Given that it’s deliciously perfumed, exotic, the fruit of a tropical orchid, and one of the world’s costliest flavorings, you’d think vanilla would be regarded as a pretty sexy item. Yet what do we mean when we say “plain vanilla” if not boresome and bland, distinguished solely by the absence of distinction?
It’s a mystery to me, but then I’m a major vanilla fan. I like vanilla sugar cookies, pound cake heavily vanilla perfumed, and milkshakes made with vanilla ice cream (America’s favorite flavor, by the way). By me, the best chocolates are the ones balanced with vanilla, and I also like a spot of vanilla with summer squash, cauliflower, and lima beans. I braise rabbit in vanilla sauce and sometimes add a vanilla accent when cooking shellfish, especially sea scallops.
These last few uses may strike an odd chord at first. Vanilla is one of the great undiscovered flavors as far as the main course is concerned. Like the ho-hum problem, this may be because vanilla is too subtle for its own good. That warm, complex flavor is unmistakable but easily overwhelmed, and the gentleness that makes it so universally likable may be lost on palates accustomed to hot peppers, garlic, and chocolate palates routinely assaulted by chemical taste boosters and barely sublethal doses of salt.
Vanilla is yet one more of the many New World foods that were thought by their European adopters to have aphrodisiacal properties and in vanilla’s case the reputation stuck for a long time. The word itself comes, by way of the Spanish vaina, a sheath or pod, from the Latin vagina; and according to Waverly Root’s Food, the resemblance of the vanilla bean to it’s namesake organ was the source of its racy reputation. This is supposedly in accordance with the medieval Doctrine of Signatures, whereby human likenesses in natural products have power over the things they resemble, but even the fattest vanilla bean is comparatively long and skinny, without much in the way of folds, recesses, or other suggestive female properties. Being a dried fruit, it’s moist inside, but that’s about it for correspondence.
The vanilla bean’s looks are vaguely phallic, on the other hand, a more fitting resemblance in that the word “orchid” comes from the Greek orchis, which means testicle. But although vanilla was listed in the U.S. Pharmacopoeia (as a tonic) from 1860 to 1910, and although workers on vanilla plantations sometimes develop an irritating (stimulating?) rash from the sap, vanilla’s powers probably derived from the fact that it was foreign, expensive, and detectable enough so the seducee knew something was up.
Whether they’re after spiciness or sex, modern consumers who buy vanilla beans will be in the minority. Although the United Stated imports more of the fragrant pods than any other country in the world, very few of them are retailed. Most cooks prefer to use vanilla extract, a preference for convenience already remarked upon in Cassell’s 1925 Dictionary of Cookery and more widespread than ever today. The extract is convenient, but that’s about all that can be said for it, since it is also sweet, alcoholic (hence quite volatile), only partly vanilla, and, alas, easily adulterated.
Commercial vanilla extract has been around since at least the mid-nineteenth century. It’s made much the same way coffee is percolated, by continually recirculating a tepid or cold alcohol-and-water mix called a menstruum through finely chopped beans.
Sweetener, though not essential, is so universally used it’s part of the U.S. Standard of Identity by which vanilla extract is legally defined. Though some makers overdo it there are vanilla extracts that contain as much as 40 percent sugar in small amounts sweetness helps round the flavor, soften the alcohol, and hasten the aging process.
Like wine, vanilla extract develops nuances of flavor as it ages. A McCormick & Company advertising pamphlet from 1915 boasts: “We age our Bee Brand extracts for two years in white oak casks before placing them on the market. Thus they become mellow and have a rich, dainty bouquet, which cannot be obtained by any other process.” The pamphlet then goes on to explain how very expensive this is for the company, which explains to us why these days the aging period is usually closer to two months than two years. Like coffee and cocoa beans, vanilla beans must undergo a lengthy curing process before they develop their characteristic flavor. After picking, they spend about two weeks being alternately laid out on tables in the sun in the morning, then wrapped in blankets, boxed, and “sweated” overnight. This process is repeated until drying and fermentation have brought out the familiar, flowerlike aroma. Then the beans are further dried in open sheds until they’ve lost all but about 30 percent of their moisture.
Some version or other of this technique has been used for about a thousand years ever since the Central American Totonacs, vanilla’s probable discoverers, figured it out in the first place. To speed the process and avoid the vagaries of weather, more and more modern curers are skipping the sun-and-sweat routine, employing ovens and wind tunnels. Unfortunately, these shortcuts have an adverse effect on quality, so the majority of vanilla beans are still cured the old-fashioned way.
Almost all vanilla sold is from the Vanilla planifolia species (formerly known as V. fragrans), which will grow well almost anywhere properly tropical. Though soils and climates of growing areas play a part in the final flavor, they are far less crucial than in the case of wine. Indonesian vanilla does often have an unpleasantly smoky taste, but that’s the result of quick drying over wood fires. And Tahitian vanilla tastes different because it’s a different plant, V. tahitensis, the beans of which are shorter, wider, and thicker-skinned, with fewer seeds.
Tahitian vanilla beans contain less vanillin, the dominant flavor maker, but boast a number of other components, including heliotropine and anisyl alcohol, which are absent from the more common kind. How you feel about this depends on your point of view. Many chefs treasure the Tahitian for its intense perfume, but my 1923 edition of Artemus Ward’s Encyclopedia of Food is of the opinion that ”The Tahiti hardly deserves the name, for its flavor resembles prune juice rather than vanilla, and its fragrance, while unmistakable, is rather that of heliotrope.”
This brings us to the interesting question of “the best vanilla,” answered differently by extract manufacturers, who buy almost all of the vanilla grown, and home cooks. The former want uniform, dry (why pay for water?) beans, with the highest possible vanillin content. Vanillin, pronounced vanillin in the trade, is not only crucial to extract strength, it’s also a general indicator of quality it won’t develop fully in immature or ill-cured beans.
Cooks, on the other hand, want beans moist enough to handle easily and infuse readily, beans that present the richest possible mixture of vanilla and the approximately 140 other esters, resins, and other components, some of them not yet identified, that form the complex flavor of true vanilla and distinguish it from the harsh and monochromatic taste of artificial flavoring.
Antique and modern sources are united in citing Mexican vanilla as the ne plus ultra of vanilladom, possessing the fullest, roundest, most exquisite flavor. But can you get any? You cannot. (Don’t be fooled by the widely available cheap Mexican “vanilla” that is actually made from tonka beans. It contains coumarin, a serious toxin, and importing it into the United States is not allowed.) Mexico was once a major vanilla producer, but the size of the crop has been shrinking ever since the end of World War II. Vanilla plantations have been replaced by more lucrative operations such as citrus growing and cattle raising or displaced by oil drilling, and there is a labor shortage; vanilla cultivation is too demanding to attract workers who have other options.
Persistent and widespread rumor has long had it that all the available Mexican vanilla is snaffled up by the Coca-Cola Company. Though comforting as conspiracy theories go, this one was probably disproved by a reporter named Steve Mufson, who pointed out in The Wall Street Journal ( July 17, 1985) that Madagascar's vanilla exports took a noticeable dive when the company first switched to New Coke. On the other hand, the company, as usual when it comes to the Formula, was unwilling to either confirm or deny, so we might as well go on blaming them poor old oil industry can't be responsible for everything.
Absent the Mexican, getting the best vanilla is pretty much a matter of finding fresh beans: from Tahiti for use in savory dishes where its low vanillan count and pruny quality are advantages, from the Univanille group Madagascar, the Comoro Islands, and Réunion when a sweeter flavor is desired.
The once-common advice to look for givre, or frost, formed by vanilla crystals on the outside of the beans, is of little use to retail buyers. Givre is an indicator of quality, all right, but it's highly volatile and disperses rapidly as soon as the shipping bundles of seventy or eighty beans are broken up. Still, a further development of vanillan may be possible if the beans are properly fresh, dry but not too dry, supple, oily-looking, and fragrant when you buy them.
According to vanilla enthusiast Benjamin H. Kaestner, of McCormick, those primo beans should be stored in a warm room, in an almost-but-not-quite-airtight container such as an old-fashioned dark glass canning jar without the rubber ring. With any luck they will continue to improve, possibly for as long as two or three years, providing a vanilla more fully developed than anything available commercially.
Whether three years old or right off the shelf, all vanilla beans yield the best flavor if given a chance to steep for a while, either in the liquid, such as milk for custard, that will be used for the recipe; in fat, such as flavored butter for baking or sautéing; in sugar; or in alcohol. Flavor is in both seeds and pod and is not usually exhausted by a single use. Frugal cooks take advantage of this by burying rinsed, used vanilla beans in sugar and by soaking them in rum. Vanilla sugars are great for both baking and sprinkling; and the flavored rum is not only an excellent substitute for vanilla extract; it makes truly noteworthy tropical drinks and the world's best hot milk punch.
Vanilla and chocolate go together long before the dessert arrives; in small amounts these flavors make welcome accent in main dishes. Chocolate has long been used as both flavoring and thickener, not only in the rich chili-based mole sauces of Mexico but also in red wine-based stews from the South of France, where chocolate makers fled when expelled from Spain by the inquisition. The use of vanilla in savory dishes is, as far as I can tell, a recent development, but it is one that shows great promise. This menu is a rich one, best suited to autumn but also splendid in early spring, assuming your provisioning included freezing some cranberries.
• Scallops Julius (page 225) with
• Crisp Corn Puff Shells (page 278)
• Pot-Roasted Pork with Cranberries and Red Wine (and chocolate) (page 270)
• Vanilla noodles. Use regular egg noodles and put a split vanilla bean in the cooking water.
• Green salad
• Seasonal fruit
• Singapore Slices (page 330)
• Aprichocolates (page 331)