Oh vanilla. When it's real it's amazing, when it's artificial it's a horror. Vanilla is expensive - a treasure - growing it is painstaking, requiring the most delicate precision, nudging exotic flowers along, pollinating them with a paintbrush, aging and curing the green pods for months, all to produce one of the most expensive ingredients in the world.
Vanilla is known to have one of the most complex aroma structures known to mankind. Its intriguing scent is a known aphrodisiac. One pin head's worth of seeds is enough to flavor enough ice cream for the whole family.
Vanilla is naturally at home in both sweet and yes, savory applications as well. It adds that je ne sais quois to a whole range of dishes. It especially loves another tres cher exotic, saffron, and no cake or creme bwould be the same without it.
All of this, and yet we consider vanilla to be something boring. When someone is without interest, personality, or humor, we refer to them as "vanilla." But clearly, vanilla is the renaissance woman of the spice world, and I would be flattered to be called such.
Because vanilla is so expensive, very few of us get to appreciate its full beauty. We frequently purchase inferior imitation extracts; and sometimes it can be hard to justify an eye-popping $8 per bean at gourmet food shops. Even when I was a baker I took it for granted. Ever Monday and Thursday I would arrive at the restaurant to make my creme band used - and discarded - 4 beans for each batch. And we went through a ton of creme b .
The expense of vanilla was one of my main motivations for starting bulk club. From being a baker, I knew purchasing vanilla in bulk was a major savings over purchasing it in a store.
When I spent my day with Spencer and his crew of amazing bakerellas at Pistacia Vera a few months ago, vanilla became a topic of discussion, especially its use, reuse, use, and reuse.
You see, one should never, ever throw a vanilla bean away.
A vanilla bean, though expensive, was born to be a good value. Like your grandmother's Chanel suit that that still looks fabulous, a vanilla bean moves effortlessly through creme b, sugar, and into its final resting place, alcohol (what a charmed life).
So. This is how you can use your beans: Scrape the beans to make ice cream (or cream b, or what have you). Most pods can be scraped twice - remember, a little flavor goes a long way.
So. We've scraped the vanilla bean twice to be used in something creamy and yummy. Third pass, I like to make vanilla sugar. Usually I put a pair of rubber gloves on and rub the pods into a bowl of sugar; the grain of the sugar helps scrub any remaining seeds still clinging to the pods (although vanilla seeds are really there for their beauty - they get their flavor from the pod, so the pod has to be stored in the sugar).
Sugar is a good storage place for vanilla beans as long as it doesn't get too dry. So, even though vanilla beans look beautiful sitting in a jar of sugar, I admit that I usually vacuum pack it.
If your beans dry out too much, just give them a little dip in vodka, and leave them in a cool oven (pilot light only, or "keep warm" setting) for a few minutes. And, just when you think your beans have contributed everything they can, it's time to make extract.
Which couldn't be easier. Simply place them in a bottle of decent vodka (Tito's is tasty and affordable) and let them soak for a few weeks. You can even drink this concoction in your morning orange juice! I'm just kidding, of course. It's just as good in mango smoothies.
The best thing about this whole vanilla bean lifecycle? At the end of the year, you can pluck the drunken bean out your Tito's, and put it in a pretty bottle and fill it up with your vanilla extract. Voila! A holiday or hostess gift an savvy eater would love!
Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is generally regarded to be the best vanilla; and frequently encompasses vanilla not just from Madagascar, but from other areas around the Indian Ocean. For example, I bought some Ugandan beans for this month's bulk club; they are the same type of bean (V. planifolia), the Ugandan beans have show to have an even more complex flavor than those from Madagascar, and they are very plump and juicy. The "bourbon" refers to the Island of Bourbon, and does not refer to the American spirit. Although the two do go well together.
You can read lots and lots about vanilla here.