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The Difference One Ingredient Makes

One bite of these delicious muffins and I had to know what the baker’s secret was. It was the use of pure vanilla extract, explained Maureen Penner of Carman, who’d made them. She’s used it ever since friends brought her some from California a few years ago.

This piqued my interest because we’d just been given a bottle ourselves, brought back by friends visiting Mexico this winter. I had given the heavenly stuff a few appreciative sniffs, but not baked with it until Maureen kindly provided me with her recipe. Now I’m looking for anything and everything that calls for this sweetly scented flavouring.

Curious how this tropical ingredient came to be a staple in our pantries, I looked up vanilla inTop 100 Food Plants,a recently published book of the National Research Council of Canada that lists the world’s most important culinary crops.

Vanilla is certainly one of them. It’s one of the world’s most popular flavourings. Vanilla plant is a leafy, climbing orchid native to Central America and the West Indies, with roots above and below ground. Its climbing roots form the plant’s vine, sometimes reaching

How to find Top 100 Food Plants

Earlier this winter we featured a story about this book and afterwards several readers asked how to find it. It may not be available on booksellers’ shelves and if not, ask your bookseller to order you a copy ofTop 100 Food Plants: The World’s Most Important Culinary Cropswritten by Dr. Ernest Small and published by the NRC (National Research Council) Press in 2009. You can also order a copy online by logging on to

Recipe Swap

Do you have a recipe you’d like to share with readers? Are you looking for specific recipes? We’d love to hear from you.

ManitobaCo-operatorRecipe Swap Box 1794 Carman, Man. R0G 0J0

or email Lorraine Stevenson at: [email protected]

100 feet, and along this vine grow the long, slender black seed pods (which we usually call beans). The indigenous inhabitants of Mexico were using vanilla as a flavouring 1,000 years ago.

Vanilla today is cultivated throughout the tropics, principally in Madagascar (the world’s largest producer), as well as the Comoros, Tahiti, Reunion (an island in the West Indian Ocean) and Mexico. Annual world production is about 8,000 tonnes of pods.

Critically important crop to farmers in these parts of the world, it’s also highly labour intensive to produce. Flowers are hand pollinated and the curing process to produce the scent and flavour from the essentially tasteless harvested pods can take anywhere from three to six months. Needless to say, it’s these processes that add to the expense of producing pure vanilla extract.

Today, much of the world’s vanilla is now synthetic and prepared from eugenol, a component of clove oil.

Look for pure vanilla extract on the label if you have the opportunity. It’s not always easy to find, unless you are in specialty stores. But if you can find it, I do encourage you to try it and see for yourself the difference it can make to the taste of your baked goods or anything that calls for vanilla. After all, top-quality ingredients always separate the great from the merely good in the kitchen.


ManitobaCo-operatorRecipe Swap

Box 1794, Carman, Man. R0G 0J0

or email [email protected]


Maureen Penner of Carmanwas happy to share her recipe withCo-operatorreaders. This makes a large batch of muffins so you might want to make only half the recipe. When I made them, I used only a half-cup of oil, so mine weren’t quite as moist as they might have been. Maureen tells me she often adds a slice of fruit, such as an orange or peach segment to the muffins. By the way, even if you don’t have pure vanilla extract to use, this recipe will produce a tasty, substantial bran muffin. –Lorraine

4 c. bran

2 c. sugar

2 c. oil

2 c. raisins

2 tsp. salt

2 c. cold coffee

2 rounded tsp. baking

soda dissolved in coffee

4 c. flour

2 c. buttermilk

5 eggs, beaten

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tsp. baking powder

Sift flour salt, sugar, baking powder. Add bran. Combine liquid including oil, milk, eggs, coffee with baking powder. Stir together. Add raisins and vanilla. Add fruit segments to half-filled muffin cups, then fill cups. Bake 350 F for about 15 or 20 minutes.

Makes 48 muffins.


Here’s another baked treat with vanilla as an ingredient as well as added fruit. You’ll find many Hummingbird Cake recipes online. This version is found in the Garden Club of Carman’s 75th anniversary cookbook published in 2004. I cannot tell you how this cake got its name. The only reference I could find is that it’s so sweet it might possibly attract hummingbirds. Plus, you may hum when you taste it too!

3 c. flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/2 tsp. salt

3 large eggs

1 c. vegetable oil

2 tsp. vanilla

2 c. sugar

1 can (8 oz.) crushed

pineapple, drained*

2 c. mashed bananas

1 c. pecan pieces,


1 c. coconut

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour two 9-inch round pans. Sift together flour, baking soda, cinnamon and salt; set aside. Beat oil, vanilla and sugar until combined about two minutes. Add eggs one at a time and mix well before adding the next. Beat until pale yellow and fluffy, about three minutes. In another bowl, mix banana, pineapple, nuts and coconut. Add to egg mixture, stir until well combined. Add flour mixture, blend well. Divide batter between two pans. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. When cake is cool, split the layers and frost with cream cheese icing.

Cream cheese icing:

2 8-oz. pkgs. cream cheese

1 c. butter

2 tsp. vanilla

4 c. icing sugar

Mix together the cream cheese and vanilla until light and creamy, about two minutes. Add butter, then gradually add sugar. Divide the Hummingbird Cakes in half and spread frosting between all layers and top and sides of cake.

*When I made this cake I did not drain the juice but instead added it for extra flavour to the cake. I also sprinkled coconut on the top of the cake. Some versions of Hummingbird Cake add finely chopped pecans to the frosting too.



About the author


Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.



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