Feb 28, 2011 10:16PM ● Published by Ashley West
In fact, vanilla is the most popular flavor in the world; it is used in baking, confectionery, beverages, and even savory dishes. It is the number-one ice cream flavor. Perhaps, this enormous popularity and everyday familiarity accounts for our forgetting just how exotic vanilla is.
Originally, the tropical flower native to Mexico was prized. It is still, along with saffron, one of the world’s costliest spices. Vanilla was first used by the Aztecs for flavoring their royal drink, xocolatl, a mixture of cocoa beans and vanilla pods. And when, in the sixteenth century, Cortez brought vanilla back to Spain,
European nobility savored it.
While we may use vanilla to describe the ordinary, its production process is quite miraculous. Vanilla pods (also called beans) are long, thin and pale green—they are the fruit of the orchid plant, Vanilla Planifolia. Of the thousands of orchid varieties, the vanilla plant is the only one to bear an edible fruit. Amazingly, its flower opens one day per year for a few hours and has only one natural pollinator, the Melipone bee found in Mexico. Of course, this is an insurmountable task for the tiny bee, so the flower must be hand-pollinated.
Vanilla is the most labor-intensive agricultural product in the world. After maturing for six to nine months, the pods are handpicked, and the long curing and conditioning process, which can take up to another nine months, begins. The beans are blanched in hot water, fermented, and dried in the sun until they turn chocolate brown. The better beans become frosted with a white crystalline powder called vanillin. This is the flavor and smell we know as “vanilla.”
Vanilla orchids grow in the tropical climates of Mexico, Indonesia, Tahiti, Tonga, and Madagascar. The three most common types of vanilla beans are Bourbon-Madagascar (the Bourbon refers to the islands, not the liquor), Tahitian, and Mexican. The Hawaiian Vanilla Company, the first and only commercial vanilla growers in the United States, cultivate vanilla on the slopes of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii, where the orchid grows in volcanic soil.
Because the soil and curing processes vary in each area, the beans possess unique flavors and may have sweet, fruity, or spicy notes. Pure vanilla is quite complex, with vanillin as the dominant flavor. Vanillin may also be produced synthetically even though scientists have never been able to duplicate the exact taste of pure vanilla. Frankly, discriminating cooks do not use the imitation. Its quality is inferior to natural vanilla. “Imitation vanilla is missing the over-500 natural components that make up pure vanilla,” says Jim Reddekopp, founder of Hawaiian Vanilla Company. While imitation costs less, it is composed of artificial flavoring—a by-product of the paper industry—and treated with chemicals.
When purchasing, one should also avoid vanilla extracts that are manufactured in Mexico. They may be adulterated. “There is no form of the FDA in Mexico,” says Craig Nielsen, CEO of Nielsen-Massey Vanillas, renowned vanilla specialists. “They don’t enforce any truth-in-labeling laws. Many times, Coumarin, a flavor enhancer, which is deemed carcinogenic by our FDA, is added to the product, thus making the product less expensive, since not as many beans need to be used.” As with many products, you will want to check labels. It’s important to remember that “artificially flavored” means the product is flavored with imitation vanilla. If the label states “vanilla,” it is flavored with pure vanilla.
Pure vanilla products can come in extracts, powders, and vanilla bean paste. For the home cook, Nielsen recommends their. Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract. “It is considered to be the highest quality variety, with a deep, rich, sweet, creamy flavor profile.” This extract is great for baking and cooking. It is perfect in cakes, cookies, and pastries, but also provides a bit of sweetness to seafood sauces or marinades, and cuts the acidity of tangy tomato sauces.
Vanilla is versatile. It can enhance, complement, and balance a large variety of dishes, both sweet and savory. So the next time you begin to describe the ordinary by saying, “It’s so vanilla” think again. Say something nice about the spice that gives us so much pleasure everyday.
The following recipes are from Nielsen-Massey Vanillas’ cookbook, A Century of Flavor, and Nielsen-Massey Vanillas’ products are used.
Vanilla-Infused Balsamic Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon spicy brown mustard
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 teaspoon Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup light olive oil
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon natural rice vinegar
Whisk the brown mustard, honey, vanilla extract, salt, and white pepper in a bowl. Add the olive oil in a fine stream, whisking constantly until incorporated. This will emulsify your salad dressing and it will not separate. Add the vinegars slowly, whisking constantly.
Use over fresh baby salad greens, or as a marinade for chicken fish, pork, or vegetables. Makes 3/4 cup.
Poached Pears with Vanilla Cream
4 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 firm ripe Bosc pears
8 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Bean Paste
For the pears, combine the water, sugar, and lemon juice in a large saucepot. Cook over medium heat until the sugar is dissolved, stirring constantly. Remove the core of each pear starting from the bottom of the pear and using the small end of a melon ball cutter; leave the stem intact. Peel the pears and cut a thin slice from the bottom of each pear so it will stand upright. Add the pears to the water mixture, making sure they are completely submerged. Pears may need to be weighted down with a pan lid. Poach for 15 minutes or until tender. Removed from the water and let stand until cool.
For the cream, whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a large bowl until thick and creamy. Stir in the milk and vanilla paste. Pour into the top of a double boiler and place over hot water. Cook over medium heat until the cream thickens and has an internal temperature of 160 degrees, whisking constantly. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a bowl for a smoother cream.
Place each pear onto a dessert plate. Spoon the Vanilla Cream on the plate and over the pear.
Crème Brûlée French Toast
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
2 tablespoons light
1 cup firmly packed
light brown sugar
6 slices Italian bread,
1-1/2 cups heavy
1/4 teaspoon salt
Pure Vanilla Extract
1 teaspoon Grand Marnier
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
Combine the butter, corn syrup, and 1 cup brown sugar in a medium saucepan. Heat over medium heat until the butter is melted, stirring frequently. Pour over the bottom of a 1-quart baking dish coated with nonstick cooking spray. Arrange the bread slices over the brown sugar mixture so that the bread fits snugly in the dish.
Whisk the eggs, cream, salt, vanilla extract, and Grand Marnier in a bowl. Pour evenly over the bread. Cover the baking dish with plastic wrap and chill for 8 hours or overnight. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Sprinkle 1/2 cup brown sugar over the top of the layers. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes or until the
top is golden brown.
•Vanilla Beans: used for cooking and baking. Slit the vanilla bean lengthwise down the center, scraping out seeds to add directly to foods. Whole beans that have been used to flavor sauces or other mixtures may be rinsed, dried, and reused. To store, wrap the beans in wax paper, then in a plastic bag, and place in an airtight container in a cool, dark place.
•Vanilla Extracts: the most popular form of vanilla. Made by soaking the chopped beans in an alcohol-water solution to extract the flavor, the mixture is then aged for several months. Extracts can be stored indefinitely if sealed and kept in a cool, dark place. Pure vanilla extract is about twice as expensive as imitation, but superior in intensity and quality.
•Vanilla Powders: whole dried and ground vanilla beans. Great for baked goods or flavoring beverages.
•Vanilla Bean Paste: made from pure vanilla extract and vanilla bean seeds in simple syrup with a natural thickener. Use instead of extract in dishes that call for seeds or specks.
•Vanilla flavoring: a blend of pure and/or imitation vanilla.
•Imitation Vanilla: less expensive than pure vanilla. Composed of artificial flavoring—a by-product of the paper industry and treated with chemicals. It leaves a bitter aftertaste. Best to avoid imitation products.