Vanilla: Not Just the Opposite of Chocolate
When Pierre and I were about to work on Desserts by Pierre Herme, we talked about the ingredients that I’d need to test the recipes in my American kitchen. As we looked at the recipes, it all seemed pretty straightforward — of course I’d use American flour and sugar and butter and work the French recipes so they’d conform to our larder — until we got to chocolate and vanilla. All the recipes had been created in Paris with Valrhona Chocolate and I was to use the same chocolate in the States, not a hardship, since I adore Valrhona’s chocolates. And all the recipes were made not with vanilla extract, but with beans (like the bean in the picture, which is perched on top of Pierre’s Infiniment Vanille buche de Noel, which we had this past Christmas). Also not a problem, since fine vanilla beans are available here. But I’d need so many that I couldn’t imagine buying them one or two at a time and, since I wasn’t a business, I couldn’t really buy them any other way. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” said Pierre, “I can give you some beans to get you started.” And with that he handed me a plastic bag holding 30 Tahitian vanilla beans. If someone had given me a sack of gold doubloons, I don’t think I’d have considered it a greater treasure.
Vanilla beans were expensive then and they’re even more expensive now, so when you’ve got one you want to make sure to take good care of it and to use every little bit of it. The beans need to be packed airtight and kept in a cool, dry place. That said, when I had the 30 beans, I did what you’re not supposed to do: I bundled them up in several layers of plastic wrap and kept them in the refrigerator, where they remained in impeccable condition for over a year. (I think that was because there were so many of them that they created their own micro-climate.) They might have stayed longer, but they were gone too soon to know. If you’ve got just a bean or two, I wouldn’t recommend the fridge for storage because they might might dry out. But any way you store them, you shouldn’t be concerned if your beans develop tiny frosty white crystals — it’s actually a sign of a good quality bean and the “snowflakes” are perfectly edible.
To get the inner seeds or pulp out of the bean, lay the bean flat on a cutting board and, using a small, sharp paring knife, cut the bean in half from blossom to stem. Once split, use the point of your knife to scrape out the soft, fragrant seeds.
If you’re using the bean to flavor a cake, you use just the pulp and the best way to get the most from the pulp is to mix it into the sugar and then to use your fingertips to rub the sugar and seeds together. Do this and the sugar will get all the flavor and all the fragrance, too. (In addition, you’ll get a little aromatherapy.)
If you’re using the bean to infuse a liquid, as you would for ice cream, pastry cream, sauces or syrups, drop both the pulp and the pod into the liqud and heat the liquid. Cover the pot and allow the liquid to steep, then strain out the pod before completing the recipe.
But don’t toss out the pod! Rinse the pod and either dry it on a rack at room temperature or put it in a slow oven to dry. Dried pods can be buried in sugar to make vanilla sugar or, for even more flavor, pulverized with sugar in a food processor.
Because the beans are so expensive and not so readily available, my go-to vanilla flavoring is pure — always pure, don’t even think about imitation — vanilla extract. I keep my pantry stocked with Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanilla Extract and Sonoma Syrup Co’s Vanilla Bean Extract Crush, which has vanilla seeds in it. (I love the “Crush” and can often find it at TJMaxx, and when I do, I buy a couple of bottles.)
But if I’m making a very, very special dessert or dish, I often splurge on vanilla beans. The vanilla beans at the top of this post became part of this luxurious dish, lobster braised in vanilla-infused clarified butter. I don’t really have a recipe to give you for this, but what I did was steam the lobsters just enough so that I could remove the meat from the tail and claws. Then I clarified the butter and infused it using both the pods and pulp from a couple of vanilla beans. Finally, I cooked the lobster for a few minutes in the flavored butter — keeping the pods in the butter — and served it over steamed spinach. It was an incredibly rich dish, but it was meant it to be, and the vanilla butter, in addition to being lovely, made dabbing up the last drops of it a must.
I know this seems slightly ridiculous when talking about a dish like this, but I almost felt thrifty at the end of it because I had all the lobster shells leftover to make soup and, best of all, I strained the remaining butter (and most of it remained) and froze it. Now I can dip into to it whenever I want to give both a vanilla and lobster flavor to other foods “for free”. It’s great for sauteeing shrimp or flounder and it’s so good over mashed potatoes.