Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Sweet Little Gift For Your Valentines: Swedish Vanilla Sugar (Vanillinsocker)

I swear, I've barely gotten all my Christmas decorations organized and put away and it's already time to think about another occasion. It seems like Valentines Day sneaks up on me every year, but this year I am going to be ready with a quick little kitchen gift that all my Valentines are going to love.

In years past I've made mini cheesecakes in a jar and flourless chocolate cookies, and although those are pretty, fairly easy to make, and fun to get and give, this year's gift just might be my favorite. All you are going to need are some pretty little shaker jars, confectioners sugar and a few vanilla beans.

An American friend of mine in England actually introduced me to this vanilla sugar several years ago. Joanie was an unassuming, down to earth, regular ol' Oklahoma girl that happened to be married to a Swedish husband. She, her husband and their young daughter had spent most of their lives together in Sweden, but were at the beginning of a five year stint in the UK when we met.

Joanie had a great sense style and there was really nothing she couldn't do. She was a great cook, a talented gardener and floral designer, and an interior decorator extraordinaire. Where a lot of the English homes at this time were traditionally decorated with warm, rich colors and were slightly overdecorated with one too many knick knacks, her house was starkly chic. It was totally understated in mostly white with just the perfect splash of color here and there, and the odd antique thoughtfully placed to add interest.

Her dinner parties were just as simple and elegant as her furnishings. While many of her signature dishes would have been ordinary in anyone else's hands, Joanie could turn even simple mashed potatoes into something memorable by whipping them with just the right amount of cream cheese and sour cream before sprinkling them with freshly cut chives from her kitchen garden. She even elevated her simple tender crisp haricot vert to five star dining by a quick saute in a knob of Irish butter and just a pinch of fines herbes for fun. Another one of her talents, she made near perfection look effortless.

As for dessert, one of my favorites of hers was one she brought to my house one summer day for a backyard barbecue. She arrived at my door with a wicker basket filled with warm homemade shortcakes, sweet English strawberries, silken double cream and a container of Swedish vanillinsocker to sweeten it. She explained to me that this vanilla flavored confectioners sugar was one of her favorite foods from Sweden and she made a point to import some every time she went back for a visit.

She loved this sugar so much that whenever she ran out between visits back to Sweden, she would make her own. All you have to do is take a jar partially filled with powdered sugar, place a vanilla bean* that has been split and opened up in the center (you can scrape a bit of the paste out of it too if you like), place the lid on the container and leave it for a couple of days for the vanilla bean to do its magic. Once the sugar is flavored it is ready to sprinkle on anything that needs a little dressing up.

Since then, taking her lead, I have given cookies, shortcakes, croissants, brownies, French toast and cappucinos all the vanillinsocker treatment. It is just one of those things that makes the ordinary special. I may not know all of her special touches and tricks, but I'm so glad that Joanie let me in on this one so I could pass it on to you.

I pick up little containers all year long for uses just like this, but you can find inexpensive little shakers at places likeWalmart, dollar stores and charity shops.

In addition to vanilla bean, you can flavor confectioner's sugar in this same way with cinnamon stick or star anise. They are all very different flavors that are all very, very good.

*Because of the moisture in vanilla beans, your confectioners sugar will get some small lumps like the ones on the croissant below. I don't mind them, but if you would rather have fine sugar, remove the bean after couple of days, run the sugar through a fine strainer or sifter, then put it in your shaker bottles. If you choose this method, be sure to save the vanilla bean and use it in another recipe.

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