With reports of a Madagascar vanilla shortage this year (one that, thankfully, will not impact the Ugandan vanilla we use in our ice cream), it’s a great time to talk about another flower with amazing flavor and vanilla-like versatility: the ylang ylang.
Just like vanilla, ylang ylang is honeyed and sweet—complex enough to stand on its own, but soft enough to pair beautifully with all kinds of flavors. It’s why we’re arguing that, this summer, ylang ylang should be the new vanilla. Our Ylang Ylang & Fennel ice cream is so good, in fact, that we’ve started to wonder why ylang ylang isn’t as huge in America as vanilla.
Both hail from exotic flowers—vanilla from an orchid, ylang ylang from a flowering tree native to Southeast Asia. Both were first used for medicinal purposes (most notably as an aphrodisiac). But this is where their historic paths split off.
We’ll blame the Aztecs for being the first to brilliantly use vanilla as a flavoring, adding it to cacao. And the Spaniards, who just had to conquer the Aztecs and bring vanilla back to Europe where it eventually reached Queen Elizabeth I (and her notorious sweet tooth) in the 17th century. She then demanded vanilla be used in everything, so by the late 18th century, the bean was everywhere, including the United States. It wouldn’t take long before vanilla was the established flavor for ice cream (thank you, Thomas Jefferson, for bringing the recipe back from Paris—one now preserved in the Library of Congress).
“One of the four major flowers which make up the magic of perfumery.”
While the Western world was developing a taste for vanilla, the perfume industry was falling in love with ylang ylang’s scent—a sunny, floral fragrance with sparkling, fruity notes rich with vanilla and spice (it’s famously a key ingredient in Chanel No. 5). Renowned perfumer Givaudan describes ylang ylang as “fragrant gold” and “one of the four major flowers which make up the magic of perfumery.”
This is exactly how Jeni stumbled upon ylang ylang essential oil (and its potential in ice cream) more than 20 years ago. Infatuated with the idea of becoming a perfumer, Jeni would mix her own fragrances at home, occasionally adding essential oils to food (like fennel and basil oil to pasta, or cayenne pepper to chocolate ice cream). When she mixed ylang ylang, a relatively inexpensive oil, to cream, the flavor exploded with complexity—round, and slightly floral with notes of spice and nectar. Ylang ylang ice cream quickly became one of her favorites.
They’ve been hip to this fact for a while in Madagascar, where ylang ylang is commonly used to flavor ice cream. In our office, we swap vanilla ice cream for ylang ylang to add interest to our favorite summer desserts, like blueberry cobblers and salted honey pies.