Everything About Vanilla Cakes and Growing Vanilla Across the World
Whether in vanilla cakes, ice cream or liquor, the delicious taste of vanilla is the one that sets the tone. Its recognizable aroma adds a touch of sophistication and will leave your tastebuds dreaming long after you’ve finished your dessert. Who can honestly resist a generous serving of vanilla ice cream or a slice of creamy vanilla tiramisu?
Did you know that vanilla is one of the most popular spices in the world and the second-most expensive one after saffron? Let’s take a look at what defines a vanilla cake and what makes it so great. After showing you a few common types, we will dive into some interesting stories. How do we grow vanilla, and who came up with the way it’s cultivated today? Read on to learn everything!
Vanilla flower and pods (Flora Queen)
What Defines a Vanilla Cake?
Is there a secret recipe? Is there an official cake that sets the gold standard of all vanilla cakes worldwide? Actually, not at all. A vanilla cake, simply put, can be any style of cake, whether a classic sponge cake, chocolate mousse, tiramisu, cheesecake or all the rest, that incorporates vanilla in the mix. Vanilla acts as a taste amplifier, just like salt. Hey! Do you know why pastry chefs usually add vanilla to chocolate cakes? It makes the cake taste even more chocolatey!
What Makes This Cake the Best?
In order to explore this important question, we would like to list certain factors of this cake that will make the difference:
Texture: A moist and fluffy cake with delicious vanilla aroma is particularly great
Flavour pairings: What goes best with vanilla? In the spice department, how about, say, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, or cinnamon? In terms of fruity ingredients, figs, pears or strawberries can work well with vanilla. Their combined tastes create a heavenly culinary experience, leaving you wanting more and more.
- Vanilla Extract – The vanilla itself makes a difference. What’s the difference between using natural and artificial vanilla extracts? First, to be considered pure or natural vanilla extract, it must contain vanilla beans, alcohol, water and nothing else. Of course, the imitation version sometimes contains these ingredients, but also other flavours to boost the taste. Other times, the vanilla taste is achieved by using synthetic flavouring altogether. Thus, the pure vanilla extract is more expensive, The imitation vanilla is mid-priced, while the synthetic flavouring is the cheapest of them all. To sum up, all three kinds of extracts can be used. If you’re baking with vanilla, the choice is entirely yours. The impact on taste is indistinguishable. But if you are planning to make custard, ice cream, pudding or candy, you will get the ultimate taste by using natural pure extract.
Some Kinds of Vanilla Cakes
Now that you’re a new vanilla expert and you know what makes a great vanilla cake, let’s take a look at some of the kinds of cakes you can find to enjoy the amazing vanilla taste:
Rum and vanilla cannelé (Arhoma)
Cannelé: This is a French pastry originating from Bordeaux, with a rum and vanilla flavouring. It usually has a soft custard center and a thick and crunchy caramelized crust. If you’ve never had one, it’s definitely worth a try. And if you have, it’s also worth another go!
Fruit cream cake with layers of vanilla chiffon (Sweet Obsession)
Fruit cake: You can’t go wrong with a pairing of vanilla, fruit, and cream. The only risk with this delicious cake is finishing it too fast! Some coffee or tea would go wonderfully with this dessert.
Vanilla mocha cake (Vogue Cakes)
As mentioned earlier, vanilla acts as a taste amplifier. So just imagine, on top of the vanilla taste, how rich and bold the chocolate taste of a mocha cake could be!
Vanilla tiramisu with coffee and coconut (Level V Bakery)
Cheesecake baked with pure vanilla bean extract (Cakes etc)
Cheesecake: Vanilla and cream cheese, plus some berries and fruit sauce? What more is to be said? This delicately spiced cheesecake is not to be missed and savoured with each bite.
Vanilla dulce de leche cake (Sugar Blooms and Cakes)
- Dulce de leche: This one is best suited for your sweet tooth. Think of the caramelized milk and sugar spread all over a cake and the alluring vanilla taste in the spongy interior. What more could you ask for?
Where Is Vanilla From?
Vanilla, as you can see, is an amazing spice to be used in desserts. But where does it come from? Vanilla originally grew around the Gulf of Mexico in Central America. The first peoples to domesticate vanilla were the Totonac and Olmecs nations. They cultivated vanilla for food but also for fragrances in temples and good-luck charms.
In 1427, Aztecs who invaded the Totonacs from central Mexico, developed a taste for vanilla pods, and began using them to flavour their foods and drinks. In fact, they often mixed it with cocoa in a drink called “xocolatl”, which later inspired the …hot chocolate drink!
Vanilla’s Trip Around the World
In the 16th century, the Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés introduced vanilla and chocolate to Europe. At first, it was only seen as a way of flavouring chocolate. As soon as it made its way to the households of the elite, in foods like ice cream, as a miracle drug and as an aphrodisiac, it gained a massive success, and the demand for this spice increased. People started trying to grow vanilla across the world.
However, there was a problem; very few plants outside of Mexico would bear fruit. The key challenge was that the vanilla orchid plant blooms only one day a year, and on this day, it is open for just a few hours. This means that it needs to be pollinated effectively. Later, it was also discovered that the orchid bees (euglossini) are the only effective pollinator of the vanilla orchid plant. These bees exist only in the rainforests of Mexico. Therefore, despite attempts to grow it elsewhere, Mexico, vanilla’s indigenous country, remained its largest producer for a long time.
Edmond Albius’ Historic Discovery
In the 18th century, vanilla ice cream was all the rage in France, and the supply could not keep up with the demand. For this reason, French entrepreneurs shipped vanilla fruits to the islands of Réunion and Mauritius, French colonies in the Indian Ocean, hoping to grow it themselves there.
Over there, however, they encountered many difficulties. The main problem was that there were no effective insects to pollinate the vanilla plant, and the crops yielded way below expectations (We often forget how important bees are for growing fruits. Read our blog on honey cakes and read about the role bees play in growing the food we eat).
There were attempts to find ways to pollinate vanilla by hand, but they proved unsuccessful. For example, a Belgian botanist named Charles Morren, after closely studying bees pollinating vanilla, discerned how pollination occurred, which led to him publishing his own hand-pollination method in 1837. However, his technique was too time-consuming and physically demanding for it to be worthwhile. His technique was best suited to controlled greenhouse conditions and not the mass scale of production required on plantation fields.
Then, an unexpected discoverer came along that would solve this problem and help people cultivate vanilla across the world.
Réunion Island, France (Détours en France)
According to the Linnean Society, Edmond Albius was born into slavery in 1829 in Sainte-Suzanne on the island of Bourbon (modern-day Réunion). At an early age, he was sent by his master to work for Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont, on a plantation. Ferréol Bellier-Beaumont taught Edmond everything about the study of horticulture, botany, and fertilizing flowers.
In the late 1810s, Bellier-Beaumont received vanilla cuttings from a traveling French merchant. After planting them, he was only able to keep one vine alive which unfortunately, did not bear any fruit. Years later, in 1841, while walking through his gardens with the young Edmond, Bellier-Beaumont discovered two fruits on this solitary 20-year-old vine. To his astonishment, Edmond claimed that he fertilized the flower by hand.
Bellier-Beaumont could not believe that a 12-year-old slave had achieved something that so many great scientists had failed to do. A few days later Bellier-Beaumont noticed more pods developing and asked Edmond to show him his hand pollination technique. Bellier-Beaumont realized the technique was similar to his own method for hand-pollinating watermelon plants, which he had shown Edmond previously.
Edmond was then transported around Réunion to show his technique to slaves on other plantations. Thanks to Edmond’s discovery, vanilla production on the island skyrocketed. In 1858, Réunion was able to transport 2 tonnes of vanilla beans back to France. By 1867 it was 20 tonnes, and in 1898, 200 tonnes. By the late 19th century, Réunion surpassed Mexico as the world’s largest vanilla producer.
How to fertilize a vanilla flower (Youtube)
Unfortunately, Edmond wasn’t as lucky during the rest of his life. In gratitude for his discovery, locals of Réunion attempted to obtain a reward or a government stipend for him, unsuccessfully. In 1848, France outlawed slavery in its colonies, and Edmond left the plantation to work as a kitchen servant. He adopted Albius as his new surname from alba (“white” in Latin) in reference to the vanilla orchid’s colour.
Later on, he was convicted of stealing jewelry, but he maintained his innocence. He was then sentenced to ten years in prison but only served five years when the governor granted him clemency for his enormous contribution to vanilla production in Réunion. He died in poverty in 1880.
Edmond’s legacy and contribution fell into oblivion for many years. In fact, others claimed his discovery as their own. While there has been a constant debate about this technique invention, Albius must be credited for providing the key to the vanilla industry not just in Réunion, but in other French colonies and islands like Madagascar—currently the main global exporter of vanilla. In 2017, Madagascar produced 40% of the world’s vanilla, while Mexico, where it originates from, produced about 6%.
What a fascinating and unexpected story! Vanilla’s trip around the world happened thanks to a lucky discovery and ended up adding so much flavour to our desserts. Why not help yourself to some amazing vanilla cakes? To find the best ones near you, search in Dessert Advisor.