Real vanilla – bean or extract – is extraordinary, and there’s a reason it’s in luxuries as decadent as French perfume and silky custards. Rich, exotic, complex, with an amazing depth of aroma and flavour, it is the furthest thing from the descriptor it’s long been saddled with: plain. Real vanilla is one of the most precious liquids on earth, and is second only to saffron as the world’s most expensive spice. And for good reason.
The vanilla bean is the fruit of a tropical orchid which originated in Mexico. Each blossom must be pollinated on the one night a year it opens, either naturally, by the melipona bee, or painstakingly by hand. The resulting beans are harvested, then alternately sweated in heavy wrappings, and sun-dried. This process is repeated multiple times; the beans go from being firm, green, and odorless, to being sticky, black, and extremely fragrant.
The beans at this point are sold as is, or used to make a potent, heady extract. You’re probably familiar with the extract, but if you haven’t tried using a real vanilla bean in your baking, you’re in for a transformative experience. The beans are used in different ways depending on the application: if you’re making a custard, pudding, sauce, mousse, or ice cream, you can split the bean and add it directly to the liquid before heating or mixing. Always leave the bean in the mixture as long as you can – it can be cooked and chilled, so no worries there, and the longer you leave it in the more flavour it will impart. If you’re making a batter where there wouldn’t be any infusion possible, such as for a cake or cookies, you can still use a fresh bean in place of extract: simply split the bean in half lengthwise, and, using the blunt edge of a pairing knife, scrape out the sticky black paste in the middle. That paste is made of of thousands of tiny vanilla seeds (remember those little black flecks in good vanilla ice cream?) and is super-concentrated flavour. Add the paste at the beginning of mixing a batter so it gets spread around and evenly distributed.
What to do with a scraped-out hull if all you need is the seeds? Be European: find an airtight container, fill it with white sugar, and stick spent vanilla bean hulls in each time you use one. The beans will impart a gorgeous scent and flavour to the sugar, making it perfect for sprinkling on cookies, cupcakes, or fresh fruit. It’s also lovely in tea or coffee.
Some producers are now marketing a bottled vanilla paste, which is simply the scraped-out contents of many beans, but then you miss out on the vanilla sugar.
Today, vanilla is harvested in three main regions, each specializing in it’s own variety: Mexico produces the full-perfumed vanilla planifolia, but in spite of being the land of origin, does not produce a large amount for international sale. Bourbon or Madagascar vanilla is sweet and round-flavoured, and is the most widely available type. Contrary to the name, it doesn’t have anything to do with actual Bourbon, but is grown on the islands of the Indian Ocean, such as Madagascar and Reunion, formerly known as Ile de Bourbon. Finally, Tahitian vanilla beans, from French Polynesia, are considerably larger than their cousins, and have a seductive floral aroma.
Each variety has a unique perfume and flavour, and each can lend a different accent to a dessert, especially when vanilla is the primary flavouring. Have fun – visit local markets, fine food shops and European delis, and see what they have in stock. If you can, find a few different varieties and do a scent test – then choose one and bake something lovely.
Vanilla is one of those powerhouse ingredients that in small amounts can accent and enhance another, more prominent flavour such as chocolate. In fact, the best chocolate always has vanilla as one of its few ingredients. As a primary flavouring, in custards, pound cakes, ice creams or even cookies, good vanilla can take a deceptively simple recipe and turn out something ethereal.
So let’s sum up: Real vanilla: Rare, heady, glorious; comes from an orchid, pollinated on a moonlit night (ok, I made up the moonlit part) and can make sugar cookies a full-body experience. Definitely sexy.
Artificial vanilla, on the other hand, is so very, completely entirely not sexy. Yes, it is cheap, brown, and liquid, but it contains not even a whiff of actual vanilla. In fact, it’s made from a by-product of the pulp and paper industry. In other words, it is juice from wood pulp.
Now grab a bean, and try it out. This is easily one of my favourite recipes, and is deliciously a grown-up treat. Ok, kids will actually love it, once they get past the fact that it’s fruit, not gobs of icing. It goes smashingly with a scoop of homemade Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, or a healthy pour of Vanilla Crème Anglaise. But for those recipes, you’ll have to buy the book.
Pears Poached in Gewürztraminer with Tahitian Vanilla and Ginger
The great beauty of this recipe lies in its wonderfully complementary flavours: floral, tropical, and delicate. Seckel pears are small, seasonally available pears that are perfect for poaching: firm, flavourful, and too hard to eat raw. Beautiful Forelle pears are similar, but slightly softer and sweeter, and won’t need as long to poach. Adjust the cooking time depending on the variety, size, and ripeness of the fruit.
1 bottle (750 ml.) good-quality Gewürztraminer wine
1 cup water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 plump Tahitian vanilla bean, split lengthwise
One (1-1/2”) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced in 1/4”-thick slices
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
6 medium-sized, ripe but firm pears, such as Bartlett or Anjou; or 10 to 12 small firm dessert pears, such as Sugar, Seckel or Forelle pears
1. In a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan just large enough to hold the pears with about 2-inches of head-space to spare, combine the wine, water and sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove the syrup from the heat, and add the vanilla bean, ginger slices, and lemon juice. Peel the pears, removing the skin as thinly as possible, leaving the stems intact. Follow the gentle curves of the pears as you peel them so they retain their beautiful shape.
2. Add the pears all at once to the pot of syrup, and press a small, clean dish cloth directly onto the surface of the mixture, soaking the cloth. Place a circle of parchment paper onto the cloth; this will prevent the pears from poaching unevenly, or drying out on one side. (If you find the pears are still floating, you can place a little plate or saucer onto the cloth to weigh them down, keeping all of the fruit submerged and poaching evenly. The trick with this system is to keep the fruit under the syrup, without having it rest on the bottom of the pot! Do your best; I have found one side plate that is the perfect size and weight: heavy enough to hold the fruit under, but not so heavy that the pears are squashed against the bottom. Experiment! Somewhere in your kitchen is the ideal dish!)
3. Return the pot to the element over medium-low heat, and slowly bring the syrup to a bare simmer. Watch closely: you don’t want the mixture to boil too vigorously at any point, or the fruit could cook too quickly and begin to break down in the syrup. Reduce the heat slightly, and keep the syrup just below the simmer. Tiny bubbles should dance up around the pears and barely break the surface. Too low is better than too high a heat; the pears will just take a little longer to poach, but will remain intact and tender.
4. Poach the fruit until the tip of a very sharp knife slips in and out easily. Let the pears cool in their syrup, then refrigerate until needed. If the pears have poached to the point of being extremely soft, carefully remove the pears to a shallow container, and refrigerate until cool. Cool the syrup separately, then pour it over the pears and refrigerate together until needed. (The pears can be poached up to 4 days ahead of time, and refrigerated, submerged in their syrup.)
5. To serve, remove the fruit from the refrigerator about 1 hour before you plan to serve them. Pare off a little slice from the bottom of each pear to create a flat plane for the fruit to stand on, and place one pear in each of 6 shallow dessert bowls. Spoon some of the syrup over top, and accompany with a scoop of Vanilla Bean Ice Cream, page 553 in In the Sweet Kitchen, and a flavorful biscuit. Crème Anglaise, page 649, also makes a lovely accompaniment. Makes 6 servings.
Recipe adapted from In the Sweet Kitchen, paperback edition copyright 2010, published in the US by Artisan Publishing, New York, and in Canada by Random House of Canada, Toronto.