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In The Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companionby Regan Daley
Whoever coined the term "plain vanilla" had obviously never experienced the real bean. This I know, for after one encounter, they would have used words like magnificent, peerless and indispensable. 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.
Like chocolate, vanilla was brought to Europe via Spain by Cortes, but for almost 100 years was used only in chocolate and perfumes. Finally, an English apothecary in the royal court suggested its use as a flavouring. It became all the rage, and was even considered a powerful aphrodisiac by the elite of European society.
Vanilla is perhaps the most versatile flavouring in the sweet kitchen. In small amounts, it has the ability to blend with and support myriad other ingredients, mellowing harshness and deepening the richness of other flavours. It can be a perfect and equal partner or even a primary flavour all on its own. Although vanilla is often used in recipes as a supportive flavour, not detectable in the final product, it can also be used to create a new spin on a recipe—a cornmeal cake that calls for a teaspoon of vanilla becomes a cornmeal-vanilla cake when the vanilla is increased to two or three teaspoons. I occasionally use up to twice as much vanilla as is called for in a recipe if vanilla would really complement the other flavours in the dessert, or if the dessert is quite plain. Vanilla in all of its forms is great for enhancing recipes that have little sweetness and/or fat, as it imparts a distinct richness and voluptuous flavour.
Vanilla pairs beautifully with chocolate—it was a key ingredient in the warm chocolate drink xocolatl so adored by the Aztecs; their king Montezuma is said to have drunk fifty goblets a day! This perfect marriage has withstood the test of time—the best chocolates are today made with pure vanilla, and almost every good chocolate dessert also calls for some form of the bean. Rich nuts such as toasted hazelnuts and almonds; caramel; coffee; tropical fruit, as well as fruits such as pears, peaches, and raspberries; cinnamon, ginger and other sweet spices; even alternative grains and flours such as cornmeal and oats, all are enhanced with a benediction of vanilla.
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 Reunion. 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.
Several forms of vanilla are available, each with its own suitability and uses in baked goods and desserts. Vanilla beans are the most costly form of the flavouring, but are without question the best. I love splitting open a fat bean in front of friends and watching their faces as they are overwhelmed by the aroma. This is an opponent worthy of chocolate! Though their flavour is very rich and mellow when baked, a fresh vanilla bean's aroma is powerful: sensuous and intoxicating, and deliciously warm. This form has the added advantage of being able to be used in many different ways, and more than once. Scraped-out seeds can be used to flavour cakes and puddings; hulls can be used to infuse milk or cream for custards or sugar syrups for poaching fruit. Whole beans can be used to flavour liquids, then rinsed, dried and reused, sometimes several times.
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, souffles and desserts such as creme brulee. 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.
Imitation or artificial vanilla extract contains no real vanilla at all. It is made from 100% artificial ingredients, mostly by-products of the pulp and paper industry, that have been treated with chemicals and supplemented with feeble flavourings. Artificial vanilla has a harsh, one-dimensional flavour that can come across as medicinal, cloying and even almost bitter in some cases. At best, it is rough and dull and absolutely incomparable to any other form of real vanilla. Avoid it at all costs, as it will do neither you nor your precious baking any good! If you have only ever used the artificial stuff, the difference pure vanilla will make to your favourite recipes is worth the price of this book, not to mention the vanilla itself.
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. I like to store my scraped out vanilla bean hulls in a canister of sugar, replenishing the sugar as I deplete it and adding new hulls when I have them left over. 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 sugar¹sweetened whipped cream. Divine! Vanilla sugar will keep indefinitely, stored in an airtight container.
Really, REALLY Fudgy Brownies
Makes: 28 large squares
Very dense, very rich, very moist, very chocolatey, these brownies are not for the faint of heart. After tasting them at our house, friends who were getting married soon asked that these be the only gift at their wedding...the only gift--they had asked everyone else not to bring any gifts at all! Almost more of a confection than a cake, these are great as part of a dessert assortment, or packaged as a gift. In theory, these should keep very well, but I have never been able to keep them around long enough to find out.
7 ounces unsweetened chocolate, finely chopped
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, in small pieces
4 large eggs, at room temperature
2 1/3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons good-quality unsweetened Dutch-process cocoa
1/8 teaspoon salt
Additional unsalted butter, at room temperature, or vegetable oil cooking spray, for greasing pan
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9 x 13-inch baking pan, preferably aluminum. Line the bottom and up two sides with a single sheet of parchment paper, letting the paper overhang the two long sides by an inch or so. Not only will this prevent any sticking, but it will also make removing the cooled brownies from the pan easy and neat.
2. Place a large pot filled with an inch or two of water over low heat and bring the water to a very gentle simmer. Combine the two chocolates and the diced butter in a stainless steel or glass bowl and set the bowl over the pot. Stir the chocolate occasionally until it is about three-quarters melted, then turn off the heat under the pot and stir until the mixture is completely melted and smooth. Remove the bowl from the top of the pot and set it aside to cool slightly.
3. Meanwhile, in a large bowl, beat the eggs slightly just to blend the yolks and the whites. Whisk in the sugar and beat until the mixture is thickened and pale, about 2 minutes if beating by hand, 1 minute if using beaters or a stand mixer. Stir in the vanilla. In a small bowl, sift the flour, cocoa and salt together.
4. When the chocolate is just warm but not hot, pour it into the egg and sugar mixture, stirring to blend well. Sift the flour mixture over the batter in three additions, using a rubber spatula or a wooden spoon to gently fold in each addition before adding the next.
5. Scrape the batter into the pan and place it in the centre of the oven. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, or until a tester inserted in the centre of the brownies comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging to it, and the surface is set, shiny, and perhaps beginning to crack slightly at the edges. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool completely before cutting into bars. Don't overbake these brownies! A gooey, chewy texture is part of their allure. The whole cake can be lifted out of the pan onto a cutting surface using the overhang of parchment paper, or you can cut the bars right in the pan. A thin-bladed knife dipped in hot water and wiped dry between cuts makes cutting these sticky, gooey bars much easier! Makes enough for, oh, three or four chocoholics, or several more mere mortals. Store brownies well wrapped in plastic, at room temperature for gooier brownies, or in the refrigerator for denser, fudgier bars, for up to 5 days (they'll never last that long). I find keeping the leftover bars in the pan and covering the whole pan with wrap keeps the brownies fresh and soft.
Pears Poached in Gewurztraminer with Tahitian Vanilla and Ginger
This is one of my favourite desserts, and it's deceptively simple--not the kind you get wildly excited fantasizing about, but the kind that seems so perfect when you eat it. Its great beauty lies in its wonderfully complementary flavours: floral, tropical and delicate. The pears are great accompanied by a scoop of vanilla ice cream and the Macadamia Nut Biscotti (page 506) or Sugar Cookies with Rock Sugar Borders (page 491). Seckel pears are small, seasonally available pears that are perfect for poaching: firm, flavourful and too hard to eat raw. The beautiful Forelle pears are similar, but slightly softer and sweeter, so 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 Gewurztraminer wine
1 cup water, preferably filtered or still spring water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 plump Tahitian vanilla bean, split lengthwise
One (1 1/2 inch) piece fresh ginger root, peeled and sliced in 1/4-inch 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
Vanilla Bean Ice Cream (page 553), to serve
1. In a heavy-bottomed 2-quart saucepan just large enough to hold the pears with about 2 inches of headspace 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 dishcloth 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. The trick 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 will 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 just break the surface. Too low is better than too high a heat; the pears may 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 are extremely soft, carefully remove them from the syrup into 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 in each of 6 shallow dessert bowls. Spoon some of the syrup over top and accompany with a scoop of Vanilla Bean Ice Cream and a flavourful biscuit. Creme anglaise also makes a lovely accompaniment.
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