August 15, 2007

Vanilla - anything but ordinary

Vanilla beans

adj.: Ordinary flavor, standard. When used of food, very often does not mean that the food is flavored with vanilla extract! For example, `vanilla wonton soup' means ordinary wonton soup, as opposed to hot-and-sour wonton soup.

The word vanilla has become synonymous with anything that's ordinary. But really, is that even fair? How can something so intensely aromatic and exotic be used to describe anything that is ordinary? Or plain? Or bland? Alright, vanilla ice cream certainly looks more boring than chocolate, I'll give you that. But ice cream color aside, vanilla beans actually have a very complex flavor and you will be hard pressed to find a pastry or cake that doesn't call for some form of this spice. Even those chocoholic Aztec emperors enhanced their cocoa with vanilla. It perfumes everything to which it is added and it imparts a subtly sweet flavor to savory dishes as well.

Vanilla sugar

The vanilla "bean" (it's actually a pod) is the fruit of the climbing vanilla orchid (vanilla planifolia) which thrives in tropical climates. The reason it commands such a high price (don't buy imitation vanilla, you'll only get what you pay for) is that it is a highly labor-intensive crop. Because the kind of bee that pollinates this flower is rare, a method of hand-pollination was developed. Once the flowers blossom, they must be left on the vine for much longer before they are harvested and the lengthy process of curing, sweating and drying begins.

The three most popular types of vanilla beans are Bourbon (from Madagascar), Mexican, and Tahitian. The major distinction among the three types is intensity of flavor and thickness. Because I love the flavor and fragrance of vanilla (many of my lotions, hand gels, and body washes are of either warm vanilla sugar or lavender-vanilla scents), I bought myself several packets of Indonesian vanilla beans at the Ubud market in Bali not too long ago. When I arrived home, I split some up to make vanilla sugar and vanilla extract for future use.

As for the rest of the beans which I have stored in the refrigerator wrapped in many layers of paper towels and plastic, I plan to use their seeds in desserts such as custards or puddings, muffins, cookies and cake. Now if I can only find the time for all that! If you have any vanilla recipes you'd like to share, I would love to try them. :)

Vanilla extract

To make vanilla extract:

You will need 1 vanilla pod for every 3/4 cup of vodka.

Lay the bean flat on a chopping board. With a sharp knife, make a slit down the length of the vanilla pod leaving the ends intact, but exposing the seeds within. Steep the beans in good quality (don't use vodka you wouldn't drink yourself) vodka in an airtight bottle for 6 months. Shake often.

To make vanilla sugar:

You will need 1 vanilla pod for every 2 cups of sugar.

Make a slit along the vanilla pod in the same manner above. You could cut it in half if it's too long. Bury the pods in caster sugar inside a vacuum-sealed or airtight jar and shake well. And shake often. In about 2-3 weeks, you will have sugar infused with the heady and evocative aroma of vanilla.

Use it to flavor your pastries, coffee, hot chocolate, yogurt, tea, fruit, and anywhere you might use the plain stuff.

Variation: Use cinnamon sticks in place of the vanilla bean.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I never knew vanilla extract was made with vodka. And your vanilla sugar recipe sounds intriguing. Though I haven't baked for so long, you're making me want to bake again! :D Where can you buy vanilla beans/pods in Manila?

Btw, I'm loving the photos!

Katrina said...

I love the smell of vanilla, too. I have about 5 vanilla-based colognes/perfumes. Sadly, two of them (my favorites!) have been discontinued. :-( I also have vanilla candles and incense. Although I prefer the taste of chocolate to vanilla, I do think vanilla smells better! :-)

Anonymous said...

I too make vanilla sugar with vanilla pods, but I make sure to use the vanilla pods in another recipe first. For example, even after I split, scrape, and steep my vanilla in cream for vanilla ice cream, I retrieve the pods, rinse them off, dry them on paper towels, and put them in sugar like you do. Even though the seeds have been scraped out, the pods still retain a strong aroma. I've had the same used vanilla pods in my sugar jar for almost a year now, and whenever I refill with more sugar it still takes on the aroma of the pods.

Watergirl said...

So I don't have to give you homemade vanilla essence (from my vodka/vanilla bean stash) this xmas :(
but glad to know we're together in making vanilla bean yumminess. Try adding the pods to salt and to olive oil (or extra virgin coconut oil too). I'm looking forward to buying a load of vanilla in september.

Anonymous said...

Love all your "projects"! :) I have tons of vodka leftover from the wedding (more than a year ago can you believe...where are all the vodka drinkers in the world???) so I'll definitely make this :) (and the sugar!)

Mila's right about the olive oil...I sometimes put vanilla extract in my salad's really good!

Mila, even if I make some I still want some of your essence...hehehe :)

christine said...

Hi Nina, glad you like the photos! :) You can buy vanilla beans in specialty shops like Santi's, Spices & Flavors, Cook's Exchange and Gourdo's to name a few.

Katrina, I agree, while chocolate tastes better most of the time (I still prefer vanilla over chocolate for certain stuff), vanilla smells infinitely better! :) Someone once gave me a big vanilla-bean scented Yankee candle, it smelled so wonderful!

Marvin, that's a great tip. Especially since vanilla beans are quite expensive, you'll want to make the most of it. I read somewhere that vanilla beans can be re-used up to 6 months that way.

Mila, great idea about vanilla infused olive oil! I'll try that. Aside from salad, what else would you use it on? And sorry to ruin your Christmas gift, I'd still be very happy to accept it since it's something you made yourself. :)

Jo, with all that vodka you really should, sayang! Now if only it were rum or whiskey you still had so much of, that would be a different story. ;)

Jen Tan said...

Christine!!! Lovely photo and post! The Vanilla bean is definitely not it has the magic of making food extra special =) I have never made anything with REAL vanilla beans..I have yet to that too! So vanilla beans abound in UBUD!!! I'll definitely check out the markets in bali for these babies (mura ba dun? hehhe)

btw, my sis went home with a bag of couscous from santi's to try your recipe! hahahaha drinker?---present! hahahaha

Anonymous said...

Did you know that they are locally grown too? I think your pictures are really beautiful! Did you take that first one?

Anonymous said...

love the photos nens! i did make vanilla sugar from pods i bought from cook's exchange and i was very happy that it was locally grown.

briliantdonkey said...

Yayyyy I finally managed to show up at a normal (able to eat after your blog makes me hungry hour). Course since I work in a restuarant, I will now go to work and eat everything in site. I can see it now:

Oprah: So bd, how did you get to be 782 pounds?

BD: It was gypsy!

Oprah: ahhh I see, Yeah I had that problem too, doughnut?

christine said...

Jen, yes! Get some at the market. Much cheaper than then here. And while you're at it, get some kecap manis (sweet soy sauce)and peanut sauce for gado-gado. :) And if you like spicy stuff, try to find some bottled sambal too. I'm so excited for you, September right?! Hope you like the couscous, have it with a saucy dish for maximum satisfaction. :)

Anonymous, thank you! And yes, I took that picture. :) During my research on vanilla beans, I did read that we do grow our own and in fact the one packaged and sold at Cook's Exchange (as my sis says above) is home-grown. So it would be nice to buy that instead and support local industries.

Thanks Gins! :) Yes, I was happy to see that too. I just don't know where in the Philippines they're grown though.

BD, whatevah! You can eat like a pig fine on your own, you don't need me. ;) Thanks for stopping by and quit terrorizing your customers with your sweaty jewels.

Lydia (The Perfect Pantry) said...

I have some of each of the three types of vanilla in my pantry - the Tahitian was a gift from someone who traveled there; the Mexican I brought home from my own travels; and the Bourbon is easy to find. But I also keep - and prefer- vanilla extract made in Massachusetts by the Baldwin company. It is truly delicious, and is my vanilla of choice!

Sidney said...

I think I will stick with pure vodka... ;-)

Belinda said...

I've been spending time with family visiting from London, and I'm now getting a chance to catch up on reading my favorite blogs, so I was thrilled to see new posts from you, Christine. What an interesting post with all of the tidbits of information about vanilla...yes, I agree, vanilla is far from its "bland" reputation! And can I just say...NO FAIR that you got to buy your vanilla in Bali! :-) The local grocery store is just not quite the same in comparison, is it?!

Watergirl said...

Nena, how about vanilla olive oil ice cream? Time to pull out the ice cream maker! And I can imagine the flavors intensifying in a bread/muffin/cupcake!

christine said...

Hi Lydia, have you used all three? I'm curious how different they are from each other. I read that the Bourbon variety is supposed to have the richest flavor. But it's always nice to be able to buy local right? :)

Sidney, haha. Cheers! :)

Belinda, I'm jealous! I miss London so much and I really want to go back for a visit. And yes, exotic markets are my weakness. :)

Hi Mila. The ice cream will have to wait as I don't have an ice cream maker (yet!) But I'm liking the idea of a vanilla olive oil boules or muffin/cake. :).

Jen Tan said...

hey Christine.... I should be excited but our flight bookings are stressing me out!!! There is a conference at Bali on the dates I am goin and the flights are BOOKED! kakainis!! =( But I will definitely be hook or by crook! hahaha I hope I get to go to UBUD talaga..our itinerary is cramped...with such a short stay!!!

I WILL HAVE THOSE VANILLA BEANS AND EAT AT LOTUS CAFE NO MATTER WHAT!!!! ;Phahahaha Wish me luck...Thanks for all the Bali tips ah...

Anonymous said...

"where are all the vodka drinkers in the world???"

*raises hand while jumping up and down*

Anonymous said...

cool blog!

I will have to try and make my own extract.

Anne said...

love your new look and the pictures are just awesome!

christine said...

Jen, I have all my fingers crossed for you! I hope you get a flight, and yes, go to the market, no matter what!:)

Katrina, you lush you. ;)

Thanks David! It's the easiest thing to make, you just have to be very patient as it takes half a year to get good extract.

Thanks, Anne! I've been tinkering with the page, in preparation for a new design I'm waiting for. So nice to see you around! :)

SeƱor Enrique said...

I absolutely had no idea that vanilla can be an adjective to describe things of ordinary nature. Be that as it may, I am a great fan of its flavor, especially in ice cream, and would always have it with my hot slice of apple pie or struddle.

Thanks for sharing this info, Christine :)

christine said...

Eric, yes! Vanilla ice cream with hot apple pie or streudel, the quintessential combination! I love that, and also vanilla ice cream in rootbeer to make a delicious float. :)

Anonymous said...

I adore vanilla! I have never fully appreciated it until I started using the pods in baking and then realized how ethereal the taste is!

christine said...

Veron, same here! I used vanilla extract most of my life, but you realize the difference when you use real vanilla beans and it's hard to do away with now.

Anonymous said...

Hi Christine, I came across your blog from your recent comment on Dessert Comes First, and I must say, what a pleasant surprise it was to find it! I love your photos, and your "Vanilla" post WAS anything but ordinary. I've been curious about vanilla bean and would love to try it in some of my baking recipes but never had to courage to shy away from the regular store-bought vanilla extract. Now I think I'll make some of my own. Thanks for inspiring me to try something new!

christine said...

Hi Charley, thanks! So nice to meet you. :) Am so glad you dropped by and led me to your own site in the process.

looking for banana bread said...

Your post is so informative and the photos look great. Would you happen to have a banana bread recipe? I hope you share it. Thanks!