Winding itself up a host tree deep in the jungles of Madagascar, Indonesia and Mexico, the delicate vanilla orchid produces a spice that is as labor-intensive as it is distinctive.
That heady aroma graces products as diverse as soft drinks and perfume. The orchid must be hand-pollinated and the bean it produces requires a lengthy curing process. Both factors contribute to making vanilla the second-most expensive spice after saffron.
Totonaca Indians of Mexico first discovered wild vanilla growing in the jungles surrounded by coffee plants and cocoa trees. In the area now known as Veracruz, the Indians went on gathering parties, sniffing out the inviting aroma of the ripening pods.
In the mythology of the ancient Indians, the vanilla plant sprouted forth from the spot where two young lovers were murdered, their spilled blood making fertile ground for the sweet, aromatic orchid. Spanish conquistadors brought vanilla plants back to Europe where they grew successfully. However, the plants did not flower since vanilla’s lone natural pollinator, the Melipona bee, could not survive outside of Mexico and Central America. This led to Mexico’s monopoly of the vanilla business for hundreds of years.
In 1841, a former slave living on the French Island of Bourbon (now Reunion Island) off the coast of Madagascar figured out how to hand pollinate the vanilla orchid, and commercial cultivation of vanilla outside of Mexico began.
Today, Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico and Tahiti produce the majority of vanilla, with each variety carrying unique flavor characteristics.
It starts with the bean
Vanilla beans have a long journey before they reach your kitchen. The beautiful yellow flower of the vanilla orchid bears a fruit, or bean, which is harvested and cured before commercial consumption. The curing process consists of four phases: “killing” to stop the vegetative growth; “sweating” by raising the temperature and promoting enzymatic reactions in the bean; “drying” to reduce moisture content and “conditioning” the beans by storing them in closed boxes for three months or longer to allow the flavor and aroma to develop. The entire curing process can take up to eight months.
Regardless of their size or shape, quality vanilla beans should have a rich aroma and a shiny, sleek appearance. Beware of beans that show signs of mildew, look dry and brittle, or lack any noticeable aroma.
Some recipes call for slitting the bean lengthwise and scraping out the tiny black seeds to be used in the recipe. Don’t worry if you find little white specs inside the bean – these crystals are filled with “vanillin,” the active ingredient that provides the characteristic vanilla aroma and taste.
Vanilla beans can also be used whole, boiled or steeped in liquid to provide flavor. Pastry chef and Bittersweet Bakery owner Gina Garcia likes to use vanilla beans in custards and pastry creams.
“I use vanilla beans in our coconut cream cake, because of their milder flavor,” Garcia says. She prefers pure vanilla extract in recipes that call for a sharper vanilla flavor.
Vanilla extract is made by combining crushed or ground vanilla beans with water and alcohol and aging the resulting mixture.
“Each vanilla extract has it own unique flavor,” explains Heidi Tsadilas, manager of Gourmet Way, a specialty food and wine store in Dalton Gardens, Idaho.
Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is the most popular for baking, Tsadilas says. This vanilla does not contain bourbon, but is named after the Bourbon Islands.
“Mexican vanilla is spicier, and works well in chilis and tomato based cooking,” Tsadilas says. She describes Tahitian vanilla as having notes of licorice, and recommends it for flavoring ice cream and other rich dishes. Used in smaller amounts, vanilla can balance out sharp citrus flavors and reduces the acidity of tomato based dishes. Vanilla is used to enhance the flavors in chocolate, coffee, soda drinks and confectionaries, as it increases our perception of sweetness, and improves our ability to taste other flavors.
“When you are looking for vanilla extract, make sure it is labeled pure vanilla. Imitation extracts can leave a bitter aftertaste,” says Vicky Frickle of The Kitchen Engine. Products called vanilla flavoring are a mix of pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla.
To make your own vanilla extract, chop three or four vanilla beans into small pieces, carefully saving all of the seeds. Put the pieces and the seeds into a clean jar and cover with about a half a cup of brandy, rum or vodka. Let the mixture steep in a cool place for one to six months. Vodka must steep the longest (six months) but will result in a milder extract than the brandy soaked vanilla. You can strain the extract before using or incorporate the bean pieces into your recipe.
Powder and paste
Vanilla powder is made by drying vanilla extract onto a cornstarch base, creating an alcohol-free vanilla flavoring. Vanilla powder is popular in dry mixes and recipes that are color-sensitive, since the powder is white. “One of my customers mixes vanilla powder with the herbal sweetener stevia,” says Chris Imes, Lorien Herbs and Natural Market co-owner. The sweetened vanilla powder can be sprinkled on cereal and fruit, mixed into coffee and tea or added to smoothies.
Vanilla paste is a dark, concentrated syrup-like mixture flavored with vanilla extract and flecked with vanilla seeds. “Cooks like to use it for its cost effectiveness,” Tsadilas says. One tablespoon of vanilla paste can be substituted for one vanilla bean in recipes, at considerably lower cost.
Keep the beans in an airtight container, such as a glass jar with a lid, and store on a shelf in a cool, dry place, away from the heat of the stove. Don’t put them in the refrigerator or freezer, which could introduce moisture and cause the beans to spoil. “I have some beans I’ve had for 10 years,” says Bittersweet’s Garcia. After she has used the seeds inside, Garcia saves the pods and puts them in granulated sugar to add flavor and aroma to the sugar. Whole vanilla beans or pods that have been used to flavor sauces can be rinsed, air dried and reused. Vanilla extract will last indefinitely if stored with similar care, in a cool, dark place.
Natural versus imitation
In its March and April 2009 issue, Cook’s Illustrated conducted a taste test to compare the flavor of natural vanilla extract to imitation vanilla, which is chemically manufactured as a byproduct of paper production. Cook’s Illustrated had conducted such research twice in the past, and had concluded that when it comes to baking, imitation vanilla provided a quality vanilla flavor on par with the real thing.
Back in the test kitchen once again, this recent study discovered that temperature plays a key role in the effectiveness of various vanilla products. The flavor of natural vanilla begins to dissipate at 280 to 300 degrees. The imitation vanilla held its flavor better in cookies, generally baked above that range. In cakes, however, where the internal temperature hovers around 210 degrees, the natural vanilla held a slight flavor advantage. Vanilla beans were the clear winner for ice creams, custards and creamy sauces. The article concluded that if you use vanilla mainly for baking, you’ll probably be satisfied with imitation vanilla. But if you use vanilla in savory dishes, ice creams, custards and baking, go for the real thing.
Experiment with vanilla in all its different forms. Here are some recipes to get you started.
Toasted Coconut and Lime Prawns
From “The Vanilla Orchid – How it Flavored the World,” by The Vallarta Orchid Society
¼ cup sweetened coconut flakes
1 tablespoon canola oil
12 ounces large prawns, shelled, deveined and butterflied
1 ½ teaspoons minced shallots
1 ½ teaspoons minced garlic
1 ½ ounces lime juice
1 ½ ounces rice wine vinegar
1 ½ ounces sake or dry white wine
1 ½ ounces coconut cream
1/8 cup chopped green onion
1/8 cup chopped cilantro
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon sesame oil
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Lime slices for garnish
Toast coconut flakes on a baking sheet in a 350-degree oven until light golden brown, about 3 minutes. Remove and set aside.
Heat the canola oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. When the oil is hot enough to make a piece of shallot dance around in the pan, carefully add the prawns and cook them for about two minutes or until they are about three-quarters of the way cooked. Quickly remove the prawns from the pan and reserve them on a plate.
Add the shallots to the sauté pan. Cook until shallots are opaque, then add garlic, lime juice, vinegar and wine. Cook until the liquids are reduced by half, and then add the coconut cream. Stir, add the prawns, green onions, cilantro, vanilla and sesame oil and cook the shrimp all the way through, 1 to 2 minutes. Season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes. If there is not enough sauce, add one ounce of water to the pan and check seasoning before serving.
Serve with steamed rice, garnish with toasted coconut flakes and lime slices.
Yield: 2 servings
Chicken and Chickpea Tagine with Vanilla
From “The Best Recipes in the World,” by Mark Bittman
2 tablespoons neutral oil, like corn or grapeseed
2 tablespoons butter
1 large onion, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, minced
Salt to taste
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
½ teaspoon black pepper
Pinch of cayenne
1 ½ to 2 cups chopped tomatoes – canned are fine, drain and rinse first
4 cups cooked chickpeas (garbanzos) – drain and rinse if using canned
½ cup raisins or chopped pitted dates
½ vanilla bean (do not substitute extract)
8 chicken thighs or 4 leg-thigh pieces, cut in 2
Chopped fresh cilantro or parsley leaves for garnish
Put the oil and butter in a large skillet or flame-proof casserole dish with a lid and place over medium-high heat. When the butter melts, add the onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until it softens, 5 to 10 minutes (do not let it brown). Add the garlic, a large pinch of salt, and the spices and cook, stirring, for about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes, chickpeas, raisins and vanilla bean and bring to a boil, stirring (if the mixture is very dry, add about ½ cup water). Taste and add salt as necessary.
Sprinkle the chicken pieces with salt and nestle them into the sauce. Cover, and 5 minutes later, adjust the heat so the mixture simmers steadily but not violently. Cook until the chicken is very tender, 45 to 60 minutes. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Garnish with cilantro and parsley and serve.
Yield: 4 servings
Balsamic Vanilla Glaze
Courtesy of Heidi Tsadilas, Gourmet Way, who says “this sauce is great on vanilla ice cream, or grilled peaches and pears.”
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
½ cup honey
½ teaspoon vanilla extract or ½ tablespoon vanilla paste
Place ingredients in small sauté pan over medium-low heat. Stir and cook slowly until the mixture is reduced slightly and thickens, but still thin enough to pour. Remove from heat, cool and place in plastic squeeze bottle. Drizzle over ice cream or grilled or fresh fruit.
Vanilla Apple Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting
From Chef Earl Darny, www.vanilla.com
1 pound firm apples, peeled, cored and chopped into small pieces
1 tablespoon brandy
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 large pinch ground cloves
1 teaspoon baking powder
6 ounces (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter
½ vanilla bean
6 eggs, separated
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon salt
1 ¼ cups sugar, divided
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of a 10-inch cake pan with parchment paper and set aside. Place prepared apples in a bowl and pour brandy over the apples. Sift the flour, cinnamon, cloves and baking powder, and set aside.
Strip the vanilla seeds from the bean. Place the seeds, pod and butter into a small saucepan. Cook over low heat until the butter turns brown. It will take on a nutty smell and will have an intense vanilla flavor. Remove the vanilla bean and let butter cool to room temperature.
Separate the eggs. Whip the yolks with the vanilla extract and salt. When the egg yolks start to change color and start to get fluffy, add 3/4 cup of the sugar and continue to whip until light in color. Fold in the butter mixture, then fold in the sifted flour mixture. The batter will be thick. Fold in apples and brandy.
Whip the egg whites until fluffy, then add the remaining 1/2 cup of sugar and continue to whip until stiff. Fold the whites into the cake batter in thirds. When well mixed, pour into the cake pan and bake for 45 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the cake cool on a wire rack. When cool, run a butter knife around the edge to loosen. Turn out onto a plate and top with vanilla cream cheese frosting.
Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
7 ounces cream cheese
3/4 cup powdered sugar
seeds from 1/2 vanilla bean
Place the unsalted butter, vanilla seeds and the powdered sugar in the mixer with the paddle attachment (if available). Beat until soft and well creamed. Add the cream cheese and continue to mix until well combined. Spread on top of the cooled cake. Refrigerate the cake until the frosting is firm, about 30 minutes.