Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Bittman's Pantry-atitis #5

As you might have noticed from my four earlier posts (lemons & limes, bread crumbs, parsley & basil, and beans), I've become a bit obsessed with Mark Bittman's article, "Fresh Start for a New Year? Let’s Begin in the Kitchen," from Tuesday, January 6th's New York Times. And what is #9 on his list?

OUT Imitation vanilla.

IN Vanilla beans. They’re expensive, but they keep. (If you look online you can find bargains in bulk, which is why I have 25 in my refrigerator.) If you slice a pod in half and simmer it with some leftover rice and any kind of milk (dairy, coconut, almond...), you’ll never go back to extract.
This seems to be a foodie must.

In the last few months, the blogosphere has been buzzing about homemade vanilla extract (which reminds me of a very special episode of Family Ties where an alcoholic cousin played by some famous actor visits the Keatons and drinks all of their vanilla extract, but I digress). Not Martha shared Chocolate & Zucchini's vanilla extract recipe which includes some excellent suggestions for the use of de-seeded vanilla bean pods as well as the first clear answer to the question: if I have fresh vanilla beans, why use extract at all. Bethany Actually posted beautifully photographed instructions for DIY vanilla extract which I discovered via Whip Up. Angry Chicken recommended Vanilla Review's more technical, less pretty vanilla extract tutorial.

Hunting the Elusive Bean

Sourcing vanilla beans has been the biggest challenge of all the Bittman Pantry Makeovers I have taken on. Re-Nest has an interesting post about fair trade vanilla. Long story short:
Currently, there is only one consumer-level supplier of Fair Trade Certified vanilla beans and extract in the United States, Frontier Natural Products Co-op.
A one pound bag of organic, fair trade vanilla beans will run you between $145.00 and $161.00.

The Henry's in Yorba Linda sells a 2 ounce bottle of Simply Organic vanilla extract for $4.99. Despite their wide array of bulk spices for sale, Henry's doesn't sell vanilla beans. Less surprisingly, Trader Joe's and Stater Brothers also don't stock vanilla beans.

The nearest local source I can find is the Whole Foods in Tustin, which is not very near. You have two vanilla bean options there: Whole Pantry (Whole Foods' brand) organic vanilla bean, one bean in their standard sized spice bottle or Spicely Organic's organic vanilla bean, in a cute little box. One of these costs $5.39 and the other costs $5.99. The receipt wasn't specific enough to determine which was which.

Here's some interesting information from the vanilla bean containers. From the Spicely Organic box:
Vanilla is used principally for ice cream, soft drinks, eggnogs, chocolate confectionery, candy, tobacco, baked goods, puddings, cakes, cookies, liqueurs, and as a fragrant ingredient in perfumery.
Who knew cakes and cookies aren't baked goods? Who knew chocolate confectionery isn't candy? And how much do I love that tobacco is on this list?

From the Whole Pantry bottle:
Whole vanilla beans have an intensely pure flavor. To substitute them for vanilla extract, simply slit the bean lengthwise, scrape out the seeds, and whisk them into batters or custards. (One vanilla bean equals about 1 Tbsp of vanilla extract.)
That parenthetical is in super small font, probably so people don't look at this sad lonely bean in a bottle for over $5.00 and do the math to determine that it is the equivalent of 0.5 fluid ounces. Simply Organic vanilla extract: $2.50/fl. oz. Cheapest vanilla bean at Whole Foods: $10.78/fl. oz.

Via Amazon you can buy 16 Premium Bourbon-Madagascar Vanilla Beans for $14.95 from JR Mushrooms & Specialties and they appear to have a free shipping deal presently. That works out to $1.87/fl. oz. without the shipping - which makes it even better than vanilla extract, if you're not hung up on fair trade-ness or organic-ness.

Vanilla Beans in Action

I substituted the seeds of one vanilla bean for the two teaspoons of vanilla extract required by the New York Times Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. This directly countermanded (I'm totally not using that word correctly - any suggestions?) the explanation offered by Chocolate & Zucchini for why one should bother with extract when you've got the bean:
Fresh beans need to be steeped in a liquid ingredient (milk, cream, syrup...) to release their flavor, so they can only be used in recipes that call for such an ingredient, like sauces, ice creams, or custards.
But here's the reasoning behind my transgression: this cookie dough DOES steep. It sits in the refrigerator for at least 48 hours.

For a slightly more appropriate test drive I made cupcakes not from a box. I used vanilla bean as Bake and Shake instructed in the cake recipe. Instead of using vanilla extract as called for in the frosting recipe I steeped the vanilla bean in the cream. To be more precise . . .

Quick Butter Frosting adapted from The New York Times Cookbook by Craig Claiborne (1961)
Yield: Frosts tops and sides of 2 9-inch or 3 8-inch layers - or about two dozen cupcakes.
1/4 cup butter, at room temperature
1 pound (3 1/2 cups) sifted confectioners' sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 to 5 tablespoons heavy cream
1/2 vanilla bean
A day or so in advance, slice the vanilla bean in half lengthwise. In a small container (I used one of the ramekins that comes in the chocolate souffles at Trader Joe's - it even has an airtight plastic lid!) submerge the vanilla bean in the cream. Cover and leave in the refrigerator until you're ready to make the frosting.
When you're spiritually and mentally prepared to make frosting, cream the butter. Take the vanilla bean out of the cream and scrape the seeds into the mixing bowl. Add about one cup of the sugar and the salt and cream well. Add the remaining sugar alternately with the cream, using enough cream to give a slight gloss and a good spreading consistency.

If you want to try a recipe that uses whole chopped vanilla beans check out Serious Eats' adaptation of Golden Vanilla Bean Caramels from Pure Dessert by Alice Medrich. The recipe also calls for golden syrup which we discussed in the comments to my very first post about making your own vanilla extract. Spooky, huh?

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Terri said...

Ah yes, the vanilla bean! There's a good Good Eats on the subject. You should watch it. I think you can find them on youtube. I'm a HUGE fan of the original vanilla bean. Donald uses them to make homemade vanilla bean ice cream in the summer. And once you've taken out the bean paste, you can put the shell in your sugar and get yummy mild vanilla flavored sugar.

Donald also found a pretty good vanilla bean paste. Handy stuff.

Now I'm hungry.

Rebecca said...

I'm surprised you didn't find vanilla beans at Trader Joes. I'm sure I've gotten some there. Maybe it's a season thing. I don't use vanilla beans too often, but when I do they are tasty.

bethany actually said...

Hey, thanks for the link and all the info. I had no idea I was part of a trend! :-)

Coincidentally, you wrote this post on my birthday.

Sarah said...

True trendsetters never know they're part of a trend. :)

Happy birthday! I hope it was full of vanilla-y loveliness.