All About Vanilla And Vanilla Extract Recipe
The second most costly spice in the world, vanilla beans are actually the fruit of a climbing orchid native to Central America. It was cultivated and processed by the Aztecs, who developed a process of alternately sweating and drying the beans to develop on them the white crystalline substance vanillin, which gives the beans their flavour and perfume. The exquisite blossoms open only one day a year, and then for just a few hours. Their only natural pollinators, the Melipona bee, a few species of ants and hummingbirds, are all native to Mexico (and not terribly reliable workers!), so the orchids must be hand-pollinated in order to bear a bean, hence their hefty price tag. The beans are green and odourless when picked, gradually becoming dark brown, almost black, as they undergo a lengthy fermentation-alternately dried in the sun during the day, then sweated under heavy blankets at night. This process continues for three to six months; the beans are then aged for up to two years.
Vanilla's immense popularity has led to its production in four major regions around the world, each producing a distinctive variety. Like coffee beans and chocolate pods, vanilla beans' flavour is deeply affected by the climate and soil in which they are grown.
MEXICAN VANILLA BEANS are thick and dark, with a strong, intense fragrance and a flavour that is deeper and more robust than that of other vanilla beans. They are quite scarce today, but are considered by many to be the finest vanilla beans in the world. Sadly, some Mexican producers have recently begun to compromise their vanilla extract with the addition of coumarin, a potentially toxic substance that has a similar aroma to vanilla but that is illegal in the rest of North America. To be safe, buy Mexican vanilla products only from a reputable supplier
BOURBON VANILLA BEANS are grown off the coast of Africa on the island of Madagascar, as well as on the neighbouring isle of Réunion. Also called Madagascar or Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla beans, they are smooth, rich and sweet, the slenderest variety of vanilla bean. Madagascar vanilla makes up more than 70 percent of the world's vanilla, making it much more widely available and generally less expensive than its Mexican or Tahitian counterparts
INDONESIAN OR JAVA VANILLA is the second most commonly available type of vanilla in the world. Its flavour is smooth and earthy, with a slightly smoky note
TAHITIAN VANILLA BEANS are the darkest of the three and are longer and fatter than their Mexican or Madagascan cousins, with a complex, floral aroma. Not as intense as the other two varieties, their delicate and slightly fruity flavour is perfect for using in poaching syrups and light desserts with fruit, fragile pastry and other subtle tastes
When buying vanilla beans, look for dark brown, almost black beans that are plump, tender, shiny, and that feel moist and even sticky to the touch. They should not be leathery and dry-if they are they have been improperly stored or are past their prime. They should be supple and very fragrant. A dusting of white crystalline dust on the beans is not a sign of deterioration, but is actually desirable. To use in cakes, doughs and cookies, split the bean lengthwise and with the tip of a small knife scrape out the mass of sticky black seeds into the batter, reserving the hulls for another purpose. Hulls can be used to flavour custards for ice cream, soufflés and desserts such as crème brûlée. Place one or both halves of a scraped out hull in the milk before scalding, then let it infuse anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is strained. Using beans in these two different ways will allow you to get the most value for your investment. Vanilla beans and scraped out pods should be wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in a sealed glass jar at room temperature, in a cool dark place. Stored this way, they should keep for 6 months. If a recipe does not require the bean to be split, it may be rinsed after infusing, dried and stored for reuse
Pure vanilla extract is made by macerating crushed or chopped beans in an alcohol-water solution for several months. The dark clear liquid that results is rich, intensely flavoured and highly aromatic. Vanilla extract is the most commonly used form of the flavouring used in North America and has become an essential ingredient in almost every cake and cookie recipe! However, its deep, rich fragrance and flavour are easily dissipated by direct or prolonged heating, making it unsuitable for long-cooked dishes such as poached fruit. It does retain its potency when used in baked goods, though, and has the advantage over vanilla seeds in that it disperses thoroughly throughout a batter. When buying vanilla extract, look for products bearing the label "Pure," "Real," or "Natural." Vanilla extract may be stored indefinitely in an opaque, airtight bottle in a cool, dark cupboard
Vanilla essences, also called double- or triple-strength extracts, are products usually available only to professionals. They are highly concentrated forms of vanilla extract, so intense that only a drop or two may be needed to impart a strong vanilla flavour. They are particularly useful in industrial and professional kitchens, where their high potency and concentrated form mean fewer steps in the preparation of large recipes. Vanilla essence and high-strength extracts can sometimes be found at bakery or cake decorating supply stores and through some professional mail-order sources
Vanilla powder is made by pulverizing the whole dried beans to a fine powder. Read the list of ingredients to make sure it is pure, as sweeteners and fillers are sometimes added. Vanilla in this state is well suited to incorporation into liquid-sensitive mixtures, such as some icings and melted chocolate, where even a small amount of liquid could create a problem; and into uncooked mixtures in which vanilla seeds would not have a chance to impart their flavour evenly and thoroughly. In addition, the flavour of vanilla powder is more intense than that of most extracts and does not dissipate even with prolonged cooking. For these reasons, it can be used to an advantage in many cooked custards, sauces and baked goods. Vanilla powder will keep indefinitely, stored in an opaque, airtight container in a cool, dry place
Vanilla sugar is a lovely, fragrant product, easily made by burying one bean in two cups of granulated or superfine sugar for at least two weeks. Vanilla sugar is a luxurious sweetener for coffee or hot chocolate and a great addition to all sorts of baked goods and desserts. I love using it as a garnishing sugar, sprinkling it on cookies, cakes, pie and tart crusts, as well as confections. For a simple, easy and divinely flavoured summer dessert, toss fresh berries or peaches in a little vanilla-scented sugar and serve with a little vanilla sugar-sweetened whipped cream. Divine! Vanilla sugar will keep indefinitely, stored in an airtight container.