Skip to content

The sexy and seductive vanilla bean

February 7, 2010

“Cortez took the beans back to Spain but he forgot to take the bees,” Craig Nielsen

vanilla bean panna cotta

Vanilla is sexy. One of the world’s favorite aphrodisiacs, it has been seducing people with its intoxicating fragrance and flavor for centuries.  Even its creation is sexy, being birthed from the exquisite vanilla orchid, the only orchid that bears edible fruit. The orchid is pollinated by a gentle stingless Meilpone bee that tenderly parts the orchid’s lips and does its sacred duty to the flower.

The peaceful Totonaca Indians of Mexico were the first devotees of the erotic vanilla bean.  A Totonaca myth believes that vanilla is actually Princess Xanat, the daughter, of the Mexican fertility Goddess. The princess fell madly in love with a mortal and was forbidden to be with him. She turned herself into the vanilla orchid that would provide pleasure and happiness for her lover and all human kind.

Somewhere along the way the Aztecs conquered the Totonacas and discovered that vanilla bean was pretty groovy. Emperor Montezuma developed quite a thirst for a royal drink made of vanilla bean and chocolate. He was reported to imbibe in many of these concoctions before entertaining his harem.

When Spain conquered the Aztecs around 1516 AD, they were extremely impressed with the vanilla bean too. It was one of the treasures that Cortez took back to Spain, along with gold and jewels. Maybe they weren’t sexy enough, but no matter how hard the Spanish tried, the vanilla orchid wouldn’t bear fruit in Spain.

They pondered this mystery for about..ah..300 years, till a Danish botanist witnessed the Melipone bees, lovingly attending to the orchids needs. It seems these tiny bees had been quite clandestine with their flings with the vanilla orchid! Within 30 minutes, the flower had closed up, satisfied. The botanist got a toothpick and duplicated the bee’s dance with the flower, and lo and behold, it worked!

Now we have vanilla grown all over the planet and it is still the second most expensive spice in the world and oh so worth it.   Every flower has to be tenderly hand pollinated and harvested, since the bees don’t travel well. The drying process for the bean is also very labor intensive.

Vanilla is a provocative food to serve your valentine. Using a whole bean in cooking this delightful panna cotta imparts all of the sexy qualities of vanilla to it; flavor, fragrance and warmth. Buy whole vanilla beans that are plump, juicy and preferably from Mexico where the bees still work their magic with the vanilla orchid.

Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta with raspberry zinfandel sauce

Adapted from cooking light

For the panna cotta

1 package of gelatin

Or 2 ½ teaspoons of gelatin

¼ cup of water

1 ¼ cups of fat free evaporated milk

½ cup of powdered sugar

1 juicy vanilla bean

2 cups of light sour cream

¼ teaspoon of cardamom

1 teaspoon and vanilla extract

For the raspberry sauce

3 cups of raspberries

Or blackberries

½ cup of zinfandel

Or other light fruity wine

3 tablespoons of sugar

To start making the panna cotta, sprinkle the gelatin on the water in a small dish. Let those two get acquainted while you stir up some love magic. Pour the milk, powdered sugar, and vanilla bean in a medium saucepan and bring to a gentle boil over medium heat while stirring often. Remove from heat and fish out the vanilla bean and place on a cutting board and let cool for a minute.  Tenderly split the bean lengthwise with a sharp knife and then using the flat side of the knife, scrape out the vanilla seeds. Stir them into the milky mixture along with the cardamom and the vanilla extract and place the bean in your vanilla bottle.

Add your friendly gelatin mixture to the hot milk mix and whisk up with passion until the gelatin dissolves and the mixture starts to get rich and creamy. Divide the panna cotta cream among 8 lovely ramekins or muffin cups that have been lightly oiled. Cover and chill overnight or for 8 hours.

When you are ready to serve the panna cotta, dump 1 cup of the berries, the wine and the sugar in a blender and whiz it up. Strain the mixture through a sieve into a small and ready saucepan. (I found the using a rubber spatula makes fast work of this task.) Give the seeds to the compost and heat the mixture up to a simmer over medium heat, stirring often. Cook for a minute or two more and remove from heat. Add the remaining berries and mix up nicely. Let that cool while you get out the panna cotta.

Tenderly loosen the edges of the panna cotta with a butter knife. Bring out your prettiest dessert plates and invert the panna cotta onto them. Drop the berries and sauce onto the panna cotta in an artistic arrangement and serve with love!

Nutritional Information if divided 8 ways; Calories 220, fat 7 grams, fiber 3

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Molly permalink
    February 7, 2010 9:22 pm


  2. February 9, 2010 10:42 am

    Ooh wow this just looks so amazing!! Yummy!!

  3. March 1, 2010 5:00 pm

    Dana, what a wonderful post! I love the history and the lovely way you tell this story. This dessert sounds incredible. So light and refreshing. Vanilla and raspberries. Yum! …Susan

  4. March 3, 2010 5:47 pm

    This looks great! Panna cotta is one of my favorite desserts to make and I would have never thought to use evaporated milk before. I have to try this soon. I have some leaf gelatin leftover from when I was testing hazelnut cinnamon panna cotta for my culinary school graduation. Unfortunately, it’s not a healthy recipe but they were delicious.


  1. Red Velvet Cheesecake Cupcakes and the Romantic Properties of Vanilla

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: