Sunday, June 19, 2011


A bit of history...

If you ask people what their favorite flavor is, chances are they'll respond with 'chocolate'. Vanilla however consistently ranks at the top of most polls as the most popular flavor of sweets and baked goods. Vanilla is often used to describe a Plain Jane situation, but true vanilla is anything but simplistic. Like chocolate, it is most often seen in sweet dishes, but it is just as appealing when making savory appearances. So what is vanilla?

Vanilla is the only edible fruit of the largest flowering plant family in the world - orchids. It is harvested from the seed pods of two tropical members of the species, commonly known as Tahitian or Bourbon. These are the only two types that are grown commercially, although there are well over 100 different members of the vanilla family.

Centuries ago The Totonaca and Olmeca peoples of the Gulf Coast of Mexico were the first to use vanilla in beverages and to domesticate it for cultivation. Both peoples considered vanilla as sacred and as gifts from the gods, and used the plant in sacred ceremonies, as parts of amulets and in temples for the fragrance.

In the early 1500's, vanilla beans left Mexico, bound for Spain, where it was initially used as a perfume, and later as a flavoring, and it gained rapid popularity. Thomas Jefferson is credited with bringing vanilla to the US on a return trip from Europe as ambassador to France.

About the plants...

Vanilla is native to tropical South and Central America more specifically to Mexico, although it is now grown in multiple locations throughout the world. Soil and climate changes in various locations lead to subtle, but distinct flavor and aroma variations. Therefore, you'll often see very distinct locations in the branding of different vanillas - i.e. Mexican, Madagascar, Indonesian etc. No matter where the beans come from, good beans should have a distinctive, rich, full aroma, and be smooth in appearance. They should also be quite pliable - you should be able to bend them without breaking them. Don't buy vanilla beans that show signs of being dry (wrinkled), brittle or those which have a 'smoky' or musky smell.

Because growing vanilla involves a minimum of three years for the plants to develop, and the pods require a nine month on-the-vine development, growing vanilla is extremely labor intensive, leading to the high cost (second only to saffron!). After harvest, the beans must be 'killed' or cured correctly by drying in order to fully develop the signature vanilla aroma and taste. Once dried, the beans have reduced to 1/5 their original size, but they are now the familiar dark color and sport the rich, intense aroma for which they are prized.

Almost all vanilla beans, regardless of the location where they are grown, originated in Mexico. The exception is Tahitian beans, which are considered distinct botanically, although even the root stock for this species had origins in Mexico. Therefore, Mexican vanilla, if grown in Indonesia, is Indonesian. Only vanilla grown in Mexico is known as Mexican - which is one of the finest in the world.

The US is the world's largest consumer of vanilla, followed closely by France. The US dairy industry is one of the largest consumers of our vanilla imports, using it liberally in ice cream, drinks and yogurts. Other uses involve a myriad of food applications, but also in fragrances of all kinds. Most labels which identify 'vanilla flavoring' actually contain imitation vanilla. "Natural" vanilla flavor is often a mix of real and imitation vanilla, whereas pure vanilla is often proudly labeled as such, often with the country of origin. Taste of few of these side by side, and you'll quickly realize why true vanilla is so highly prized, and can command premium prices. There's nothing like it in the world.

Forms of Vanilla

Most of the time you'll encounter vanilla in two forms - either the whole bean as pictured at the top of the article or in an extract. The whole beans are primarily used by splitting the bean and scraping out the tons of tiny seeds - the tiny black dots you see in high quality vanilla products such as ice cream. Those bitty dots are gorgeous little flecks of flavor.

You'll also see vanilla extract - in which vanilla beans have been steeped in alcohol in order to capture the flavor. Because the alcohol is the vehicle by which the flavor is delivered, if you add vanilla extract to hot ingredients, you run the risk of the alcohol evaporating and having the flavor dissipate too much. Always look for 'pure' vanilla extract - keep away from anything labeled 'imitation' or vanilla 'flavoring'. The flavors are harsh and rather bitingly 'chemical' in nature.

Other than these, if you wish to get a bit more adventurous, look for some of the other form in which vanilla has begun appearing in recent years. Many times these can be found in specialty or high end grocery stores, and of course there are numerous online sources.

Ground vanilla beans are just what it sounds like - whole vanilla beans which have been ground. Don't confuse this with vanilla powder - ground vanilla is pure vanilla. The flavor is unbelievable, intense and heavenly. It's not sweetened, and doesn't dissolve completely, but the flavor makes it worth the trade off.

Vanilla powder on the other hand is a powder made from dextrose or sucrose, which has been sprayed with vanilla extract. It is sweetened by nature of the base powder, and the flavor and aroma are lighter than in other products.

Vanilla paste is a mix of intense vanilla extract and ground vanilla beans. It's a thick liquid, not truly a paste, and it wonderful to use in baking where you want an intense, pure vanilla flavor. It is often used in applications involving cream - ice cream, custards and puddings.

Use and Storage

Use the whole bean! Every bit of the beans are full of flavor. If you only need the seeds scraped out for one recipe, make sure that you save the pods for use in another. You can steep the pod in hot liquid - coffee, cream or tea - for a beautiful additional flavor.

If you've used a pod, rinse and dry it. It can then be added to a sugar container or coffee tin, and it will continue to impart flavor, although admittedly less intense. If you come across beans that have dried out, you can rehydrate them. Simply soak them in the liquid your recipe calls for. Alternately you can use a spice or coffee grinder to grind over-dry vanilla pods for use in recipes in place of, or in addition to vanilla extract or paste.

Vanilla is typically thought of as a flavor to be paired with sweets - but try it in savory dishes as well. It's particularly lovely in sauces.

Store vanilla beans indefinitely in a cool dry place. Don't refrigerate them - this increases the likelihood of the beans mildewing. Simply use an airtight container or jar, and keep them out of direct sunlight. Check them occasionally for moisture, which can lead to mold. If you happen to cut open beans that show signs of having developed crystals inside - then celebrate! These occur naturally in some types of Bourbon vanilla beans which have stored for some time. These are beautiful in taste - have a party!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Chocolate Pudding

The real thing...

I have lots of kids, and while I love to cook, I don't necessarily love grocery shopping. I despise lugging around the cart, dealing with checkout and hauling and unloading all the bags. So my way of avoiding this as much as possible is to make a once (sometimes twice) a month run to the giant wholesale club up the road. I quite often get asked at checkout there if I run a daycare or some sort of restaurant, because of the amount of milk, cereal and eggs I have on one of those pallet loaders.

Now - one of my favorite things to do for breakfast is to make omelettes with mostly whites. I love the high quality protein, without too much fat or cholesterol. It fuels everyone from the little ones to the teenage athletes. I do however end up with lots of leftover egg yolks, and I cannot stand throwing away food. A lot of the amazing vitamin and mineral content of an egg is found in the yolk, so I like to use them up.

Custards and mousses are perfect. A single batch takes a LOT of yolks - so it often takes me a few days to collect enough. I quite often double or triple my custard recipes. I just stash the yolks in a plastic container with a tight lid until I need them. And they are easy - the number one tricks for these are to keep the heat relatively gentle, and to stir, stir, stir. If you do that, you can pretty much guarantee a beautiful silky texture.

This is by far the favorite with my horde. It's pretty hard to get something better than chocolate pudding. And if you've never had anything but the boxed stuff (especially the instant!), this will ruin you for good. The flavor is just that much better. If you wish, try using very high quality cocoa and chocolate - it turns a simple comfort food into pure lusciousness. Try it - it's as easy as it gets, and the results are well worth the minimal effort.

You'll Need:

•3/4 cups sugar

•3 tablespoons cornstarch

•1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

•pinch of salt

•2 1/2 cups milk (whole milk works best)

•1/2 cup heavy cream

•4 large egg yolks

•1/2 cup (about 4 ounces) unsweetened chocolate

•2 teaspoons vanilla extract

•1 tablespoon butter, cut into pieces

Note: You can use unsweetened baking chocolate - the kind that comes in one ounce squares. Just chop it finely before using. I almost never have the right amount for a recipe, so I do this most often with plain old chocolate chips. Using better chocolate most certainly changes this desert. I personally like the homey, old fashioned taste from just Hershey's cocoa and chocolate chips - it's hard to beat. But if you wish, you can use much higher end products - and you'll be surprised at how it takes this to another level.

The Method!

1.In a heavy bottomed saucepan over medium heat, stir together 2 cups of the milk and the cream. Bring this mixture barely to a boil and remove from heat.

2.Meanwhile, in a large metal bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients - sugar, cornstarch, cocoa and salt. Add 1/2 cup of the milk and stir until you have a smooth thick paste. Make sure there are no lumps from the cornstarch or cocoa at this stage, and it will help insure a silky final result.

3.Add egg yolks, one at a time, stirring well after each addition. Gradually whisk the hot milk into the cocoa mixture, whisking constantly until fully combined and smooth. Transfer the mixture back into a clean saucepan.

4.Place over medium low heat, and cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Remove from heat, and pour through a strainer to remove any lumps.

5.Add the chocolate, vanilla and butter. Stir vigorously until butter and chocolate is melted and fully combined. Transfer to 6-8 ramekins, glasses or small cups.

Notes: I think the initial recipe I adapted this from called for using clean bowls/saucepans at each transfer. Frankly that takes this recipe from a very simple and pretty quick one to one that creates far too many dirty dishes. I do however take a moment to rinse the saucepan after heating the milk, and give it a quick wipe with a paper towel.

I can't think of more than a couple of times when I bothered straining the pudding - even though I listed that step above. If you make sure the cocoa paste is very smooth, and you stir constantly during the cooking, you'll have no (or almost no!) lumps anyway. Straining the pudding makes a mess - it's thick and doesn't want to flow. However, if you want to serve this to company, or are very concerned with texture - go ahead and strain it.

You can serve this warm (my sister's favorite) or cold. Either way if you add a bit of whipped cream it's amazing. If you want to avoid a 'skin' forming on top, cover the pudding with plastic wrap and press the wrap gently down on the surface of the pudding. I don't bother - the kids don't stop (usually) to critique the custard. If I were serving it to others however, I'd take a minute for this little extra step - it also keeps the surface glossy and beautiful.