Sunday, January 3, 2010

Vanilla Beans

I need to talk to you about vanilla beans. I've been meaning to sit down and have a conversation with you about vanilla beans for quite some time. Because far too many recipes call for vanilla beans, and they're just not that easy to come by.

In the supermarket, or in specialty grocery stores, you can find a single vanilla bean in a glass jar for a price ranging from $10 to the value of your first born child. So you give up hope of ever making that vanilla bean ice cream, panna cotta, rice pudding, or cookie. Or you substitute vanilla extract, and it tastes fake and no longer homemade. What's the point?

I'm here to tell you that you can buy vanilla beans online, and it's not a scam. I found a pack of ten beans for $15 including shipping on They have beans from all over - India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico. Whatever the difference might be, they are a deal. Here's the package I received, after I eagerly pulled out a bean to confirm that it was in fact the real thing:

Maybe you've never used a real vanilla bean. It's oily, long, flat, with a texture like thin leather. When you run a knife down its side, little beans explode from within and stain your fingers black. You scrape those little black specks into your ice cream base or custard or cookie dough and they are sticky and smell a little funky. Then you drop that whole oily bean into the cream and simmer it for half an hour, until the cream is infused with vanilla flavor and beautifully speckled. It's a bit of a process to use them, but you'll never get a flavor like that from extract.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
yield: 1 pint

1 vanilla bean
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
3/8 cup sugar
1 egg yolk

Using the pointed tip of a sharp knife, split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape the tiny black seeds into a heavy medium saucepan. Add the vanilla bean pod, cream, and milk and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Remove from heat, cover, and let stand 30 minutes at room temperature to blend flavors.

Add the sugar and cook over medium heat, stirring, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is hot, 6 to 8 minutes.

Whisk the egg yolk in a medium bowl. Gradually whisk in about 1/2 cup of the warm vanilla cream. Return the egg mixture to the saucepan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring, until the custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon (at least 160 degrees F on a candy thermometer), 5 to 10 minutes. Do not boil or egg yolk will curdle.

Strain the custard into a bowl, pressing through as many of the vanilla seeds as you can. Remove the vanilla bean pod from the strainer and add to the custard for flavor. Partially cover and let cool 1 hour at room temperature. Refrigerate, covered, until very cold, at least 6 hours or as long as 3 days.

Discard the vanilla bean pod. Pour the custard into the canister of an ice cream maker and freeze according to the manufacturer's directions. Transfer to a covered container and freeze at least 3 hours.

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