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Kate Heyhoe

Kate's Global Kitchen

 

Painting a Vanilla Sky:
In the Sweet Kitchen

by Kate Heyhoe

 

Sweet Kitchen

If you're looking for a book that celebrates "sweetness" and all the ingredients that complement this essential taste-sensation, the award-winning In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companion is a joy to read, and contains 140 recipes that are a delight to savor. Author Regan Daley has created a hefty tome (more than 700 pages ), of well researched passages that captivate and fascinate. You don't have to be a baking pro to appreciate this book, for the information is valuable to anyone who loves and appreciates the nuances of food and flavor.

Consider vanilla, for instance. Walking into a kitchen where vanilla is being used is like floating to heaven on big puffy clouds. Just a whiff of vanilla can reflexively cause us to close our eyes in dreamy pleasure. As the excerpt below shows, vanilla is one of the sweet kitchen's pivotal flavorings, sometimes playing a supporting role and other times taking the lead. The author presents us with a complete vanilla profile, including its history, types, uses and two recipes: Really, REALLY Fudgy Brownies, and Pears Poached in Gewürztraminer with Tahitian Vanilla and Ginger.

 

EXCERPT: VANILLA
In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companion
by Regan Daley

Whoever coined the term "plain vanilla" had obviously never experienced the real bean. This I know, for after one encounter, they would have used words like magnificent, peerless and indispensable. The second most costly spice in the world, vanilla beans are actually the fruit of a climbing orchid native to Central America. It was cultivated and processed by the Aztecs, who developed a process of alternately sweating and drying the beans to develop on them the white crystalline substance vanillin, which gives the beans their flavour and perfume. The exquisite blossoms open only one day a year, and then for just a few hours. Their only natural pollinators, the Melipona bee, a few species of ants and hummingbirds, are all native to Mexico (and not terribly reliable workers!), so the orchids must be hand-pollinated in order to bear a bean, hence their hefty price tag. The beans are green and dourless when picked, gradually becoming dark brown, almost black, as they undergo a lengthy fermentation-alternately dried in the sun during the day, then sweated under heavy blankets at night. This process continues for three to six months; the beans are then aged for up to two years.

Like chocolate, vanilla was brought to Europe via Spain by Cortés, but for almost 100 years, was used only in chocolate and perfumes. Finally, an English apothecary in the royal court suggested its use as a flavouring. It became all the rage, and was even considered a powerful aphrodisiac by the elite of European society.

Vanilla is perhaps the most versatile flavouring In the Sweet kitchen. In small amounts, it has the ability to blend with and support myriad other ingredients, mellowing harshness and deepening the richness of other flavours. It can be a perfect and equal partner or even a primary flavour all on its own. Although vanilla is often used in recipes as a supportive flavour, not detectable in the final product, it can also be used to create a new spin on a recipe—a cornmeal cake that calls for a teaspoon of vanilla becomes a cornmeal-vanilla cake when the vanilla is increased to two or three teaspoons. I occasionally use up to twice as much vanilla as is called for in a recipe if vanilla would really complement the other flavours in the dessert, or if the dessert is quite plain. Vanilla in all of its forms is great for enhancing recipes that have little sweetness and/or fat, as it imparts a distinct richness and voluptuous flavour.

Vanilla pairs beautifully with chocolate—it was a key ingredient in the warm chocolate drink xocolatl so adored by the Aztecs; their king Montezuma is said to have drunk fifty goblets a day! This perfect marriage has withstood the test of time-the best chocolates are today made with pure vanilla, and almost every good chocolate dessert also calls for some form of the bean. Rich nuts such as toasted hazelnuts and almonds; caramel; coffee; tropical fruit, as well as fruits such as pears, peaches, and raspberries; cinnamon, ginger and other sweet spices; even alternative grains and flours such as cornmeal and oats, all are enhanced with a benediction of vanilla.

Vanilla's immense popularity has led to its production in four major regions around the world, each producing a distinctive variety. Like coffee beans and chocolate pods, vanilla beans' flavour is deeply affected by the climate and soil in which they are grown.

MEXICAN VANILLA BEANS are thick and dark, with a strong, intense fragrance and a flavour that is deeper and more robust than that of other vanilla beans. They are quite scarce today, but are considered by many to be the finest vanilla beans in the world. Sadly, some Mexican producers have recently begun to compromise their vanilla extract with the addition of coumarin, a potentially toxic substance that has a similar aroma to vanilla but that is illegal in the rest of North America. To be safe, buy Mexican vanilla products only from a reputable supplier.

BOURBON VANILLA BEANS are grown off the coast of Africa on the island of Madagascar, as well as on the neighbouring isle of Réunion. Also called Madagascar or Bourbon-Madagascar vanilla beans, they are smooth, rich and sweet, the slenderest variety of vanilla bean. Madagascar vanilla makes up more than 70 percent of the world's vanilla, making it much more widely available and generally less expensive than its Mexican or Tahitian counterparts.

INDONESIAN OR JAVA VANILLA is the second most commonly available type of vanilla in the world. Its flavour is smooth and earthy, with a slightly smoky note.

TAHITIAN VANILLA BEANS are the darkest of the three and are longer and fatter than their Mexican or Madagascan cousins, with a complex, floral aroma. Not as intense as the other two varieties, their delicate and slightly fruity flavour is perfect for using in poaching syrups and light desserts with fruit, fragile pastry and other subtle tastes.

Several forms of vanilla are available, each with its own suitability and uses in baked goods and desserts. Vanilla beans are the most costly form of the flavouring, but are without question the best. I love splitting open a fat bean in front of friends and watching their faces as they are overwhelmed by the aroma. This is an opponent worthy of chocolate! Though their flavour is very rich and mellow when baked, a fresh vanilla bean's aroma is powerful: sensuous and intoxicating, and deliciously warm. This form has the added advantage of being able to be used in many different ways, and more than once. Scraped-out seeds can be used to flavour cakes and puddings; hulls can be used to infuse milk or cream for custards or sugar syrups for poaching fruit. Whole beans can be used to flavour liquids, then rinsed, dried and reused, sometimes several times.

When buying vanilla beans, look for dark brown, almost black beans that are plump, tender, shiny, and that feel moist and even sticky to the touch. They should not be leathery and dry—if they are they have been improperly stored or are past their prime. They should be supple and very fragrant. A dusting of white crystalline dust on the beans is not a sign of deterioration, but is actually desirable. To use in cakes, doughs and cookies, split the bean lengthwise and with the tip of a small knife scrape out the mass of sticky black seeds into the batter, reserving the hulls for another purpose. Hulls can be used to flavour custards for ice cream, soufflés and desserts such as crème brûlée. Place one or both halves of a scraped out hull in the milk before scalding, then let it infuse anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, or until the custard is strained. Using beans in these two different ways will allow you to get the most value for your investment. Vanilla beans and scraped out pods should be wrapped in plastic wrap and placed in a sealed glass jar at room temperature, in a cool dark place. Stored this way, they should keep for 6 months. If a recipe does not require the bean to be split, it may be rinsed after infusing, dried and stored for reuse.

Pure vanilla extract is made by macerating crushed or chopped beans in an alcohol-water solution for several months. The dark clear liquid that results is rich, intensely flavoured and highly aromatic. Vanilla extract is the most commonly used form of the flavouring used in North America and has become an essential ingredient in almost every cake and cookie recipe! However, its deep, rich fragrance and flavour are easily dissipated by direct or prolonged heating, making it unsuitable for long-cooked dishes such as poached fruit. It does retain its potency when used in baked goods, though, and has the advantage over vanilla seeds in that it disperses thoroughly throughout a batter. When buying vanilla extract, look for products bearing the label "Pure," "Real," or "Natural." Vanilla extract may be stored indefinitely in an opaque, airtight bottle in a cool, dark cupboard.

Vanilla essences, also called double- or triple-strength extracts, are products usually available only to professionals. They are highly concentrated forms of vanilla extract, so intense that only a drop or two may be needed to impart a strong vanilla flavour. They are particularly useful in industrial and professional kitchens, where their high potency and concentrated form mean fewer steps in the preparation of large recipes. Vanilla essence and high-strength extracts can sometimes be found at bakery or cake decorating supply stores and through some professional mail-order sources.

Imitation or artificial vanilla extract contains no real vanilla at all. It is made from 100 percent artificial ingredients, mostly by-products of the pulp and paper industry, that have been treated with chemicals and supplemented with feeble flavourings. Artificial vanilla has a harsh, one-dimensional flavour that can come across as medicinal, cloying and even almost bitter in some cases. At best, it is rough and dull and absolutely incomparable to any other form of real vanilla. Avoid it at all costs, as it will do neither you nor your precious baking any good! If you have only ever used the artificial stuff, the difference pure vanilla will make to your favourite recipes is worth the price of this book, not to mention the vanilla itself.

Vanilla powder is made by pulverizing the whole dried beans to a fine powder. Read the list of ingredients to make sure it is pure, as sweeteners and fillers are sometimes added. Vanilla in this state is well suited to incorporation into liquid-sensitive mixtures, such as some icings and melted chocolate, where even a small amount of liquid could create a problem; and into uncooked mixtures in which vanilla seeds would not have a chance to impart their flavour evenly and thoroughly. In addition, the flavour of vanilla powder is more intense than that of most extracts and does not dissipate even with prolonged cooking. For these reasons, it can be used to an advantage in many cooked custards, sauces and baked goods. Vanilla powder will keep indefinitely, stored in an opaque, airtight container in a cool, dry place.

Vanilla sugar is a lovely, fragrant product, easily made by burying one bean in two cups of granulated or superfine sugar for at least two weeks. I like to store my scraped out vanilla bean hulls in a canister of sugar, replenishing the sugar as I deplete it and adding new hulls when I have them left over. Vanilla sugar is a luxurious sweetener for coffee or hot chocolate and a great addition to all sorts of baked goods and desserts. I love using it as a garnishing sugar, sprinkling it on cookies, cakes, pie and tart crusts, as well as confections. For a simple, easy and divinely flavoured summer dessert, toss fresh berries or peaches in a little vanilla-scented sugar and serve with a little vanilla sugar-sweetened whipped cream. Divine! Vanilla sugar will keep indefinitely, stored in an airtight container.

Excerpted from In the Sweet Kitchen copyright 2001 by Regan Daley. Reprinted with the permission of Workman Publishing Co., Inc. All Rights Reserved.

In the Sweet Kitchen
The Definitive Baker's Companion
by Regan Daley
Artisan, 2001
$35 (U.S.) hardcover
ISBN: 1579652085

 

Buy the Book!

 

In the Sweet Kitchen

    Recipes
 

Kate's Global Kitchen for May 2002:
05/03/02     Do Mom a Favor: Don't Take Her Out
05/10/02     Painting a Vanilla Sky: In the Sweet Kitchen
05/17/02     Leaping Lettuces: Off with Their Heads!
05/24/02     Cheeseburgers in Paradise
05/31/02     Haute Hounds & Hot Dogs

 

Copyright © 2002, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.

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