Mexican vanilla is a gourmet cook's dream spice. Its rich, smooth taste is unrivaled, which makes it the perfect ingredient to add pizzazz to ordinary recipes.
History of Mexican Vanilla
Vanilla is made from the orchid plant and grows naturally in the southern coastal regions of Mexico. The Totonacs of Veracruz, Mexico are credited as its first cultivators. In the early 1400s the Totonacs considered vanilla a sacred herb and used it in ritual offerings and for medicine, but rarely as a flavoring. It wasn't until nearly a century later that the Aztecs combined vanilla with chocolate to create the drink chocolatl. In the years since, the fragrant bean has become one of the most desirable spices in the world and is embraced by both professional chefs and home cooks.
Mexican vanilla is highly valued for its flavor, which is described by top chefs as "spicy and delicate." Authentic vanilla is produced in much smaller quantities than ordinary vanilla, due to the extensive labor required to grow the pods.
The Mexican vanilla bean is a thicker and darker bean than its traditional cousin, and has a smooth, strong, rich fragrance and flavor. Some cooks regard Mexican vanilla as the best of its kind, and use it in everything from stews to beverages. However, because of its extra spiciness Mexican vanilla beans, pure vanilla extract and other vanilla products, tend to be used most commonly found in dessert dishes as it marries well with sweet treats that rely heavily on baking spices for flavoring.
Important Warning About Mexican Vanilla
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has a stern warning about the use of some vanilla products. Some manufacturers of vanilla products in Mexico add coumarin, which is a toxic substance banned by the FDA, because it can cause liver and kidney damage.
Coumarin is derived from the Brazilian Tonka bean and can be used to make flavoring, which is very similar to vanilla. The potentially deadly substance is used extensively in synthetic vanillas manufactured in Mexico. In the 1950s the United States banned imports of coumarin products; however, the products still make their way across the border from time to time.
Things to Avoid When Shopping for Vanilla
Prior to purchasing vanilla products make sure they are clearly labeled "coumarin free" or "pure vanilla." In addition, always buy vanilla products from reputable suppliers. Often tourists visiting Mexico are tempted to buy bargain priced vanilla. The cheap price is usually an indicator that the vanilla is laced with coumarin. Pure Mexican vanilla is expensive. The synthetic version may smell and taste like vanilla, but it is not pure vanilla and should be avoided. Authentic vanilla is amber colored while synthetics tend to be dark and murky due to the coal tar from which they are produced or from caramel and red food colorings. To ensure you are getting pure vanilla from Mexico check the label, the price, and avoid large bargain-sized bottles found south of the border.
There are thousands of simple recipes that feature the rich flavor of Mexican vanilla, including these favorites:
Mexican Mango Pudding
- 3/4 cup raisins
- 2/3 cup sweet sherry
- 7 cups challah, or other egg bread (can also substitute with biscotti or ladyfingers)
- 3 large ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted, and cubed (roughly 7 cups)
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 3/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons pure Mexican vanilla extract
- 1 cup whipping cream, whipped until stiff
- In a small saucepan, plump the raisins in the sherry for 15 minutes over low heat.
- If you are using fresh bread, dry the bread in the oven for 10 minutes. (If you are using biscotti or ladyfingers, omit this step.)
- Place half of the mango and all the evaporated milk in a blender. Puree until smooth. Place mixture into a bowl and repeat with the remaining mango, condensed milk, and vanilla. Add to the first mixture and mix well. Fold in the whipped cream one third at a time.
- Strain the raisins and reserve the sherry and raisins.
- In a clear serving bowl, layer half the bread cubes in bowl. Sprinkle half of the reserved sherry over the bread, followed by half of the raisins, then add half of the mango mixture.
- Add another layer of bread, sherry, and raisins, saving about five raisins for the top. Add the remaining mango mixture and the raisins to garnish the top.
- Cover bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 to 2 days.
Makes 8 to 10 servings.
Spicy Mexican Brownies
- 3/4 cup cocoa
- 2/3 cup + 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups sugar
- 4 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1 teaspoon pure Mexican vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups flour
- 1 teaspoon baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
- 2 teaspoons ground anise seed
- 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
- Grease a 13 by 9 by 2-inch pan.
- Mix the dry ingredients, then add in the oil, eggs, and vanilla.
- Spread mixture in the pan, and bake for 30 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean.
Makes about 24 brownies.
Where to Buy Vanilla
The following online retailers are certified as reputable sources for pure Mexican vanilla: