Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Cordials

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Homemade vanilla extract is easy and fun to make. It isn’t as strong as commercial vanilla extracts though it may have a larger flavor bouquet than extracts from the market. But the real pleasure is in making it for yourself or for giving as gifts. Before we get started, here’s some information about how commercial extracts are made. I’m including this information here as people have some misconceptions based on commercial versus homemade extracts.

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Facts and FAQs About Vanilla

A brief encyclopedia of facts you might like to know about vanilla

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What is Vanilla?

Vanilla is a member of the orchid family, the largest and oldest family of flowering plants in the world. Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the entire orchid family, which includes roughly 25,000 orchid varieties and over 10,000 hybrids. It grows best in the moist, tropical regions of the world 15-1/2 degrees to the north and south of the Equator.

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Cheap vanilla? Hold onto your wallet!

For an update on the 2016 vanilla shortage, please see “Why is Vanilla so Expensive?

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Have you noticed that vanilla prices have been creeping up for the last two years?

Well, now the price of vanilla has gone through the roof!

Frustrating? You bet, especially as we enter the autumn baking season and the holidays.

So why are the prices climbing and where can you find cheap vanilla? It turns out the answer is complicated. 

Think shortage – One cyclone can wipe out a third of the year’s vanilla crop overnight!

Nearly everything we purchase is priced according to supply and demand, and this is especially true with food. Whereas clothing, washing machines, cars and other man-made goods typically are pretty consistently available, agricultural products are subject to weather patterns, pests, pathogens and even human manipulation.

Because we live in a global economy, if there’s a wheat shortage due to bad weather in our Midwest, our government can buy wheat from another country. Prices will go up, but bakeries won’t shut down and flour will still be on market shelves. The same is true with last year’s egg shortage. Avian Flu decimated many commercial egg producing facilities but only in some regions. We could still find eggs at the market, but we  paid dearly for them. Now, almost a year later, there is a glut of eggs again.

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Creme Fraiche Whipped Cream

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Adding a little creme fraiche when you are whipping cream will help to stabilize it. No deflating, leaking or other problems, and no need to add cornstarch or gelatin to keep the whipped cream looking good on top of the pie or cake. Creme Fraiche is a lightly cultured cream so it has a pleasant tartness to it — not too pronounced but just enough to give the whipped cream a slight edge.

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Fresh Berry Vanilla Shrub

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Have you noticed how food trends and recipes are recycled — what’s long forgotten is once again the next best thing? Except it often reappears transformed. As an urban culture obsessed with food, we have access to endless ideas and techniques to tease out the best.

I especially noticed this about the trending popularity of shrubs. Shrubs are an old beverage. Old as in 1500’s Renaissance era old, maybe even older. The word comes from the Arabic shurb, drink and/or the Hindi Sharbat, a brightly flavored syrup made from fruits or flowers and herbs, blended into cold water and enjoyed as a refreshing beverage.

When I was growing up my mother talked about drinking raspberry shrub at her grandparents’ farm in Ontario, Canada. While I adored anything raspberry, I couldn’t get past the vinegar, a key ingredient in shrubs. She said it was such a refreshing drink on a hot day. I wondered how anything containing vinegar could possibly be refreshing. Drinking something as sharp as vinegar on a hot day — really??

Fast forward to the current cocktail trend. For the last several years I’ve watched bitters, tonics and shrubs evolve to near rock star status in blogs, natural food stores, tony bars and  upscale restaurants. I flirted with making it, but held off until a recent blog on Food 52 brought me to the cliff’s edge.

I jumped…and I’m sooooo happy I did.

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Pomegranate Molasses & Vanilla Chicken

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I’m  currently enamored with the combination of pomegranate molasses, Mediterranean spices and ground vanilla beans. Sweet, tart, salty, savory. With a fast turn of the wrist you can make a “same old” weeknight meal into an “oh yeah!” dinner. This recipe is liberally adapted from Sunset Magazine. They also used carrots but I think Maui or cippolini onion chunks, or sweet potatoes would be dynamite thrown into the pot with or without the carrots. I had asparagus roasting on the rack above the chicken and was pleasantly surprised by how well it blended, but I wish I’d also had some potatoes roasting too. In other words, adapt, adapt, adapt. I’m thinking pork chops or even pork tenderloin would soak in all this juicy goodness. What about you?

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Grilled Snapper with Tropical Fruit Salsa

 

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One of the pluses about living on the Central California coast is the fresh fish! I live down the street from a couple of fishermen and occasionally I go out on the Bay with them, though I admit, it’s more for the boat ride and being on the water than it is for the fishing. What I’ve learned as they’ve reeled the fish in, is that the markets use names like “snapper” and “cod” when the fish is actually one of the many varieties of rock fish. I mention this because it really doesn’t matter what firm-fleshed white fish you use to make this and many other fish dishes. It’s more about choosing fresh fish that ideally is also sustainable. If you are concerned about what fish to choose regarding sustainability, check fishwatch.gov.

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Strawberry Rhubarb Fool With Vanilla Cream

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You’ve got to love the quirky names the Brits have for some of their older recipes. Fool is one of my favorites though Bubbles and Squeak and Toad-in-a-Hole are up there on my list of “faves.”

This is a little different from traditional Fool recipes, which are made with minced or pureed fruits and whipped cream or custard.  This recipe has cooked rhubarb and strawberries, whipped cream blended with crème fraiche and delicate rose water. You are welcome to substitute other fruits for the strawberries and rhubarb if you choose. Just keep the proportions more or less the same.

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The Queen’s Best Stuffed Russian Eggs

Are you crazy for stuffed eggs too? Really, I can’t imagine spring and summer picnics – inside or out – without these silky smooth, delicious gems.

What’s interesting is there are so many variations, both regional and individual. Years ago I had a boyfriend who always referred to them as Russian eggs. I actually prefer that name over “deviled” or “stuffed” but I was curious if Russian eggs contained specific or unique ingredients.

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What is vanilla paste?

We’ll tell you, plus share with you our favorite vanilla paste recipes!

In 1967 I saw my first vanilla bean. I was already 24 years old. This shouldn’t sound remarkable but it actually is because even finding a vanilla bean in San Francisco in 1967  took some effort.

I had a friend who had lived in Italy and traveled a great deal in Europe. He and I were in a coffee and spice store and he bought me a vanilla bean. I was enchanted by the aroma but completely puzzled about how to use it. He told me to put it in my container of coffee beans and the vanilla would perfume the coffee. So I did. It wasn’t until 1985 that I learned how to use vanilla beans in any other way. Once I knew how, I never stopped using them but I’ve expanded my vanilla repertoire considerably since then.

There’s a reason why I share this story. Before the Food Network became so popular, most people had no clue about how to use vanilla beans. Probably had never seen them either.  Once they became a regular on the Network,  everyone had  to use vanilla beans in their baking and dessert making.

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The Queen’s Coeur a la Creme

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Coeur a la Creme is rarely seen on dessert menus, which is too bad as it’s both rich and light at the same time, a perfect accompaniment to fresh berries and stone fruits and fun with lightly sweetened, crisp cookies. It’s also lovely with sliced pound or chiffon cake. I clearly remember the first time I had it. It was 1978

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