Vanilla anything but bland
Move over saffron. Vanilla is fast becoming the most expensive spice in the world. It’s no wonder it’s pricey. Vines take up to four years to mature, the flowers require frantic hand-pollination during its flowers’ one-day bloom and, once picked, the pods require months of curing. If that wasn’t enough, a perfect storm of crop failure, climate change, skyrocketing market demand and theft have forced prices to triple in the last year alone.
Despite all this, vanilla is worth its spot in your kitchen at almost any price.
But beware of imposters. With the cost of real vanilla being so high, many manufacturers are keeping prices down by using artificial flavourings, such as vanillin, which is actually a product of the pulp and paper industry.
Other signs the vanilla isn’t pure include phrases such as “vanilla flavour” and the very confusing “pure vanilla flavour.” To be sure you’re getting real vanilla, read the ingredient list. Avoid anything with vanillin, glycerin, and/or water.
Vanilla extract: Pure vanilla extract may or may not contain sugar but will always contain vanilla beans and alcohol. When you buy extract, look for a label that says “pure vanilla extract” but does not contain the word “flavour.”
Whole beans: Whole vanilla beans are long, thin and leathery. They will come in a sealed glass tube to preserve freshness. The beans should be supple, not brittle. If they break when bent, use them for vanilla sugar (page 91).
To get all the vanilla goodness from a whole bean, split it lengthwise with a knife and scrape out the tiny seeds – aptly called vanilla caviar – that give vanilla custards and ice cream the distinctive black flecks.
Beguiling as the caviar is, the flavour is mainly in the pod, which is why many recipes call for steeping the split pod in cream or other liquids before being used in the recipe. Once the liquid has steeped, don’t toss the pods. They still carry flavour and can find new life in vanilla sugar.
Vanilla bean paste: Once available only in specialty shops, vanilla bean paste is now making its way into supermarket shelves. This dark brown paste usually comes in a stubby dark bottle. It’s bursting with vanilla seeds and delivers wonderful vanilla flavour without scraping out caviar or steeping the pod. You can use it in place of vanilla extract or beans.
1 whole vanilla bean = 1 tablespoon (15 mL) vanilla extract = 1 tablespoon (15 mL) vanilla bean paste
While “vanilla” might be used to dismiss something as dull or bland, there’s actually no such thing as plain old vanilla. Depending on where the bean is grown and how it’s processed, vanilla delivers distinct flavour variations, much like wine or coffee. While there are at least half a dozen different vanillas grown around the world, three are commonly found in our supermarkets and specialty shops. See which one suits your palate:
Tahitian: Light, fruity and floral, the almost cherry-like Tahitian vanilla goes well with fruit dishes. Susceptible to heat damage, it’s best in cold or frozen dishes. Madagascar / Madagascar Bourbon: Named for the Bourbon Islands, not the whiskey, this vanilla is the most common variety on the shelves. It’s extremely versatile and has a woody undertone. Use in either hot or cold dishes.
Mexican: Vanilla originated in Mexico and this variety remains my favourite. While it’s straightforward, clean and well-balanced, Mexican vanilla has a tiny hint of spice and a depth not found in Tahitian or Madagascar varieties. It works well in spiced dishes, either hot or cold.
Regardless of what type of vanilla you buy, keep it in a cool, dry place, away from sunlight.
CLASSIC VANILLA CRÈME BRÛLÉE
I can pass by Crème Caramel without so much as a second glance. But Crème Brûlée? It reels me in every time. Is it the crunchy crystalized sugar topping or the silk custard? I’m not sure. Clearly more research is needed.
Makes 4 servings
1 vanilla bean
1 1/2 cups (375 ml) whipping cream
6 large egg yolks
1/4 cup (60 mL) granulated sugar, plus more for caramelizing
Preheat oven to 300°F (150°C).
1. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise. With the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds (vanilla caviar) into a two-cup measuring cup.
2. Add the cream, egg yolks, and sugar to the vanilla caviar and whisk until well combined. Pour the cream mixture evenly into four ramekins*.
3. Place the ramekins into a shallow roasting pan or casserole dish. Pour hot water into pan until it comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.
4. Bake until the custard barely moves when ramekins are jiggled, or a knife inserted in centre of custard comes out clean, about 45 to 60 minutes.
5. Remove the ramekins from the water bath and let cool to room temperature. Cover and refrigerate for at least four hours or overnight
6. Just before serving, sprinkle each ramekin with 1/2 tablespoon (8 ml) granulated sugar, covering the custard completely. Turn the ramekin upside down and tap lightly to remove excess sugar. Turn upright. Caramelize the sugar with a kitchen torch or by placing the ramekin under the broiler for a minute. Let sugar cool five minutes before serving.
If you don’t have ramekins, use one-half cup (125 ml) mason jars.