Another Indelicate Culinary Mystery Solved

This post is dedicated to Kai who, as it happens, was right about what goes down on the undercarriage of the largest North American rodent.

The moment my husband alerted me to the worldwide vanilla shortage, I pointed to the door, “Go to Costco!” I wailed at him. “Get the Kirkland brand two pack of vanilla extract before the price triples. WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?!?” He might as well have told me that there was a worldwide shortage of mirth and joy. There is, actually…

He returned an hour later, harried but triumphant, as I rifled through the boxes. Aha! There it was! “Thank you!” I embraced the bottles warmly, then spied the receipt, “FIFTY SEVEN DOLLARS?!? You paid FIFTY SEVEN DOLLARS?!” His smile collapsed. “You said to get vanilla,” he pointed out.

Thus began an era of paranoia. I would hear a noise in the night and jerk upright. Was that someone skulking around my kitchen, fixing to steal my vanilla? Well they’d have to get through me first.

Once my bottles were empty, I stole my mother-in-law’s. Then I decided that until the up and coming vanilla farmers tended their orchids to the point where they were producing the precious beans whereby all our baked goods are enhanced and made delectable, (so about five years) I needed to get creative. I rely heavily on vanilla to perk up the flavor of not just baked goods, but smoothies as well.

While making scones, I had to remind myself what a spectacular flavor enhancer citrus zest is. Okay, I didn’t actually have to be reminded, because my friend Kirstin said she is surprised I don’t have some sort of “built-in zester like a body part, like one of your arms could transform.” If I ever need a bionic limb, I will ask for it to come with a rasp as part of a Swiss army knife arm that includes an immersion blender.

Vanilla – like salt, sugar, lemon and MSG – enhances other flavors. Vanillin, which is derived from powder on vanilla pods, (or is synthetically manufactured) is sometimes used in place of vanilla. I queried my friend and fellow blogger, Susie, (The Flavor Scientist) who described vanillin as “flat” and vanilla as “rounded” in flavor. But the best flavor enhancer of all, she claimed dreamily, is castoreum. “You know, “she said, “from beaver balls.” Pardon Susie’s French, but we are all adults here (except for the kids who are reading this). Wow, finally an answer to the question of what attracts beavers to each other.

I thought back to my friend Kai insisting that vanillin was made from secretions that emanate from the business end of beavers. Without going into further detail about the seamy side of that industrious, bucktoothed critter, I will just say Kai was right. After much fevered research (I want to steer you gently, but firmly, away from any image searches here) I can say that castoreum is from somewhere near the anal glands of male and female beavers. Susie, despite being an actual scientist, calls them beaver balls because, as she said, “It’s not technically true, but it’s fun to say.” Now that is science in the public interest. And yes, castoreum does show up, labeled as “natural flavor” in some artificial vanilla and, as Susie off-handedly pointed out, “It isn’t kosher.” No it certainly isn’t. That thud you heard was a rabbi, fainting.

So lacking a beaver dam adjacent to your kitchen, Susie suggests coffee or hazelnut extracts to enhance flavor. I like instant coffee powder in cookies and cakes, as well as almond, lemon and orange extracts. Good luck baking in this time of vanilla scarcity. May you not have to resort to luring a wayward beaver into your kitchen to caress your sponge cakes with their hindquarters.