Vanilla's heady fragrance comes from an orchid just as lovely. The long, dark brown vanilla bean is actually the fruit of the plant. The most popular variety comes from Mexico, but vanilla from Madagascar and Tahiti are also prized for their subtle differences in flavor.
Most of us cook with vanilla extract, obtained by a relatively simple process that involves steeping vanilla beans in alcohol and water. It's also fairly inexpensive. To get a bolder flavor, use the whole bean in making ice cream, custards and other desserts. Chef Joe Sparatta, who contributed this pound cake recipe, says the vanilla bean is one of his favorite ingredients.
Vanilla beans can cost as much as $2 to $3 each, so you want to make sure the ones you buy are fresh. "If they look shriveled out and dry," says Sparatta, "avoid at all costs." He recommends Whole Foods or Ellwood Thompson's markets as good sources for plump, moist beans.
Once the seeds are scraped off, don't throw away the empty pods, Sparatta says. "I either pack them in sugar or submerge them in bourbon to make homemade vanilla extract. Vanilla extract takes a while to fully mature, and you need a good amount of spent pods. Just pour bourbon in a Mason jar with the pods, and forget about it for a while." Or pack the pods with sugar in an airtight container. Vanilla sugar "is great for baking, or put it in coffee or just about anything," he says.
Vanilla Bean and Almond Pound Cake
Joe Sparatta , chef and partner at Heritage restaurant (1627 W. Main St., 353-4060), makes this pound cake at Christmastime to give to friends. "This something I probably will be doing at Heritage this December," he says. "[It's] very easy to make, and it's quite delicious."
2 cups of all-purpose flour, sifted
4 organic eggs
2 cups of sugar
1/2 pound of unsalted butter (2 sticks), softened
6 ounces of cream cheese, softened
1 vanilla bean, split (or 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla extract)
1 teaspoon of almond extract
1 teaspoon of salt
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the butter, sugar and cream cheese in the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment. Cream the mixture until it's light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, until each is incorporated. Scrape the seeds of the vanilla bean into the mixture in the bowl (or add the vanilla extract), along with the almond extract and salt. Mix to combine. Gradually add the flour, 1/2 cup at a time. Transfer the batter to a nonstick baking pan sprayed with baking spray. Bake 25 to 35 minutes in a standard loaf pan (9-by-5-by-3 inches). The cake is done when it's golden on top and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean.