The Bean and I: Culinary Adventures with Vanilla Beans
One of the most versatile and popular flavors in a great deal of cooking and baking, vanilla has the ability to stand on it's own flavorful feet, as well as blending perfectly with a myriad of other flavors. Chocolate, fruit, and nuts are enhanced by it's subtlety and roundness, and basic vanilla ice creams, cakes, and pastries are the perfect starting place for an excellent dessert. Not only valued for it's flavor, vanilla is highly aromatic and used in perfumes, candles, and even medicinal aromatherapy.
Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is a native of Mexico, growing on large vines that climb their way up a tree or other support. The flowers are a beautiful, creamy white relative of the orchid, and will produce fruit only when pollinated by a particular or by a hand-pollinating process. The fact that the bee couldn't survive anywhere but its homeland gave Mexico the monopoly on the vanilla market for over three hundred years, until 1836 when botanist Charles Francois Antoine Morren began to develop a method of artificial pollination. His idea was perfected in 1841 by a twelve year old slave, Edmond Albius from a provincial French island, Reunion, near Madagascar. Now they are the world's largest producer of vanilla, exporting one to two thousand tons of beans per year.
While it's exotic roots give it a more interesting background, it also comes with a hefty price tag. Here are a few ways to make the most of your vanilla and capitalize on both flavor in your baking the savings in your pocket book.
This is the inside of the bean pod, all those tiny black flecks that are huge on flavor. Many recipes call for just the caviar as they add visual appeal and can pack a taste-bud punch. To remove caviar, simply slit bean pod lengthwise with a sharp knife and use the dull side to scrape it out. Whisk into liquid ingredients as it can clump.
Vanilla Bean Extract
Vanilla extract is used in nearly every kind of baked good, but the volatility of the market makes it expensive. While there are many artificially flavored vanillas for baking, these are lacking in taste and full of "fake" ingredients, such as caramel coloring and preservatives.
Making your own extract is simple and fun, requiring only a bottle of vodka and three beans. Buy the cheapest vodka you can find-- it won't affect the flavor of the extract, and you can put the pennies you save towards buying quality beans, or just tuck them away in your piggy bank. Take a sharp knife and slit beans lengthwise, so that you can see all the wonderful soft, aromatic, tiny bean speckles inside (this is called caviar). Next, open your bottle of vodka and poke the beans in, screw the lid back on tightly and give it a good shake often. After six weeks it is ready to be used, and though it won't be the black color of most store-bought extracts it has the same potency and should be used in the same amount in recipes. Also, there will be little bits of caviar floating in the extract that you can strain off if you wish, but it won't affect your baked goods at all.
Vanilla Ice Cream
Ice cream ranks as the most popular dessert in America, with vanilla coming out on top of the flavor list. Here is my favorite recipe for vanilla ice cream, adapted from David Lebovitz's recipe in The Perfect Scoop.
Vanilla Ice Cream
Makes about 1 quart (1l)
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
A pinch of salt
3/4 cup (150g) sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 cups (500ml) heavy cream, or half-and-half for less rich ice cream
3 large egg yolks (5 can be used for a richer custard)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk with a paring knife, then add the bean pod to the milk. Cover, remove from heat, and infuse for one hour.
2. To make the ice cream, set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart (2l) bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice and water. Set a strainer over the top of the smaller bowl and pour the cream into the bowl.
3. In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolks. Rewarm the milk then gradually pour some of the milk into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Scrape the warmed yolks and milk back into the saucepan.
4. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heat-resistant spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the spatula.
5. Strain the custard into the heavy cream. Stir over the ice until cool, add the vanilla extract, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Preferably overnight.
6. Remove the vanilla bean and freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Serve with any toppings you prefer.
Let's face it-- cooking like a gourmand can be expensive, and vanilla beans help prove that point. However, a little bean can go a long way, and here's another creative way to squeeze every last penny's worth out of them. After you've used the pod in your recipe, rinse it gently so as not to loose any of the caviar, pat off excess water with a paper towel and set out to dry for 24 to 48 hours. Do not let it sit for any longer than this as it will harden and become wood-like, resulting in large pieces that will not blend fine. Put the whole bean in blender with a quarter cup of sugar and turn it on, grinding until bean is fine. The sugar will also be very fine and powdery, so you will want add more sugar. I like to add about a half cup, but you can use more or less, depending on how strong you want the vanilla flavor to be. Now just put it in an air tight container for a couple of days so that the sugar can absorb the flavor of the vanilla, and it is ready to use! Use to add flavor to any dessert, coffee, or as a topping on toast. But most of all, enjoy it!
Where to Find Them (if you can't make it to Madagascar)
- Spices at Penzeys Spices Vanilla Beans
Even if you can get beans more inexpensively other places, the assurance of quality is worth the extra