Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Ingredient of the Month: Vanilla

While some may think of vanilla as plain or simple, pure vanilla provides a heightened aromatic experience when used in any sweet confection.  When the magic of pure vanilla is added to homemade ice cream ingredients, or to a batter for cakes, cookies or pie fillings, the flavor is pure bliss.

There is actually nothing simple at all about vanilla’s cultivation and harvest.  In a world where thousands of varieties of orchid flowers thrive, only one, the vanilla planifolia, produces something edible.  The vanilla bean is the fruit of this particular bloom, which opens for only for a few hours on one single day each year.  Buds are checked daily, hand-pollinated, and successful pollination results in one vanilla bean pod.  I would prefer not to imagine performing this intricate and tedious task for a living.  The pod will reach its six to ten inch length in six weeks, but requires another eight months to reach full maturity.  The pods are then hand picked and cured.  The curing process involves a quick dip in a pot of boiled water, followed by taking in some sun.  Hmm, a quick dip followed by sun worshipping, sounds very reminiscent of my days spent on the beach surrounded by an entire populace whose summer goal appears to be curing their own hides.  Once the pods are nice and hot, they are alternately wrapped in blankets to sweat overnight and laid in the sun to dry by day, a cycle that continues for several months.  During this time the beans ferment, taking on the characteristic aroma and flavor of vanilla, and the pod shrinks considerably and transforms into that thin, dark brown wrinkled specimen that we see in gourmet markets.  The entire process, from planting through curing, can last for up to five years.  The labor-intensive and time-consuming efforts are the justification for the not-so-frugal price tag.  The higher cost is money well spent, however, as will be evidenced in all of your baking projects.  Three quarters of the vanilla we see in our markets hails from Madagascar, located off the southeast African coast.  Vanilla beans are also produced in Tahiti, Mexico and Indonesia.

Vanilla beans can be purchased whole.  Seek out pods that are at least five inches in length, and avoid pods that appear dry or brittle.  When adding whole vanilla beans to a recipe, simply take a very sharp knife and slit the pod from end to end.  Then use the edge of the knife’s blade to scrape the beans into the mixing bowl.

The item that adorns the baking shelf in every household is that bottle of vanilla extract. Pure vanilla extract should simply be the result of vanilla beans taking an intoxicating soak in a tub of alcohol.  The chopped beans basically macerate in an alcohol and water solution, which is then drained and left to age for several months.  When shopping for vanilla extract, be sure to check the label carefully.  “Pure” vanilla extract is the only extract that should be making any contact with your recipe.  Anything labeled “imitation” vanilla extract should be banned from your pantry.  Simply put, the composition of imitation vanilla extract is almost exclusively artificial ingredients and in fact very little actual vanilla.  The flavor is harsh and sometimes bitter.   The easiest pure vanilla extract to find for purchase is Nielsen-Massey Madascar Bourbon pure vanilla extract.  You can find this in Williams-Sonoma and in most gourmet markets where baking ingredients are sold.

If your only sampling of vanilla ice cream has been through corporate conglomerates, you have not had the sublime experience of that first blissful spoonful of homemade vanilla ice cream.  As with most ice cream recipes, you will need an ice cream maker.  If you have the cupboard or shelf space to store one, they’re not much larger than a standard food processor, I would recommend procuring one for the summer.  Making your own ice cream allows you to experiment with any combination of flavors that entice your fancy, and it’s a fun way to produce some sweet indulgence during the hot summer months without blasting the oven.  Once you have acquired an ice cream maker, start with this extremely simple recipe for vanilla ice cream.

Vanilla Ice Cream
1 1/3 cups whole milk
1 cup sugar
3 cups heavy cream
3 teaspoons vanilla extract

In a large bowl, combine the milk and sugar using a hand held mixer until the sugar is dissolved.  Add the cream and the vanilla and continue mixing for another two to three minutes.  Transfer mixture to the work bowl of an ice cream machine and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions.   Transfer into freezer safe airtight containers and freeze.

This can be served as is, either alone or as a topper for pies or brownies.  Another alternative that will take this recipe to the next level is to add a stir-in during the last five minutes of churning in the ice cream machine.  I once added chunks of peanut butter cup candy and that was a perfect marriage – literally, Brian was over the moon when he savored dessert that night.   A third option is to serve this ice cream with a topping that will compliment the vanilla flavor.  Make a raspberry topping by combining raspberry jam, pureed fresh raspberries and Chambord liqueur in a saucepan until the jam is melted and the ingredients are well mixed.  For an easy out, warm a jar of Nutella, a chocolate hazelnut spread, until it becomes a pourable consistency and drizzle that as a topping.  Homemade vanilla ice cream is a work of art, but it can also serve as a palette for showcasing a combination of flavors with it.

1 comment:

  1. You forgot to mention another benefit of vanilla. If you mix vanilla and chocolate together the calories cancel out and in terms of weight gain it is like eating lettuce.

    This is a known scientific fact.