Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Vanilla: iPOD love:
Vanilla is a member of the orchid family and originated in Mexico. Only one insect is known to pollinate the flower and must coordinate with the orchid's flowering cycle. Now, vanilla is hand pollinated, part of the reason why pure vanilla and vanilla pods are so expensive.
It's only cultivated in a few places around the world, including Hawaii, which is the only place in the U.S. to produce vanilla. Like salt, Hawaii also has a special kind of vanilla. According to Hawaiian Vanilla Company, Hawaiian vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (saffron, the stigma of a certain species of crocus, is the most expensive).
Types of vanilla:
French vanilla: French vanilla is not actually vanilla from France. It refers to a flavor combination for a custard or cream (made in a French cream/custard style) with vanilla added. It's creamy and good, but it's not exactly vanilla.
Tahitian vanilla: An extremely aromatic and full-bodied vanilla flavor. It is rich and very intensely vanilla flavored. From Polynesia.
Bourbon/Madagascar vanilla: Aromatic, produced and labeled as their location. From Madagascar and other Indian Ocean islands.
West Indian vanilla: Mass produced for commercial usage. If you're buying vanilla at a store without looking at names, this is probably what you're buying. It is good, but if you're looking for more flavor, head for something different.
Vanilla Lingo and What to Purchase:
You can buy vanilla in bean, extract, or powder (I haven't ever seen this form, but it exists) form.
Vanilla refers to both the flavoring that is derived from vanilla beans, either by extraction into an alcohol or from a straight vanilla bean steeped in another liquid. Commercially, you can buy vanilla extract, which is sold in a 35% alcohol solution or more. (Don't drink it, it's rather disgusting. The flavor of alcohol disappears as soon as it is mixed into another substance.) If you have the chance to get ahold of a vanilla bean (they're expensive, but totally worth it), do it. Information about usage of vanilla beans will continue later.
Vanillin is a chemical compound that is a component of pure vanilla, but it is also a compound that can be created by steeping wood in alcohol or made chemically in a lab. Because it's not pure vanilla, it's cheap. And it doesn't taste like vanilla. Avoid this like the plague. This is not food.
Vanilla concepts and pairings:
Vanilla is a commonly recognizable scent and is used in a variety of perfumes and aroma therapy, as well as being a vital ingredient in baking. It is so distinct that we associate it with many sweet things without even thinking about it as an ingredient. If we think sweet, we think vanilla.
Vanilla is really good. REALLY REALLY GOOD. Hence, you can add it to anything. It really enhances sweet-inclined dairy products very much, including whipped cream, ice cream, cheesecakes, yogurt, sour cream.
Due to its light flavor, it works well with delicate desserts like flans, custards, and soufflees. It also enhances other sweet things, so add it to any dessert, baked good, fruit (fresh or raw), anything chocolatey.
Vanilla and savory dishes also work together well. I like vanilla with more naturally sweet things, like carrots, winter squash/pumpkins, sweet potatoes, etc,; however, it complements a mild curry powder well, as well as shrimp and other seafoods.
To assure the most flavor, add vanilla near the end of preparation (it allows the alcohol to evaportate if using extract, and doesn't let the flavor to get lost).
Also, anytime it mentions the amount of vanilla in a recipe, it's just a recommendation, not a maximum. Vanilla is delicious. Use it liberally.
Remember how I mentioned that vanilla beans are amazing and if you have one... well... There are a few things you can do. Splitting the bean down the center and scraping out the seeds with the dull side of the knife gets those beautiful little black specks that people associate with vanilla. You can add these to anything (I highly suggest scalding [warming in heated but not boiling] with any sort of milk or cream product) and it will be tasty.
But you spent so much on that bean! And IT SMELLS SO GOOD. Now that you have taken out the seeds, you can do a few other things with the pod... You can make vanilla sugar (or vanilla salt, if you wish. Sweet-salty is always good) by placing the pod in granulated sugar within a sealed container for at least two weeks.
You can also make homemade vanilla extract by placing the bean in alcohol (usually vodka, though brandy, rum, or bourbon [I'm southern, sorry] works just as well.) From what I've seen online, 3 vanilla bean pods to one cup of alcohol seems to be a good proportion. The longer it sits, the more flavor it gets. Store out of light.