Standout Ingredients in Baking. Part I.

Flavoring Agent: Vanilla

The most important thing you can do for assuring the high quality of your cakes, pastries, cookies, confections, etc., is buying high quality ingredients. The only way you can do that if you know the criteria for high quality for each and every ingredient you are planning to use in a specific product. It sounds easy, but it is far from it. Particularly in the times we are living, when you can purchase ingredients from anywhere in the world (the world became one huge single market), when imitators and crooks are looming in every corner of the world, when “organic” is not always equals to quality and when the same product can be great or mediocre, depending on its intended use.

We are starting a series here to assist you in this process. The first ingredient that I’d like to review is vanilla, which is a flavoring agent.

Vanilla (Vanilla Planifolia)

Vanilla is my favorite flavoring ingredient. I use it in everything I bake and in most of my chocolate creations. Vanilla’s aroma is intoxicating. In your bakery, place anything in your oven to bake, that contains vanilla and within minutes you’ll have people buying up everything from your display unit. The aroma of the vanilla travels quite a distance and people unconsciously or counsciously will follow it anywhere. Many entrepreneurs use this “trick” for their advantage.

Did you know that natural vanillin is also found in other foods such as asparagus to which it imparts its distinctive fragrance and taste?

Origin

Vanilla beans come from the only fruit-bearing orchid. Once the flowers are open and pollinated by hand (in Madagascar it happens in May/June), they stay on the vine throughout the growing season. The ovary, which is located between the flower and the vine’s stem, is the part of the flower that turns into the green seedpod. In July/August the following year the green pods are harvested by hand, then cured in the sun and aged for months until vanillin (not to be confused with the synthetic product) is released and the pod turns into the familiar black color. The flavor of a vanilla bean comes from enzymes that are activated by the repeated sweating and drying of the curing process.

The flowers are pollinated manually (and that is one the reason that they are so expensive) because the birds and the bees that used to pollinate the greenish/yellowish flowers are extinct. It was Edmund Albius, a former slave on the Indian Ocean Island of Reunion that discovered a practical method to polinate the flowers manually. Cultivation in Madagascar soared after the French colonized the island in 1896.

Properties

Vanilla was studied extensively and these studies reported about its aphrodisiacal, euphoriant, calming and sexual stimulant properties. Since we discussed these earlier during the days leading up to Valentine’s Day, I will skip this data and concentrate only on the different varieties.

Types

Most vanilla plants are originating in Madagascar; but it is also grown in the West Indies, Tahiti and Mexico.

Madagascar and Tahiti are the high quality producers but Tahitian vanilla is the most expensive one.

Madagascar and the Comoros are former French colonies; Vanilla bean from this region has a mellow, rich flavor, a sweet aroma and some spicy notes.

The Mexican beans are more robust looking, has a richer, deeper, earthier flavor as compared to the Madagascar one and its aroma has a touch of smokey tone with stronger spicy notes. You do have to be careful where you are buying the Mexican vanilla because it maybe adulterated with coumarin, which is a highly toxic substance.

The Tahitian vanilla are plump, provides a lovely sweet fruity taste to any product it is used with (it actually taste totally different than the other two vanillas) and it has a highly intoxicating floral aroma. Some botanists actually claim that it is from a different species and that is why it is more glossy and moist then the other two vanillas. In addition, their pods deliver significantly more seeds as compared to the other two varieties and scraped out easier. It is, however, the only product among the three varieties that resistant to other spices and herbs; therefore, it is not advisable to use in products where stronger spices are also needed.

Uses

Vanilla is highly versatile with nearly unlimited use. I like to use it in diversified food products, including savory, as well as sweet dishes. For instance, the beans can be used to flavor milk, syrups, fruit juices, juice from poaching fruits and more. After infusing the vanilla bean, the bean can be rinsed, dried and used again.

Split the bean in half lengthwise with a sharp knife and infuse it in hot liquids, like in heavy cream for 30 minutes when preparing a ganache. To give a stronger flavor, remove the pod from the cream, scrape the seeds out and add them back to the cream for another 20 minutes. The seeds can share finely ground coffee, finely grated citrus zest, freshly grated ginger, fruit purees and more (all items that work well with chocolate) in the warm iquid.

Naturally, it can be used with the known dessert preparations, like ice creams, gelatos, all kinds of custards, puddings, crème brulee, cream Anglaise, and a large variety of fillings. It departs great flavor to fruit salads, fruit-based desserts, and you can macerate fruit in a mixture of a liquer and vanilla. You can add it to most cake and cookie batters, I also add vanilla to puff pastry (if I make it from scratch), to heave cream, to breakfast pastries, to whipped cream and to some cocktails.

If you want to add great flavors to your creations use only pods. I know it is more expensive but you only live once.

Preparations

Most preparations sold in retail stores are prepared by dissolving the vanilla beans in alcohol and aging it for a few months.

Vanilla essence – is the most concentrated preparation but mostly available in Europe only. It is so strong that you only need a few drops to achieve the same result as with extracts.

Vanilla extract is milder and the usual quantity starts with ½ a teaspoon. Bourbon vanilla gets its name from Kentucy’s Bourbon, but also from the fact that Reunion was once called Bourbon Island after the French royal family. Both, extract and essence are distilled from whole vanilla bean

Make your own extract by soaking the beans in Vodka, or Bourbon, or Scotch. I prepared a great extract using cognac and champagne.

Vanilla powder – it is made by grinding the whole bean into a fine powder (it is actually preferred in baking because the flavor does not evaporate when heated)

Vanilla sugar – you make your own by leaving 1 or 2 beans in a jar of sugar

Vanilla paste is concentrated extract and it includes the flecks of fresh vanilla bean seeds; you can use it as substitution to beans. One tablespoon of paste equivalent to 1 whole bean

Use leftover beans by drying the pods and chop them coarsely; then take 3 cups of sugar and place it with 2 bean pods in a food processor and process it until the pods are ground to very fine particles. Store it in a covered container at room temperature up to a year. Strain the sugar through a vey fine strainer before using it.

Shopping

Look for pods that plump, pliable and slightly moist. Do not buy beans that are shriveled or look like twigs. The flavoring is an individual taste so you will need to experiment with the available varieties for your personal preference. However, since it is quite pricey, you will need to make a decision promptly.

Storage

Wrap the beans in plastic and store them in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 6 months; extracts and pastes keep indefinitely when stored in in a cool dark place

Substitution

The rule of thumb is 1 to 1.5 teaspoon extract for each vanilla bean;

1-inch Tahitian bean equal to 1-teaspoon extract and 2 inch Madagascar bean is equal to 1-teaspoon extract.

Artificial vanillin lacks the intense perfume of the real thing and can become acrid. It is a by-product of the wood pulp industry. Would you want to use wood in your bakings? I do not think so.

My recommendation: use the beans if you can; it is worth every penny. None of the preparations compare to the flavor the bean produces. NEVER USE VANILLIN or anything that the label states: “imitation vanilla”, or “contains vanilla flavor.”

Warning: Watch for false beans coming from Uganda. You can detect it by inhaling its aroma, which is nearly on-existant.