(Otherwise known as Heaven: Part II)
For New Year’s D and I threw a Sweet Cookie New Year Party. I scoured cookbooks, the Internet, recipes handed down on greased up pieces of, and even invented a concoction or two. There was one cookie I thought sounded amazing. It included a fabulously decadent vanilla bean in the recipe.
As D and I stood in the spice section marveling at all the colors, our eyes finally fell onto the prized vanilla bean. D picked up the container, the same size as all the other spice jars, and made some snide comment about there being a single pod resting comfortably at an angle, while all the others spices were packed to capacity. What a holy bean. After checking the price tag, I decided not to make the purchase—that was one cookie recipe we could do without.
I returned home to delve into the mysteries of the vanilla bean. How can such an ugly little pod hold so much value? I asked my mother’s friend who regaled me with stories of cooking shows in the 70’s using vanilla beans in the recipes. Those were the days when vanilla beans were $400-600 for a single pod. Imagine a 70’s housewife purchasing ingredients for that dinner realizing the single bean was that month’s mortgage payment! I thanked my stars I could actually afford a bean these days, even if the price still made me do a double-take.
A few months ago, I read Pollan’s The Botany of Desire. I passed it along to my friend D, who subsequently did a great summary of the text. As I dug into the chapter about tulips, I could not but help wonder why the chapter was not actually about orchids (though they were mentioned). With orchids fetching prices upwards of $50 per plant, why were these prized beauties not considered? Uncovering more vanilla history only made me wonder more…
Vanilla, Birds and the Bees:
The vanilla bean originally hails from Central America. The bean is the only edible byproduct of about 20,000 orchid varieties. In order for this orchid to produce a vanilla pod, it must be fertilized by a Melipona bee which is only found in Central America. This bee cannot survive outside of Central America’s vanilla region. With the wiles of science, we are fortunate enough have developed a hand pollination technique (developed in 1836) still used by commercial growers today. Problems do not stop there.
The vanilla bean orchid only opens once a year for less than 24 hours. Today’s commercial growers must patiently, and often, check these precious orchids, ready to pollinate by hand. The vanilla pod is the fruit that grows off this orchid’s vine. In the wild, these vines will reach the canopy of the rainforest. Commercially, they are trimmed to ease the picking process. After pollination, orchid flowers eventually develop into long green beans (up to 12 inches long). These pods are handpicked before they are ripe. Now, growers may begin fermentation which lasts 2 to 6 months until the beans become dark brown and develop white crystalline coating, called vanillin. This vanillin is the scent and flavor that is valued throughout the world. Still, the beans must be aged for up to 2 years to fully dry the bean out to prevent rotting, packaged airtight, and shipped around the world.
Today, vanilla is produced in 3 main areas of the world. Each area’s vanilla bean produces a specific flavor and coloring that is unique to the region.
1) Madagascar is the largest producer of vanilla beans with about 80% of the industry. Their vanilla is known as Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla. This vanilla is considered to be the highest quality pure vanilla available, described as having a creamy, sweet, smooth, and rich flavor. They are the thinnest beans grown.
2) Mexican vanilla, where the orchid originated, now produces only a small percentage of the world’s crop. The bean is thicker and darker with a smooth, spicy, rich fragrance and flavor. Many vanilla aficionados believe this to be the best vanilla available. Be warned: some manufacturers add coumarin to their vanilla. This is banned by the FDA because it can cause liver and kidney damage. So be wary of fabulous deals on Mexican vanilla and always buy from a reputable source.
3) Tahitian vanilla is more flowery and fruity than the other varieties. It is also the thickest and darkest of the three pods. This vanilla bean is more popular for fragrances.
Extracts are the most popular way vanilla is used in baking. Extract is produced by steeping vanilla beans in a water-alcohol solution for a number of months (sometimes with added sugar). The FDA requires vanilla labeled “pure” to contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla bean and 35% alcohol per gallon of liquid. This is the pure vanilla most often found at the grocery.
When buying vanilla, make sure to purchase “pure” vanilla. “Imitation” vanilla extract is produced with synthetic vanilla. Items labeled vanilla “flavoring” are a combination of pure and imitation vanilla extracts.
A tasty way to extend the life of a vanilla bean after its use in your custards, milks, creams, syrups, and soufflés is to remove, rinse and dry the used pod. Place it into granulated white sugar to create vanilla sugar. Use this as regular sugar with a hint of vanilla.
I found this recipe on epicurious. Because I had a vanilla bean, I searched recipes for “vanilla bean” and sorted by “fork rating”. This recipe received 4 forks and 100% “would make this again”. I will make this everyday. Before I provide the recipe, let me mention this: D tasted this and all he could say was “this is really, really, really, really goooood.” He took another bite: “This is sooooo good. This is better than anything I have ever had in any restaurant anywhere.” (Let me also add that D is a chocolate dessert man—not a fruity dessert man.) After finishing the soufflé, we both drank the remaining crème and contemplate adding the leftover to coffee in the morning…
APRICOT SOUFFLÉ W/ VANILLA RUM CRÈME ANGLAISE
Makes 6, 7-oz servings. Prep time= 30 min. Cook time= 30 minutes. Inactive time= 2 hours.
* 6 ounces dried apricots (about 1 ½ cups), quartered
*1 ½ cups water
* ¾ cup sugar plus additional for coating ramekins
* 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
* 1 tablespoon dark rum if desired
* ½ teaspoon vanilla
* 5 large egg whites
* 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
* 2 cups half-and-half
* 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
* 5 large egg yolks
* 1/4 cup sugar
* 1 tablespoon dark rum, or to taste
1) In a saucepan simmer apricots, water, and ½ cup sugar, covered, 20 minutes. Transfer hot mixture to a food processor and purée until very smooth. Force purée through a fine sieve into a bowl and stir in lemon juice, rum, vanilla, and a pinch of salt. Cool purée completely. Purée may be made 2 days ahead and chilled, covered. Bring to room temperature before proceeding. Transfer purée to a large bowl.
2) Preheat oven to 350°F. Generously butter 7-ounce (3½ by 1¾ inch) ramekins and coat with additional sugar, knocking out excess. In a large bowl, beat whites with pinch of salt until foamy. Beat in cream of tartar and beat whites until they hold soft peaks. Beat in remaining ¼ cup sugar, a little at a time, and beat meringue until it just holds stiff peaks. Whisk about one forth meringue into purée to lighten and fold in remaining meringue gently but thoroughly. Ladle batter into ramekins and bake soufflés on a baking sheet in middle of oven 20 to 25 minutes, or until puffed, golden brown, and just set in center.
3) Remove ramekins from oven. With 2 forks pull open center of each soufflé and pour some crème anglaise into each opening. Serve soufflés immediately.
VANILLA RUM CRÈME ANGALAISE
1) In a small saucepan bring half-and-half just to a boil with vanilla bean and remove pan from heat. Scrape seeds from bean with a knife into half-and-half, reserving pod for another use if desired.
2) In a bowl, whisk together yolks, sugar, and a pinch of salt and whisk in hot half-and-half in a stream. Return custard to pan and cook over moderately low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until thickened (170°F. on a candy or digital thermometer), do not let boil. Pour sauce through a fine sieve into a bowl and cool, stirring occasionally. Stir in rum. Chill sauce, covered, until very cold, at least 2 hours and up to 2 days.
NOTE: The most time consuming part of this was sieving the apricot purée. I was having a hard time so actually ended up dumping an extra spoonful of apricot that would not sieve through. In the end, this left some satisfying apricot chunks in the soufflé. To save time, make the apricot purée and crème anglaise 1-2 days ahead of time. I halved this recipe and made two heaping soufflés. The soufflé was actually peaking twice as high when taken out, but once it is pierced with a fork and the crème is poured in, it deflates, absorbing the crème. For the crème anglaise, even after halving this recipe, I added about 4 Tbl of dark run to the crème. This gave the sauce a very punchy rum, full flavor. The extra rum is highly recommended.