Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Vanilla Sugar and Grace Firth

One of the favorite cookbooks in my collection is Secrets of the Still by Grace Firth.  (EPM Publications, Inc.)  One of the reasons I love it is the chatty, insightful stories Ms. Firth tells relating to whatever topic she has just introduced.  What a life this woman had!  And she manages to relate it all to stills, scents, cooking, food, and fun.  I recommend reading her book just for the pleasure of experiencing her adventures.

You can read about her time in Alaska during the late 1940s and her explorations of nature with her beloved husband, Lewis.  You will, in the process, learn about fermentation, distillation, flavors, fragrances, cosmetics, herbal medicines, and yes, even alcohol. 

One short adventure she had as a child is found on page 102, under the section "Flavoring is a Leader."  Here it is:

"My grandmother kept vanilla pods in a tightly lidded gallon container filled with sugar.  She used the sugar in baking and did not add vanilla extract.  Her vanilla beans lasted for years; she simply added more sugar when she took some out.  She stored the jar in the bottom of the food closet and I can remember getting into it, sitting on the floor, wetting my finger, dipping and savoring.  She caught me once and that was the last of that happiness."

I've been making vanilla sugar for years and can verify that it works and works well.  I use it in cooking, in tea, and sometimes I give a small container of vanilla sugar as a gift.  If I really love the person, I include a vanilla bean with the jar and instructions on how to keep the stock going.

The only thing that caused me to get more beans for my own supply was that in scooping sugar out of the jar, I sometimes break the beans.  After awhile the pieces are small and annoying, so I get a few more beans to replace them. 

I've noticed it takes a few weeks for fresh sugar to absorb the vanilla flavor.  I don't replace what I take out immediately; I usually wait until the level is low.  It is not an issue because I don't cook with it daily or even weekly.

I've heard -- but have not tried -- that you can make sugar with other flavors using a similar method.  Some day I will probably try using mint leaves.  My main worry is that they will get moldy.  One friend is going to try burying a bean into her stash of cinnamon sugar.  Mmmm!  Vanilla cinnamon sugar!

Sadly, Ms. Firth died in 2004.  She had written several books; the other one I have is the companion book to Secrets, called Stillroom Cookery.  I like it but have not tried the recipes in it.

The Verdict:  I highly recommend you read The Secrets of the Still.  If you have any interest in fermentation (includes things like sauerkraut, pickles, and vinegar), distillation, or scents, this book is for you.  If you love travel, you will love her adventures.


  1. Grace is my grandmother! My cousin stumbled across your blog post and shared it. It is so wonderful you enjoy reading her books!

  2. Monica, thanks for letting me know. I hope you got to know her and, if you did, know that I envy you. Everything I read about her in her books tells me she was a kick to be around -- full of life and adventure. I would have loved to meet her. Please let her descendents know she lives on in her books and in my heart. -- With Sincerity, Tracy.