Culinary Sagacity

~Thought for Food~

The Cathayans believed that the soul or mind is located not in the head but in the stomach.

Doubtless this explains why they fret so much about the preparation and serving of food.

It may also explain why their memories are so much better than ours.

Information is stored not in the finite head, but in the expandable stomach.

--Cyrus Spitama in Gore Vidal's Creation

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Vanilla Bean

Most home cooks experience the flavor of vanilla through the commonly-found vanilla extract. While admittedly fresh vanilla beans aren't cheap, like with quality chocolate, they're worth the cost for better flavor. Having been lucky enough to order fresh, plump vanilla beans through restaurant distributors, I'm nevertheless aware that the vanilla beans you find in your market's spice or baking isle can be dried out and hard. Just shake the little glass bottle containing the vanilla bean and if you hear a clinking sound instead of a thudding sound, then that bean in the bottle has seen better days.

Though I find that Whole Foods 365-brand has consistently good vanilla beans, I appreciate we don't all live near a Whole Foods Market. So you may have to buy that dry bean and bring it home with you. But all hope isn't lost, just about 10 second in the microwave, wrapped in a damp paper towel, can refresh your dry vanilla bean, allowing you to scrape out the insides with ease.

My personal favorite vanilla beans are the rare Tahitians. But ample vanilla is grown in other Rainforest-rich countries like Mexico, Indonesia, Madagascar, and the Philippines. I once got hold of some premium Mexican vanilla beans, and although I still favor Tahitian, when I cut into one of these moist and plump pods, the scent of vanilla filled my entire apartment and the insides were so large and shiny that they resembled caviar.

Adding Vanilla Bean to Any Recipe

Whether your vanilla bean is a bit dry or whether it's sent to you fresh from friends living in Tahiti, it's never a bad idea to wrap the bean in a damp paper towel and pop it in the microwave for 3-5 seconds, up to 10 if your bean is dry.

When you pull your warm, wonderful bean from the microwave, you then slit the bean in two lengthwise with a small paring knife. Once the bean is split, you scrape the insides out with the back of your knife by opening the split bean, pressing your knife down to hold it open, and running the back of your knife all the way down the inside of the bean in one motion. If you had a dry bean to begin with, you can use the cutting-edge of your knife to scrape the insides.

You can add real vanilla bean to any recipe. If you're making a recipe that calls for you to cream the butter and sugar together, add the insides of the vanilla bean to the butter and sugar before creaming. For any recipe that calls for heated milk or cream, add the vanilla to the milk/cream before heating, and also toss in the hollowed out pod and keep it in the milk/cream while you heat it—this will add even more real vanilla flavor to your dessert. You can also add the vanilla to eggs in any recipe, whisking it into the eggs before adding the eggs to the rest of your batter or dough. For obvious reasons, never add vanilla to dry ingredients.

When you're done with your bean, don't throw it out! A scraped vanilla bean can be dried out overnight just by sitting on your counter, and then you can take that shell of a bean and stick it in your sugar jar where it will infuse your sugar with the rich scent and flavor of real vanilla. If you pulled your emptied bean out of heated milk or cream, just rinse it under water before drying it.

Like I said before, I love vanilla—it's my favorite flavor, but it's also an understated and often neglected flavor in its own right. Thing is, if you want to make anything where vanilla is the star, you basically have no option other than the real vanilla bean. With everything from cupcakes, ice cream, pastry cream, and sugar cookies, without those little specs of real vanilla in the mix, you just won't get the flavor of real vanilla in the end product—and that's where you're missing out. The lack of real vanilla beans in stores and the dawn of imitation vanilla extract hasn't helped the humble vanilla bean much, but the truth is there's nothing humble about a product that costs nearly $100 per pound, tastes like heaven, and is born of delicate Orchids.

Vanilla on Foodista

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