~"Philadelphia in the Dog Days," Graham’s Magazine, July 1837
A member of the orchid family, vanilla comes from a plant that produces long, narrow pods filled with tiny seeds. It is actually a New World food, native to southern Mexico, Central America and the West Indies. Thomas Jefferson was apparently a fan, as he imported vanilla beans to flavor his homemade ice cream. However, the rich ingredient didn’t enter widespread use in America until the mid-19th century, when increased production lowered the cost.
Once it did become more widely available, vanilla flavored treats took off, and ice cream was no exception. In fact, vanilla it was one of the most popular ice cream flavors in the 1840s and 1850s, featured on the menu at Philadelphian James Parkinson’s 1851 culinary duel with New York known as The Thousand Dollar Dinner.
Parkinson's vanilla ice cream obtained its rich, decadent taste through the use of pure vanilla sugar, which contained small bits of ground vanilla bean, not artificial vanilla flavoring as is often used today. He even sold his own vanilla extract to be used in various confectionery. In an advertisement for this product he warns, "Never use vanilla extracts which are of a dark color. The pure article is of a bright, clear amber. The genuine vanilla odor is much more delicate, like the fine aromatic fragrance of flowers.
The recipe I tried today came straight out of an 1876 issue of Confectioners’ Journal (a publication edited by Parkinson). The original is as follows:
Vanilla – When vanilla bean is used for flavoring, prepare it by cutting in small pieces, and boiling in a small amount of milk or cream to extract the flavor; then pour into the cream, to which add one-third pound of white sugar to each quart of cream, and strain into the can. One vanilla bean is sufficient for four quarts of cream.
My updated version:
Parkinson's Vanilla Ice Cream
- ½ vanilla bean
- 1 quart heavy cream
- ½-2/3 cups sugar
- Pour a little milk or cream into a small saucepan. Scrape seeds from vanilla bean into cream and heat briefly to release the flavor.
- Pour cream into the freezer bowl of an ice cream maker. Add sugar to taste and the vanilla seed-infused cream, straining through a fine sieve if desired.
- Mix until thickened, about 20-30 minutes.
- The ice cream will have a soft, creamy texture. Feel free to eat right away or transfer to a glass bowl with a lid and place in the freezer until firm.
Source: The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, Ed. by Andrew F. Smith