I recently became aware that most people do not have a clue what to do with vanilla beans. This moment of recognition came after I had invited some friends to visit my newly-opened Italian bistro. The couple was celebrating their third anniversary and as a present I prepared them a meal. After they finished I offered them a latte macchiato and some freshly baked biscotti. Both were taken aback by the taste and insisted I tell them what the secret ingredient was. They were shocked to learn it was the extract of vanilla beans.
After this encounter it occurred to me that most kitchens have probably never seen vanilla beans or a pod. When baking, your average cook reaches for the vanilla essence (no!) that they probably purchased 18 months ago whilst grocery shopping. For me vanilla beans and their derivatives have become essential, not just at the restaurant, but also in my own kitchen at home. Here then are four quick and easy suggestions to make the most out of vanilla beans.
1. Use the Extract of Vanilla Beans When Baking
Others may disagree but for me the best use of vanilla beans comes when you indulge in a little baking. Pastries, cakes and cookies are all enriched by the addition of authentic vanilla extract. I say Ďauthenticí because itís all too easy to pick-up a jar of synthetic flavoring rather than use proper extract. Personally I prefer Bourbon Madagascar Vanilla Beans as they are richer in taste and aroma.
I enjoy making my own vanilla extract but it is easier to buy a jar of extract, something those on a tight schedule are sure to prefer. The extract can be added at a number of places during cooking. For cookies and cakes I tend to add vanilla extract to the batter or mixture, whilst seeds or whole vanilla beans can be added to the contents of your pie. To finish your dish off try an icing or frosting made with vanilla paste or custard and cream infused with vanilla.
2. Make Ice Cream or Gelato Using Vanilla Beans
Sadly, many children have grown-up believing vanilla ice cream to be dull and unexciting. I can assure you, it is not. Even at my restaurant vanilla ice cream is a popular dish, something I believe is a result of me using real vanilla beans. Whilst many other eateries buy-in generic, inexpensive ice cream, I prefer to make my own. I make sure several vanilla beans are included in each new ice cream batch as well as mixing in the seeds for a little extra oomph.
The Italians, well known for their ice cream, also use vanilla beans when making gelato and sorbet. It may seem like a giant task but making your own ice cream is straightforward and something you can easily do in your own kitchen.
3. Enjoy Your Morning Coffee with a Dash of Vanilla Powder
Vanilla powder, which is created by grinding vanilla beans, is an ideal accompaniment to your morning coffee. Whether making your own powder, or buying it specifically, powder can merely be added to your coffee beans before percolating or after youíve poured a cup.
Alternatively, leave some of your vanilla powder in with sugar over a three week period and youíll have your own vanilla sugar. Add that to your coffee and youíll soon forget about visiting your local coffee shop.
4. Secretly add Vanilla Beans to Your Savory Sauces
Many people find this final tip to be a little strange, but trust me, itís not. When preparing a savory sauce Iíve been known to add a little extract of vanilla beans. Weíve seen above that it adds an enhanced flavor to sweet dishes, but it can also do the same to the likes of a Bolognese sauce.
With savory dishes the vanilla tends to be a more reserved flavor, and in these instances Iím not surprised people do not pick its taste out. However, it certainly adds depth to the dish, allowing chefs like myself, not to mention kitchen cooks like you, the opportunity to try something a little different. For me, vanilla beans are a luxurious yet guaranteed way of being inventive with my cooking.