You can learn a lot from holiday baking. You can learn how your oven’s hot spots have gotten worse since last Christmas. You can learn your meringues look like but don’t quite taste the same as your aunt’s meringues even if you followed her recipe exactly. And you can relearn what a pain it is to try and peel the cellophane off candy canes in order to crush them.

This year, I learned that Bourbon vanilla is actually a variety of the aromatic spice and not, as I’d previously thought, an extract made when one coaxes the flavor from a vanilla bean by steeping it in corn-based Kentucky whiskey. Commercial vanilla extract is most often made with ethyl alcohol, while Bourbon vanilla beans most often come from Madagascar.

Vanilla was first cultivated in southern Mexico, in areas within 20 degrees of the equator, well before the Spanish colonized Central America in the 15th century. Then and only there, tiny black bees navigated the unique membranes separating the vanilla flowers’ male and female organs for pollination purposes. Once a flower is pollinated, a long green pod grows in the flower’s spot on the vine for about six months. After it’s picked and cured, which takes another six months, it becomes that slender dark pod modern bakers recognize as a vanilla bean.

In 1819, French entrepreneurs brought these climbing vanilla vines to the Indian Ocean island of Réunion (formerly known as Île Bourbon), which lies just east of Madagascar. Seeing as there were no black bees on the island, a slave working on a Réunion vanilla plantation devised the labor-intensive, hand-pollination process that still bears vanilla fruit today. It’s the descendants of this line of cultivated Bourbon vanilla that now grow in Madagascar and that supply the world with over 80 percent of its vanilla.

According to Don Seville, co-director of the Sustainable Food Lab, an NGO based in Hartland, Vermont, which fosters market-based changes aimed at leading to more sustainable food systems, vanilla is by nature an ecologically sustainable crop. Vanilla vines thrive in the shade of tropical tree cover like bananas and coffee and among other food crops like cassava in an agroforestry land use situation. What’s that, you ask? So did I. The biodiversity in an agroforestry setup lets the plants biologically feed off each other so they require few other fertilizer or pesticide inputs, Seville explained. Therefore, vanilla gives small farmers a high-income crop as well as room to grow their own food while discouraging deforestation of tropical areas.

Sustainably sourced vanilla comes in many forms. Left to right in this photo are pure vanilla extract vanilla paste made with simple syrup; a whole vanilla bean; vanilla powder which is dried extract fused on corn starch; ground dried vanilla bean, and vanilla sugar, which is cane sugar that takes on a vanilla scent once it sits with vanilla bean pods that have been scraped of their seeds. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

The biggest barrier to sustainable vanilla production is the price volatility of the market, Seville said, which is why his organization started the Sustainable Vanilla Initiative in 2016. Comprising 20 members ranging from food manufacturers and fragrance companies to international vanilla bean traders and cooperatives selling vanilla extracts, this initiative seeks to bolster product traceability, assure the long-term stable supply of high-quality natural vanilla, and stabilize the price so that farmers and companies that make vanilla products can stay in the game long term.

A cyclone that hit Madagascar last March and damaged most of the pods hanging on the vines, coupled with growing consumer demand for natural vanilla (imitation vanilla is derived from a synthetic vanillin) are responsible for the fact that the retail price of vanilla is at an all-time high. According to Craig Nielsen, vice president of sustainability at his family’s Chicago-based vanilla product company Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, the going rate for a kilogram of vanilla beans is $600, which is why consumers are paying between $9 and $20 per bean. A more sustainable price at which all folks involved in the supply chain could earn a respectable living wage would be $80-$120 per kilo, he said. At that level, consumers would pay $4-5 per bean.

But getting to that level would require decreasing the industry’s dependence on the Bourbon vanilla beans of Madagascar and fostering the growth of vanilla in other parts of the world, Nielsen said.

Seth Petchers, sustainable supply manager for Iowa-based spice trader Frontier Co-op, earlier this month visited a vanilla garden in Uganda where the farmers are experimenting with how they can time pollination to yield two harvests instead of just one. A double harvest would not necessarily yield twice as much vanilla, Petchers explained, but it would mean the whole crop could not be wiped out by a single severe weather event.

Besides Uganda, vanilla is grown in Mexico, Indonesia, Tahiti, Papua New Guinea, India and Tongo. Some extract and paste labels indicate the country of origin but whole beans are more consistently labeled with that information. If home cooks want to play their part to build a more sustainable vanilla supply, Nielsen suggested they buy a bean from one of these places. He adds that terroir and how the bean is cured will affect how the vanilla tastes, but he argues that is all part of the adventure.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer and tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a new cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at [email protected]

Christine Burns Rudalevige makes homemade Nilla Wafers. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

HOMEMADE NILLA WAFERS

Homemade Nilla Wafers
In her new cookbook, “Bravetart: Iconic American Desserts,” pastry chef Stella Parks explores the history and provides recipes for everything from Boston cream pie to Twinkies. She uses these home-made Nilla wafers as the base for her banana cream pie. I use them for holiday cheesecake crust and as an accompaniment for afternoon tea. If you’re eating them straight, Parks recommends adding a vanilla bean to the recipe. The extra vanilla gets lost when the cookies are used as building blocks for other recipes, but including it makes them extra flavorful for snacking. You’ll need a piping bag to make this recipe.

Makes about 100 (1-inch) wafers

13/4 cups (8 ounces) all-purpose flour
3/4 cup (51/4 ounces) sugar
1 stick (4 ounces) unsalted butter, softened
11/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
Seeds scraped from 1 vanilla bean (optional)
1 egg, room temperature
¼ cup heavy cream, room temperature

Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Sift the flour.
Combine the sugar, butter, baking powder, salt, vanilla extract and vanilla bean seeds (if using) in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Mix on low speed to moisten, then increase to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, whisk the egg and cream together in a small bowl. With the mixer running, add the egg mixture in 5 or 6 increments, allowing each to incorporate before adding the next. Reduce the speed to low, sprinkle in the flour and mix until smooth. The dough will be the consistency of stiff cake batter.
Transfer to a sturdy piping bag fitted with a 1/2-inch plain tip.
Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Hold the piping bag perpendicular to the baking sheet, with the tip almost touching the sheet. As you squeeze, this position will force the batter to spread out into a thin disc, about 1 inch wide and 3/8-inch thick. A standard baking sheet will hold nine rows of six.
Bake until the wafers are golden brown around the edges but pale overall, about 20 minutes. Cool completely on the baking sheets. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to two months.

Correction: This story was updated at 2:15 p.m. on Dec. 18, 2017 to correct the spelling of Craig Nielsen’s last name.