Vanilla and Homemade Vanilla Extract : Flavor and Fragrance
There is nothing quite so comforting as a dish made with vanilla, whether it is a rich, warm crème brulee or a dish of really excellent vanilla ice cream, especially if it is homemade. The vanilla bean is an ancient and popular flavor and fragrance ingredient. It is very difficult to describe without using the word ‘vanilla’ but I find a good extract or the beans themselves to have a fragrance that is warm, very sweet, balsamic, slightly earthy and very slightly floral. The odor can be tenacious.
Vanilla is an old spice, cultivated and used by the ancient Mexicans and believed to be a gift from the gods. The Aztecs used it to flavor chocolate and taught the practice to the Spanish conquistadors who brought it back to 15th century Europe. The allure of vanilla, and likely the wonders it does for chocolate, led to widespread cultivation throughout areas like Reunion, Mauritius and the Malagasy Republic. It is now widely grown throughout the tropics.
The flowers of the vanilla orchid must be pollinated by hand in order to have enough pods for commercial production. If the flowers are not pollinated, they will drop within a day. The plant itself must be mature, generally over 3 meters tall, to produce fruit. Once the fruit or pod is ripe, it is picked and cured by fermentation. It is the fermentation process that dries the pod and keeps the essential oils within the pod. Harvesting and curing of the spice is one of the most labor intensive processes in agriculture, thus making vanilla the second most expensive spice in the world (saffron takes first place.) Vanilla is actually sold in a variety of forms--as a whole pod, an extract or paste. Although extract is fairly easy to find, a homemade tincture has no commercial rival.
Vanilla extract is fairly easy to make requiring only 35% or 70 proof alcohol, some good beans and patience. Vanilla beans do not actually have to be the very best grade, which makes it a fairly economical undertaking. Vodka is a good, flavor neutral alcohol. Sterilize any equipment that will come in contact with the beans and work in a clean, scent-free environment. Use 1 ounce of vanilla beans per cup of alcohol or 30 grams per 250 ml alcohol. Use a dark-colored bottle if possible.
Slice the beans in half and remove the seeds. The seeds are the tiny grains inside the bean; this grainy mass is called the caviar. You can use a dull knife to scrape this part away. Then cut the beans into small pieces. Put the beans and caviar into your bottle with the alcohol. Store the mixture in a cool, dark place for at least four weeks, shaking occasionally. Six months is better. Filter the extract using a clean funnel and a coffee filter. Strain the liquid into a clean bottle that has a tight cap. The vanilla extract will continue to improve and can be used indefinitely. You can keep the extracted beans and seeds to make vanilla sugar. Layer the spent beans with sugar, leave for a week or more. Use 1 or 2 beans (or the approximate equivalent) per 2 cups of sugar.
Photography © Bois de Jasmin.