Ruth Bass: Never underestimate the power of vanilla

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RICHMOND — Making pancakes from scratch or with a boxed mix was never a choice around here. With five grandchildren waiting — six kids a little later on, but that's another story — making a batch with the electric skillet was never fast enough. Throw in one or two of them wanting to "help," and the simple business of pancakes became a process.

They wanted to stir and learned that "hold the bowl" was no idle command. They wanted to crack the eggs, and it was ruled that they had to wait until they were at least seven. Even then, they were asked to break the egg over a measuring cup so the inevitable chunks of shell could be kept out of the batter. And if parents were about, they wanted hands washed to be sure no salmonella was sneaking in from those "filthy" chickens. Few of the helpers were given permission to flip.

They wanted plain, or maybe blueberry. They loved faces, so dots of eyes and a slice of mouth went into the pan first, the thick batter poured over with great care after a second or two to make sure the eyes weren't crooked and the mouth sliding off somewhere.

Along came No. 6 grandchild. The others, lots older, had graduated to merely eating the pancakes, now with chocolate chips. With hearing as fine-tuned as the dog's, the small one would appear suddenly, kitchen stool in hand, and pop up to help. She liked faces. But she quickly realized orders could be given. A flower, she'd say, and a few weeks later, her initials and her parents' initials.

One Sunday morning as she attacked the eggs, biscuit mix milk and a touch of oil with a spoon, she said, "Vanilla." Nobody puts vanilla in pancakes, I said. "Vanilla," she said again. "I'll get it."

So she fetched the small brown bottle from the lazy Susan, and I poured out a capful and added it to the bowl. "I want to smell it," she said and nodded happily after a quick sniff of vanilla beans and alcohol . She doesn't flip yet, but it's coming, and the first one will probably fold up and land partly in the pan and partly on the spatula handle. But there's more batter, so it won't matter.

What does matter is the vanilla. As small chef Hannah knows, ours comes from Charles H. Baldwin & Sons in West Stockbridge where they make it. It's a manufacturing process that's been going on in the Baldwin family since 1888 and has been in the little clapboard building in the village for most of that time. An article in The Eagle last week touted the flavorful value of vanilla made from beans harvested in Madagascar and said various vanilla products would be found around here at "specialty" groceries.

Baldwin's is the one we know about. Jackie and Earl Moffatt (his mother was a Baldwin, so the line continues) buy Madagascar vanilla beans, supposedly the finest in the world. They sell a four-ounce bottle of vanilla for $13.65, but that price apparently might change soon, according to an employee in the shop, because the beans are getting pricier. We use theirs (and smell theirs) and give the little bottles as Christmas or hostess gifts. A friend in Florida, asked by a neighbor about borrowing vanilla, went all through her cupboard until she found a nationally known brand with artificial flavor. She was afraid to loan the small brown bottle for fear it wouldn't come back.

The moral of the story is that if you're going to make the recipe that's in The Eagle, you need to take a ride to West Stockbridge first. Vanilla percolates there.

Ruth Bass included Charles Baldwin as a character in her 19th century historical novels. Her web site is www.ruthbass.com.


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