Some folks use the term “vanilla” when describing something that is boring, plain or uninteresting. In actuality, nothing could be farther from the truth. For starters, of the 15 most popular ice cream flavors listed on MakeIceCream.com, vanilla is top dog, garnering 29 percent of the vote. Runner-up is chocolate, at a mere 8.9 percent.
Vanilla has a rather auspicious legacy. It comes from the only fruit-bearing and edible orchid of the hundreds of orchid species. History puts this flowering vine in the 15th century, in what is today Veracruz, Mexico. The Aztecs were the first to cultivate the prized vanilla plant, which was even used as currency. But they also discovered that, taste-wise, it enhances the flavor of chocolate, their other premium product.
Kevin Gentile, owner and executive chef of Gentile’s Restaurant, 305 Burnet Ave., knows how to employ the magic of vanilla. The chef who is known for his innovative dishes especially enjoys the challenge of creating an entree with a concoction of ingredients presented to him by eager customers during Wednesday’s “Kwiz Kevin” event, a sort of stump-the-chef culinary game. But an entrée that is always on the menu is his poached lobster laced with a sauce of butter, white wine, cognac, shallots, heavy cream and Thai siracha hot sauce, all coming together with a bit of vanilla bean scraped from the pod.
“I also use vanilla in a salad vinaigrette and make a mean barbecue sauce, too,” adds Gentile. Incidentally, Gentile gets his vanilla bean from Samir’s Imported Foods, 811 E. Genesee St. It is a real find at $1.95 per pod.
Spanish explorers latched on to vanilla as a valuable commodity and brought it back to Europe in the 16th century. Because the orchid fruit was very finicky, and consequently expensive to produce, only the wealthy could enjoy this exotic new spice. The French tried to mass-produce vanilla as a cost-cutting measure, but soon discovered that the Mexican Melipona bee was crucial to the blooming of the vanilla orchid. Not until the 19th century did a cross-pollination process become successful outside of Mexico.
Mexico is still the only country where natural pollination occurs, an exhaustive process of farmers pollinating by hand. Likewise, processing the vanilla bean is an intricate and painstaking affair. When harvested, the pod is tasteless, but comes into its own when soaked in hot water, dried in the sun and allowed to cure for two to six months, which causes the enzymes to stabilize and create the vanilla taste, although some producers continue the process for up to two years to bring out the pod’s full flavor.
While all of the vanilla grown today comes from the same species of orchid as the one discovered in the 1400s, all vanilla flavors are not the same. Where the pods are cultivated produces subtle taste changes, somewhat akin to the production of grape varieties in wine. Other factors affecting taste are the maturity of beans when picked, plus the method used to produce extract. When put together, as many as 250 components contribute to the flavor profile of vanilla.
The most familiar vanilla product is the extract, used abundantly in flavoring baked goods of every kind. Not only does the liquid add flavor of its own, but it punches up the taste of sugar, mellows out the bitterness of dark chocolate and cuts acidity in savory recipes.
The Food and Drug Administration has determined that in order to be called “vanilla” there must be a balance of vanilla bean extractions, water and sugar, along with 35 percent alcohol. Anything less must be called “vanilla flavor” or “artificial vanilla.”
Wendy Arledge, who oversees the bakery at the Pascale Bakehouse Café, now firmly ensconced in its new location at 210 Brooklea Drive, Fayetteville, says pure vanilla extract is used exclusively in all its baked goods and frostings. For custards, crème anglais and pastry crèmes, she uses vanilla beans. “The flecks of bean make them look really good,” she points out.
Sure, vanilla extract is necessary to create tasty pastries, desserts and other sweets. But pure vanilla can also round out a mélange of ingredients in a savory dish. Remember that, just as the Aztecs realized that vanilla enriched their prized chocolate, vanilla intensifies the taste of other ingredients as well, but it acts in secret. The diner knows there is something unusual on the palate, but, like a chameleon, it can’t be pinned down.
Check out Wegmans supermarkets’ spice area to find a bounty of vanilla extract choices from several spice companies. The beans are more difficult to find. That’s no surprise, because of the exhaustive process of producing the final product that vanilla is among the priciest of spices. Expect to pay about $7 for a four-ounce bottle of extract, and even more for one vanilla pod (up to $11). Williams- Sonoma carries both carries vanilla powder and vanilla paste among its full range of Nielson-Massey vanilla varieties.
In the 2008 cookbook A Century of Flavor: Nielsen-Massey Vanillas (Favorite Recipes Press), an explanation of vanilla powder is given as being for use in liquid or colorsensitive recipes like icings or as a flavoring for beverages, including coffee and tea. It is alcohol-free and dissolves instantly. The book further explains, “Vanilla bean paste, with real vanilla seeds, is a secret way to be able to add more delicious vanilla flavor without thinning out your batters or sauces.”
And what about artificial vanilla? One thought about the notion that vanilla equals boring is because the fake stuff is so easy to make, and much cheaper than the real thing. Artificial vanilla extract costs less than $3 for a four-ounce bottle, compared to $7 for the same amount of the real thing. The vanilla bean is even pricier.
But the real downside of artificial vanilla is that it is derived from vanillin, made from lignin, a constituent of wood, which is a byproduct of the pulp industry. In other words, it would be like ingesting liquid wood or coal. Further, the aroma is decidedly unpleasant, unsuccessfully masked by the inclusion of caramel coloring. Artificial vanilla also has a bitter aftertaste. Like using artificial sweetener, fake vanilla will affect the taste of your baked goods, and not for the better.
Perfumers have latched onto the heady aroma of the vanilla bean. Cleopatra knew of the vanilla essential oil, and presumably used it to lure lovers into her lair. The fragrance of vanilla is also connected with warmth, softness and purity, and may reduce stress and anxiety.
Shalimar, by Jacques Guerlain, is a perfume that has been produced since 1925.
Vanilla Lace by Victoria’s Secret is a sensual mix of vanilla, lemon and florals. Vanilla Musk by Coty employs the scent of vanilla, front and center, adding sandalwood, musk and cedar for an intoxicating mix.
The health benefits of vanilla are endless.
The essential oil is considered an antioxidant. Further, the essential oil has been employed as an anti-carcinogenic, an anti-depressant, a sedative, and a fever and infection reducer.
Most intriguing is the use of vanilla essential oil as an aphrodisiac. It has reportedly been effectively administered to those with impotency, erectile dysfunction or frigidity. The oil is said to stimulate secretion of certain hormones like testosterone and estrogen, which help to bring about normal sexual behavior and promote arousal. So forget Viagra. Have a cookie instead.
This is a simple and versatile use of vanilla beans, used as an alternative to regular granulated sugar in drinks and desserts.
In a jar with a lid, buy a vanilla bean, split lengthwise, in 2 cups granulated sugar. Seal tightly and let mixture sit for at least 1 week. The bean may be used indefinitely to flavor sugar that is added when needed.
Savory Pork Tenderloin
This recipe is from A Century of Flavors: Nielsen-Massey Vanillas.
½ 3 cup soy sauce ¼ cup natural rice vinegar 2 teaspoons Nielson-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract 2 garlic cloves, minced 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper 2 teaspoons dark brown sugar 1 (3-to-4-pound) pork tenderloin, trimmed
Combine the soy sauce, vinegar, vanilla extract, garlic, pepper and brown sugar in a sealable plastic bag and mix well. Add the tenderloin and seal. Marinate in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 hours or overnight, turning the bag occasionally. Drain, discarding the marinade.
Grill the tenderloin over direct heat for 3 to 4 minutes on each side or until nicely seared. Grill over indirect medium heat to 35 to 45 minutes or to 145 degrees on a meat thermometer. For an accurate temperature, place the thermometer in the thickest part of the tenderloin. Place the pork on a plate and let stand; it will continue to cook as it stands. Pork should reach an internal temperature of 150 degrees. Makes 4 servings.
Pod people: Vanilla starts out as a bean and ends up as an extract (facing page).