In Defense of Vanilla

I’m a vanilla girl and I am not ashamed to say so.

If I have to choose between vanilla and chocolate ice creams, I invariably choose vanilla.  No, it is not because I am boring and have no imagination, or lack the refined palate that appreciates the chocolate in the chocolate ice cream.  My palate is very spoiled, thank you very much, and I prefer not to eat any ice cream than to buy one of those cones with something looking like plastic foam in it from the “fat-free sugar-free ice cream” stands.  Have you ever wondered about this – if it’s fat free and sugar free, pray tell me what does it consist of?  No, better not tell me, I am not sure I actually want to know.

But, I digress.  If the choice is between really good vanilla and really good chocolate ice cream, I prefer vanilla.  And I have come to resent the fact that this royalty of the flavor kingdom has come to be regarded as a synonym for ‘boring’, ‘unimaginative’ and generally ‘blah’.

I don’t need to search far and wide to know how we have arrived in this sorry state of affairs.  You see, the major flavoring component (but far from the only one!) in vanilla is vanillin (C8H8O3), which is not a terribly complicated chemical to make (in fact I remember us making it in the lab early on during my organic chemistry course), and entirely unproblematic to produce industrially.  And it is a good thing, because the demand for vanilla far, far outstrips production, and a lot of the products in which it is used are not nearly expensive enough to justify the expense of using real vanilla from the industry’s point of view.  I mean, who’d want basic candy bars to shoot up in price without any notable flavor difference? (and no, with everything else in them, the difference wouldn’t matter, not really)

Why is it then, that natural vanilla is so expensive*  (*I’ll come back to this as it is very relative!) and rare?  Well, that’s very simple too, really – vanilla flavor comes from vanilla ‘beans’, which are unripe pods of the climbing orchid in the genus Vanilla.  And as such (being orchids), they are not easy to cultivate to fruiting condition, and even in optimal conditions, they are not easy to propagate, and require fairly specialized care – not to mention hand-pollination.  Yes, if you have handled or seen a vanilla pod in the shop, it was likely the result of a guy with a dry paintbrush tickling a yellow orchid flower half the world away some months prevously.  If the resulting fruit set, it was allowed to mature some, then gathered and cured to develop the characteristic flavor.  In short, the process requires special climate, is labor-intensive and long.

Cheap ice-cream manufacturers don’t want to pay the premium.  Vanillin is used because people want vanilla, and they also want cheap ice cream and chocolate (ice cream and chocolate industries account for about 75% of vanilla use worldwide according to wikipedia), and so the industry responds by manufacturing cheap chocolate and ice cream – with vanillin.  And so the vanilla-flavored ice cream is born.  Which well… it tastes blah.  Like sugar, and not a whole lot else, really.  And because most people actually like the flavor of vanilla (I’ve never actually heard of anyone actively disliking it!), even approximated so, it is the most commonly bought flavor of ice cream out there.  And so we fall into the trap of “blah”, for vanillin simply does not have the rich, lush profile of natural vanilla from beans.

In contrast, chocolate, which is a far stronger flavor, does not taste nearly as blah when it is made as cheaply – it tastes at the very least of cocoa (which is a lot cheaper than real vanilla), which is not a bad thing in itself.

And so the misconception of vanilla = boring is born.  I think it is a grave injustice.

Furthermore, judging from the consumer behavior (and we aren’t talking about high-end shops in better parts of town), a lot of people do not actually know how different and lush natural vanilla extract is, because I see “artificial vanilla extract” and “vanilla sugar: made with vanillin” fly off supermarket shelves – while the pricier bottle of natural vanilla extract doesn’t sell nearly as well, and neither do the test-tube packed vanilla pods.

On the surface, that’s market economy – people try to get value for their money and when they can get something-vanilla for cheaper they do.  In reality, it’s neither good economy, nor do you get what you pay for.  To the industry, manufacturing vanillin-based “vanilla sugar” is cheap.  For you, buying it is expensive.  And if you consider that “artificial vanilla extract” is just some water in a bottle with a few crystals dissolved in it, then it doesn’t look like such a great deal anymore.

Let’s look at it from a shopping-cart point of view.  A box of vanillin-based vanilla sugar or a bottle of the artificial stuff (about 50ml) can run about 1.5€ – while buying 1 vanilla pod right next to them is only 2€ or so. (I am talking average supermarket price here in Stockholm.  You could probably get cheaper vanilla pods if you order them on the net for example.)

But, that one vanilla pod, which doesn’t look all that big or impressive in its pack?  It gets you one heck of a lot more than a whole jar of vanillin-based sugar and a bottle of artificial extract!  I’m serious.

Remember when I wrote about the glorious and easy to make vanilla ice cream and how it tasted absolutely amazing because of the fresh cream and the homemade real vanilla extract?  Well, here’s the thing – all it takes to make real, rich and gloriously aromatic vanilla extract at home is a small bottle (blue or brown glass is best as it protects it from sun damage), half a pod (yes, I used the whole pod but that is because I wanted mine extra rich), and about 100ml of vodka or rum.

Cut your pod in half across, and then slice the half of it you plan to use lengthwise to open up one side of it.  Drop it into bottle.  Top up with vodka or rum.  Close and let stand out of direct sunlight for a week.  Your extract is ready to use.

The other half a pod?  Cut it lengthwise too, and stick it into a glass jar and cover with fine caster sugar (I recommend that rather than powdered sugar for this as it is less likely to stick).  Close and store for a week, shaking occasionally.  It will very quickly perfume the entire jar with a very strong vanilla scent!  There, real vanilla sugar, too!

So all right, 100ml of vodka may run you another 1€, and let’s assume jar and bottle are free (I wash jars and bottles for such uses and keep them), and the sugar will run you a few euro-cent (pennies, whatever).  For the price of about 3€ and about a week’s time, you have yourself a better extract than you could easily buy in any shop, and a jar of sugar already.  But, it gets far better!

You see, vanilla pods keep their flavor for a long time.  Simply put, there is a lot of flavor packed into it.  So when you run low on the extract, just top if off with some vodka or rum again, and if you run low on sugar, refill the jar – and keep using it another few months!

With this sort of economy, there is no reason whatsoever to touch the expensive, blah artificial vanilla again.

So please, do yourself a favor.  Go to the shop.  Buy that 1 pod of vanilla.  Make extract or sugar (whatever you think you’ll use more!), or both, and get reacquainted with the rich and wonderful vanilla as it is meant to be.

Trust me.  Whatever else you may think, you will never reach for the artificial extract bottle again.  And I sincerely doubt that you’ll use the word “vanilla” for “boring” either.

I know I’ve said it before, but we are not rich enough to buy “cheap” things – not to mention that you usually get what you pay for, and in this particular case, what you lose is the enjoyment which could (and should!) be yours – and besides, if you want something done right, do it yourself.  In this case, the difference is truly remarkable.

Spring, Moss, and Half-Rye Sourdough Bread

Considering my recent silence, you have undoubtedly wondered if I have been eaten by crocodiles by now.  Or maybe polar bears.  It’s Sweden, and the polar bears must be hungry.  Or some other grisly fate.  The truth is, however, very prosaic – I have simply been busy.

It happens to all of us, and I am entirely unapologetic for having a life outside the blog, much as I love it.

And besides, to quote a recently-seen on the internet and absolutely brilliant photo:


As you can see, the plants are happily blooming – at least some of them, and others look like they are preparing to, and if you are like me and like houseplants, then it’s exciting.  What can I say, I am easily excited.  I think that’s a good thing.  Surely beats sitting there looking bored and feeling blasé about the world.

So um, yes.  I have been busy, it’s spring, which means my plants needed more attention, my studies are kicking back in, and I have not had so much time to cook anything impressive, nor, mostly, to photograph it.

I did bake a half-rye bread on the basis of my two-fifths rye no-knead recipe, and it turned out gorgeous.  I have, again, let it proof entirely too long due to the same reason (I went for a walk and returned later than planned), but it was delicious and lovely nonetheless.  One of those days I will actually bake it in time and see if it can be made taller, but between the high rye content and the high hydration of no-knead method, I am not sure.  On the up side, the narrow slices make fantastically elegant open-faced sandwiches with slices of cheese, salami, dried ham or cured fish.  Anyway, no recipe here – merely a note that the two-fifths rye recipe works exceptionally well with a half and half split between the types of flour.  And, I will try a closer to 65 or 70% split in favor of rye next.

And then there is my newly-found fascination with moss.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of conflicting and downright bad information about how to grow it on the internet.  And doubly unfortunately, I managed to spray the two original moss-homes I made with the wrong water spray bottle.  What’s so wrong about the wrong spray bottle?  Well, it used to contain agricultural soap-and-oil mix for treating bugs on one of my orchids last summer.  As a result, I think one or two applications of that instead of water are killing the moss slowly, which made me very sad.  It is still alive and struggling to stay so (and I am helping), but I am not sure it will win the battle, and it is entirely my fault.

So, I did a lot more reading, and gathered more moss.

And then I followed several other new instructions which changed or negated the things I originally found.  For example, I did not use any potting soil on this round.  Instead, I made a base out of aquarium-filter activated carbon, and piled sterilized gravel bits, re-sterilized bark chips (from my orchid potting bark bag), and pieces of terracotta (broken flowerpot that did not survive the winter freeze) on top of that.  Added aged tap water with some activated carbon swirled in it via my new, clean spray bottle, and arranged the moss on top, above the water level.

Note: to sterilize rocks and bark chips, soak in boiling water, let stand, pour water off and repeat.  This won’t sterilize them for purposes of neural surgery, but it should kill most mold spores and random microfauna present on and in them.  If you want to be more sure about it, boil a pot of water and toss them in there for a while.  Do not salt.  ;)

The second thing I found important is having a lid for your moss-growing dish.  A more reputable moss-growing website owner mentioned in his blog that he covers his moss dishes overnight and leaves them to air out during the day – so, upside-down flat candle plates were found to cover the little terraria, to maintain good humidity with periods of drying-out and fresh air.  Since, unless your moss is swamp moss (mine isn’t, it came off rocks and tree stumps), it doesn’t want to sit in a swamp.  (Deep wisdom right there, for various houseplants other than moss as well!)

And a third thing was washing the moss when I had initially brought it home, removing all debris and clinging dirt under running water, and then quarantining it in sandwich boxes with partially-shut lids for several days before using it in the arrangement – to make sure no pests or molds surface in the meantime.

The new terraria are now a few days old, and are so far doing well.  I’ll just avoid spraying them with insecticidal solution by accident and see what happens.

So, there it is.  Coming soon(tm) – posts about vanilla, and about the two entirely new to me white whole wheat flours (That is not a typo – they are whole wheat flours made from white, not red wheat!) that I have just received in the mail and all excited about – but obviously, first I need to bake something from them and see how that works out!

Moss Dish Garden Experiment – Day 3

UPDATE:  Please see this post for more and more correct information regarding moss dishes!

For those of you curious about how the moss is doing – well, so far, it appears to be doing fine.  In fact, it does not appear all that different from how it looked about 4 hours after watering – see for yourself!

Day 1 on the left, Day 3 (today) on the right. (Click to enlarge)

The light is a bit different (today’s photos are taken a bit earlier in the afternoon but on a cloudy day), but the pot has not changed a whole lot.  It is not at all surprising as mosses are incredibly slow growers and I don’t expect sprouting like you’d see on higher plants.  I think I may keep taking a benchmark photo every few days – it would make seeing progress a lot easier.

Throughout yesterday and today, I have misted the containers a few times, and I have added water into the reservoirs as the moss was slurping it all up at a surprising rate – in the glass container, it nearly emptied the reservoir!  I heard that some mosses can hold up to 4x their weight in water but I did not actually see it before!  From what I can tell, it is happy.  It’s still too early to tell whether it’s going to survive, so I am serious about giving this a couple of weeks before pronouncing it any sort of success.

There is also something I’ve noticed about it after a closer observation, and perhaps a day or so indoors and moistened:

The moss is not just a single carpet of Hypnum.  It appears to have in it a few leaves of a larger, curlier species which is a little lighter in color (not pictured in this clip as they did not come out in focus at high magnification), and also tiny star-shaped deep green growths with reddish stems.  I had noticed the cup lichen (Cladonia) earlier, but it bears mention all the same for sheer cuteness – the largest cup is about 1.5mm across.  I really hope it survives as well!

I have a very mild concern that the water we have here, however pure it is, may be a little too harsh for the moss that is a non-vascular plant, so I have put 2 small buckets to gather rain outside should it fall, and will also age some tap water and check supermarket bottled waters for pH and mineral content listing and maybe buy a bottle of that till the spring rains come.

Also, I am really getting rather attached to the cute tiny green things!  T even teased me this morning about staring at the moss meditatively while we were having coffee, to which I replied that he should not disturb my “moss appreciation time”.

Whatever you say for it, it’s certainly incredibly relaxing, and soothing to look at – a tiny piece of forest of your own within arm’s reach.

Moss Dish Garden Experiment – Day 1

UPDATE:  Please see this post for more and more correct information regarding moss dishes!

Today’s post is not at all about food, but about spring, and green growing things.  I love greenery, I’ve mentioned that before, but when the days turn sunny and the chill in the air is no longer a biting cold but a refreshing breeze, my fascination with the green stuff goes into overdrive.

I literally cannot have enough green things around the apartment, and preferably new and interesting ones at that.  Yes, I did say apartment – had I had a house, and a garden, there’d be a lot more green things around.  As it is, I have to fit my desire to see things grow into a city apartment.  Which means, windowsills and tabletops and maybe balcony… actually definitely balcony, as my lavender bushes not only survived the winter outside unprotected except by what snow fell on them, but are alive and sprouting happily.  I’ve trimmed them down and fertilized them and can now look forward to an abundance of purple and white flowers and a heavenly fragrance… but I digress.

Yesterday, a friend of mine informed me that if I do not yet have a moss dish garden, I need one.  Need.  And she showed me some photos, and I realized that yes, she is right and I do indeed need one, right now.  Right then it was too late in the day to go gravel-gathering, or moss-hunting, but that is precisely what I did this morning.

Why?  Because it’s green, it’s alive and because it is incredibly beautiful, at least to those like me who think just about anything in the forest short of animal poop is beautiful.  And a moss dish garden is very far from that end of the spectrum indeed – it is as small as you want to make it, elegant and stylish, and has the certain quiet beauty much admired by Japanese gardeners (who have encouraged moss to grow in their gardens for centuries before we have gotten the idea to do this – probably from them).  And it’s supposed (supposed does not = works out that way) to be pretty low-maintenance.  This latter part, we’ll see about.  Once it establishes, that is.

Important: before you rush out and strip the moss off the nearest boulder, first make sure that it is not protected or endangered wherever it is you live.  If it is, then you may be better off buying some from a nursery or get some (legally sourced) spores online.  Of course, collecting it in your own garden or in a garden of people you know works too.  Just – make sure you aren’t breaking the law and ruining the environment by gathering an endangered species – after all, the point of this (at least to me) is to grow something beautiful because you love green things, not to destroy what is possibly irreplaceable!  For reference, in Sweden, some lichens and mosses are protected, but it is legal to gather a little bit of other varieties for personal (non-commercial) use in public forests.  The variety pictured above is a species of Hypnum genus of mosses, a very common forest and bog moss.

After the ethical and legal concerns are out of the way, putting together a moss garden is apparently very easy – you just need a ceramic or glass dish, some gravel and pebbles, a bit of non-alkaline potting soil, and the moss.  However, and that’s a big however, I imagine it will take more than just putting it together to get it to establish and thrive.  So, this is my moss dish garden experiment – day 1.  I will update over the next several weeks on how the mosses are doing before I pronounce this a success *knocks on wood*.

So, what does one need to make a moss garden?

Apparently, not that much.  Mosses don’t like alkaline environment (at least most of the common ones don’t), and they dislike direct sunlight but like a bit of light all the same.  They also do not develop true roots the way higher plants do, and so must be kept moist but not waterlogged (except bog mosses that sometimes just float in bogs).  Most websites recommend watering with filtered or rainwater.  I agree in theory, but in practice, the tap water in Stockholm is clean and soft enough that it should not be a problem.  I did put a bucket outside to collect a bit of rainwater should it fall, but in the meantime, the moss will get the same water as my orchids do.

The basic idea is a layer of pebbles in the bottom of a shallow dish, then a bit of gravel (this is to provide a place for excess water to drain into, and also a reservoir for keeping the soil moist), then a little bit of soil on top of it, and then the moss itself.

After I have put everything together around lunchtime today, it looked like this:

It hasn’t rained for over a week before I went out today to collect it, so the moss was looking a little dry but not dead – we have a beautiful patch of untouched forest behind our apartment building, a landscape feature I love about Stockholm.  It’s very common here to build around old boulders and between them, leaving the actual forest biome intact between the houses.  It makes for a beautiful view out the windows as well.

So, as per instructions, I constructed the base, watered it thoroughly, and then gently pushed the moss patches onto the soft and wet soil.  For a while, nothing visible happened.  I took the above photo, then sprayed the moss thoroughly with a spray bottle and wandered off to do other stuff.

Then, after a few hours, I came back and looked at my dish garden – and the somewhat-unexpected (but not unwelcome!) has happened:

On left, photo taken at half past noon. On right, photo at half past four in the afternoon.

The moss has soaked up water, plumping up visibly – and turned a beautiful lush green!  And while I know it’s too early to be happily assuming that the moss will survive, it certainly does look happier already, which means I am happier too – how can you not be, looking at something turn beautifully alive nearly before your eyes?

All that remains now is an exercise in patience.  Check moss daily for drying out, mist and admire.  Water weekly (or as soon as the glass container looks dry on the side) by pouring water in.  Wait to see what happens.  I’m sitting on the edge of my seat here with impatience – I have never been the patient sort, ever.  I’ve always been told that patience is a virtue.  I suppose at least where growing moss is concerned, that has got to be true.

Wish me – and the moss! – luck.