How sweet it is: Food recipe for vanilla sugar

Yesterday I promised you a recipe for vanilla sugar. So, today, I will deliver. But before I do, just a few sweet thoughts ...

Should we eat sugar at all?
Now, I am not big on sugar and the empty calories and sugar highs it can bring. But I would like to mention three points of interest.

1. A teaspoon of sugar only has 15 calories
Yes, these are 15 calories empty calories (meaning they do not introduce any meaningful nutrients into your system). But let's put this into perspective - 15 calories is not going to make or break anyone.

2. Honey and other non-white sugar sweeteners have nutrients
Yes, they do. But these are trace nutrients. Meaning the quantity is really too little to make any great difference. So here is what I do.

I use brown sugar where brown sugar will make a taste difference (such as roasted acorn squash), molasses where molasses is called for (gingerbread, anyone?), honey where honey is needed (lemon tea), white sugar where white sugar is required (cake), and so on. I do not substitute honey and other non-white sugar sweeteners for white sugar in the mistaken belief that non-white sugars are vastly better for us.

But I do try to use my sugar calories wisely - keeping them to a minimum and spending them on something really great (like a champagne truffle) and not wasting them on something really mediocre (corner store chocolate).

3. Artificial sweeteners have no calories
Yes. But I worry about what problems they might introduce. So this is what I do.

I never use artificial sweeteners. Certainly, I am trying to steer us away from chemicals and chemically-altered and processed foods. And that's reason enough. But even if it were not, until there is definitive proof that artificial sweeteners do NOT cause cancer and other health concerns, I certainly will not put them in the bodies of my loved ones.

Now that we have cleared that up, onto vanilla sugar ...
Food recipe: Vanilla sugar
2 vanilla beans (see tip, below, on where to buy good beans)
4 cups white sugar in a large, open-mouth bowl

With a sharp paring knife (the little knife), split the beans lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds by scraping the sharp edge of your knife along the inside of the beans.

Drop the seeds into your sugar. Using your finger tips, rub your vanilla seeds into your sugar until the seeds no longer clump together and are well distributed (for those who bake, this is somewhat like rubbing chilled butter into flour to make pie crust).

Place the opened bean pods into your sugar jar. Pour your sugar / vanilla seed combination into your sugar jar.

See, I told you it was easy.
The never-ending vanilla sugar
While it takes about 24 hours for the vanilla to flavor the sugar, once you have a vanilla sugar jar started, it can go on and on. Here's what I do: as I use the vanilla sugar, I top it up with more sugar (add plain sugar and shake the sugar jar to incorporate the plain sugar with the vanilla sugar). Once the vanilla taste is gone, I simply throw away the old vanilla beans, then cut open another vanilla bean, add the seeds as instructed, above, and add the bean pod.

Tip: Where to get great vanilla beans
With simple recipes, like this, the quality of the ingredients is critical. I use Madagascar Vanilla Beans from Sur la Table. They are more expensive than vanilla beans from the grocery stores (and not just because I can't get out of Sur la Table with just vanilla beans), but they are fresher and more flavorful.

So how can you tell if beans are fresh? Two good tips are to look for beans that are fragrant and pliable (they should smell good and be bendable). Of course, you can't open the jars at the supermarket to test this, so if you go the supermarket route, just hope you will get lucky.