It's hard to imagine a kitchen void of vanilla. Its full, rich, universally popular taste and enticing aroma is irreplaceable in cookies, cakes, custards, ice creams-- almost every conceivable sweet-- and a few savory dishes, too. (See also Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Flavor.)
Botanical name: Vanilla planifolia Andr. , Vanilla planifolia
A tropical orchid with edible fruit, the vanilla plant climbs to a height of 80 feet. It has yellow or orange flowers that bloom one per day and eight-inch pods that look much like long, slender green beans. These pods contain the flavor we know as vanilla. The name comes from the Latin description of the pod as vagina, or "sheath," which the Spanish shortened to vaina, or "little sheath."
Vanilla beans are an expensive spice, in part because of their labor-intensive cultivation and curing. Only Mexican bees and hummingbirds can pollinate the plants naturally, so it's done by hand, using a bamboo splinter. Once harvested, the golden-green beans are sun dried for about ten days (alternating between days in the sun and cooling "sweats" at night), during which the pods turn dark brown. Then they're slowly dried in the shade for up to two months. Sorted and graded, they're then conditioned another couple of months-- when all is said and done, it can take six months or more to get a vanilla bean ready for your kitchen!
Bourbon vanilla beans, which are grown in Madagascar are very aromatic with a full, rich taste, they have thick skins and many seeds. Mexican beans are similar to Bourbon but a bit spicier, with a woodier fragrance. Tahitian beans are shorter, plumper, and moister than Bourbon beans. Their flavor is fruity and floral, a little wine-like. Although Madagascar beans have the characteristic dark, mellow sweetness that most people recognize as vanilla, the Tahitian beans are slightly sweeter and more flowery tasting. They are popular with fine pastry chefs and vanilla connoiseurs.
Those small, raised bumps on some vanilla beans are pinpricks made in a pattern by growers in order to deter theft (a practice similar to branding livestock). It seems that vanilla was first enjoyed as a beverage flavoring. The Aztecs, who considered vanilla an aphrodisiac, enjoyed xocolati, a cocoa drink flavored with vanilla and honey. A vanilla-flavored cocoa drink was also shared between the Mexican Emperor Montezuma and Cortez, and both cocoa and vanilla immediately found their way to Spain, where they became very popular. Later, when the spice had made its way to England, Queen Elizabeth the I's chemist suggested using vanilla on its own to flavor foods.
To use the bean, slice it lengthwise to expose the seeds (which contain most of the fragrance and flavor). Some recipes suggest scraping out the seeds, others direct you to use the whole slit pod. You can also grind the seed for use. To substitute whole beans for vanilla extract, use about one inch of the bean for each teaspoon of the extract.
Universally popular in desserts-- cakes, cookies, puddings, candy, ice cream-- vanilla also adds rich flavor and aroma to many beverages (mulled cider, coffee, tea, lemonade, hot chocolate, warm milk). Try it in sauces, soufflés, and in shellfish, chicken, veal and dairy dishes.
By the way... You can use a vanilla bean more than once. Simply rinse and dry it between uses. But don't store your vanilla beans in the refrigerator, because they may mold there; place it in a dry spot. A tasty option is to place your vanilla bean in a small container of sugar. The vanilla bean will lend its flavor and aroma to the sugar.
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