With its unmistakable silky smooth aroma, it's a wonder how this marvelous flavor has come to be known as "plain vanilla." I prefer its proper name: Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla. Madagascar, the large island off the east coast of Africa, produces the lion's share of the world's vanilla, followed by Mexico, Tahiti and the West Indies. The temperate climate in these countries is perfect for this botanical masterpiece.
Vanilla beans are the fruit of the orchid plant, Vanilla Planifolia. Thick vines grow and produce one fragrant, fragile orchid flower each year. This flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of its opening to produce the vanilla bean. A painstaking process, but it results in pure vanilla and carries a price tag indicative of the labor involved.
For the home baker, the purest form of vanilla is the bean. To use it, the bean is split lengthwise to reveal dark, sandy granules which are scraped into liquid to infuse the vanilla flavor. The emptied pod is often placed in a canister or sugar or a vial of vodka for a more delicate infusion.
Pure vanilla extract is commonly used by bakers for the ease of adding to recipes without a steeping process. Imitation vanilla extract is an inexpensive substitute, and once you have tried the pure variations, you won't consider using imitation again.
To Restaurant Avondale's pastry chef, Bill Fitzgerald, vanilla should be considered an essence. "When making a sauce to go with a dessert, a drop of vanilla will enhance fruit or chocolate. Think of vanilla the same way you would use salt to enhance a dish, just remember that a little bit of vanilla is all you need to make the difference."
Butternut Crème Brulee
- 8 egg yolks
- 2 cups heavy cream
- 1/4 vanilla bean
- 1/4 cup maple syrup
- 1/4 cup sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
- 1 cup butternut squash, cooked and pureed
- Extra sugar for the crunchy brulee topping
- Candied pecans, walnuts or pepitas
- Sauteed butternut squash cubes
Preheat oven to 300. In a large bowl, beat egg yolks until frothy. Place cream in a medium saucepan and scrape seeds from vanilla bean into the cream. Stir in maple syrup and 1/4 cup sugar, increase heat to medium-high. Stir constantly until cream just starts to simmer, and remove from heat. Temper by slowly whisking some of the hot cream into the eggs, then whisk the entire egg mixture into the rest of the cream. Add remaining ingredients and whisk to combine. Pour the custard into six 8-ounce ramekins, then place all the ramekins into one large baking pan. Pour boiling water into the large pan creating a water bath halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake until the custards set, about 45-60 minutes. Carefully remove from oven, remove ramekins from water bath and place in refrigerator to chill completely. To brûler your custards, sprinkle about 1 tablespoon sugar on the tops of the chilled custards and broil in the oven. Watch carefully and turn often to create an even golden brown — only takes a minute or two. (If you have access to a blow torch, you can create a more even browning.) Garnish with candied pecans, walnuts or pepitas and sautéed butternut squash squares.
Traditional Chai Tea
- 4 teabags black Indian tea (or 2 heaping tablespoons loose tea)
- 2 teaspoons raw sugar
- 2 teaspoons honey
- 4-5 coin-sized slices fresh ginger root (or 1 teaspoon ground ginger)
- 2-3 whole cloves
- 6 whole green cardamom pods, broken open
- dash cinnamon
- dash freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 5 cups water
- 2 cups whole milk
Combine tea and spices with water. Bring mixture to a boil. Boil 1 minute. Add milk and return to a boil. Strain and pour into cups. Serves 6.