Vanilla holds a place of honor in our house. Fine extract is coveted, and beans are leached of every last bit of flavor. Its use is not limited to baking, although it is perhaps most appreciated there.
Vanilla comes from a South American perennial climbing orchid (vanilla planifolia). Treasured for centuries, vanilla was used by the Aztecs to flavor their xocolatl (bitter water). When the Spanish brought the beans back to Europe, it became all the rage.
The French tried unsuccessfully to propagate vanilla on the Islands of Bourbon (now Reunion) and Madagascar in the Indian Ocean. As it turns out, the orchid had been naturally pollinated by bees and hummingbirds only found in Mexico. To make matters more difficult, the orchids themselves open for only a short time. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. Vanilla orchids grown outside of Mexico are now hand-pollinated, which, combined with their complicated processing procedure, guarantees their high price.
Its white flowers are followed by long, green pods which are picked before they ripen. They have little flavor or aroma until they are cured and fermented. Vanillin is the flavor compound that we love, and on fine beans it can be seen on the surface as white dust.
You can find three vanilla beans on the market. Madagascar beans are used mainly for extract production. Tahitian beans have a nice aroma but less flavor and are used mainly for perfumes. Mexican beans are fat and fragrant. The extract from Mexico may sometimes contain coumarin, a substance from the tonka bean that is banned in the United States.
Look for beans that are thick and tough, but pliable. To use vanilla beans, pound them gently before splitting them lengthwise to crush the millions of inner mini-seeds and activate as much oil as possible. Once scraped, spent pods can be stored in sugar or steeped in rum to harness as much of the oil as possible.
Most people use vanilla in its extract form. It’s made by macerating the vanilla beans in alcohol. Beware of Mexican vanilla extract, as it is often made with banned tonka beans.
Vanilla paste, which is concentrated extract with added seeds, has become popular in recent years. There’s also vanilla powder, which is dried, ground pods. Imitation vanilla is much weaker than the real thing. You can make vanilla extract at home by storing beans and spent pods in rum. Or store them in granulated sugar to absorb every bit of oil and then use the sugar in recipes for a vanilla essence.
This traditional recipe is usually served hot, but I love it in the summer cooled and poured over ice.
Aztec Iced Chocolate
6 dried pasilla chile pods
4 cups boiling water
1 qt. half-and-half
2 cinnamon sticks, crushed
1 lb. bittersweet chocolate, chopped fine
3 vanilla beans, split and scraped
- Preheat the oven to 400˚F.
- Spread chile pods on a baking sheet and toast for 5 minutes or until soft. Cool, remove stems, and seeds (be careful of the capsicum). Cover chile pods with boiling water and steep for 30 minutes.
- In a large saucepan combine half-and-half and cinnamon sticks. Simmer over medium heat for 5 minutes and remove from heat. Add chocolate and vanilla beans, and stir to melt.
- Transfer soaked chiles to a blender. Blend until smooth, adding a small amount of chocolate mixture slowly as needed. Combine chile paste with remaining chocolate mixture, stir, and strain. Cool to room temperature, then pour over ice to serve.