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Issue 72 - A great giver of flavour

Scotland Magazine Issue 72
December 2013


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A great giver of flavour

Sue Lawrence looks at the impressive vanilla pod

Those Aztecs. Not only did they introduce us, through the Spanish "conquistadores", to chocolate; they were also responsible for our first taste of exotic vanilla. Emperor Montezuma liked to drink his "chocolatl" highly flavoured with ground vanilla. So the Spaniards brought the custom, and the pods, back to Europe with them.

Vanilla is the pod of a climbing orchid, native to Central America. The fleshy vanilla vines are trained to grow up wooden posts or trees. The long, narrow pods are picked before they ripen; fresh, ripe pods have no vanilla flavour at all. The glorious vanilla aroma and taste only develop after a lengthy curing process on the unripe pods. The best pods are dark brown or black, rather wrinkled and flexible, with a light coating of white crystals of aromatic vanillin. True vanilla should taste sweet and mellow and its aroma rich and perfumed. Inferior pods look light brown and dry and lack both flavour and taste. Madagascar, Réunion, Mexico and Tahiti produce the plumpest and most flavoursome vanilla pods.

Once you split the pod, you will find tiny, sticky black seeds. These are the specks we discover in fashionable vanilla ice-creams, if for no other reason than to prove it is made from real vanilla, not synthetic essence. If you do remove the seeds, the empty pod can still be used to flavour a sauce or even a jar of sugar. They can even be washed and dried and used again. You can also infuse a pod in scalded cream or milk, before making a custard or ice-cream .

The purest vanilla extract is made by macerating crushed pods in alcohol. Artificial vanilla essence or flavouring has only the merest suggestion of true vanilla flavour, for it is invariably produced not from vanilla pods but from a substance found in clove oil. Apart from price, a guideline for choosing the best is to buy bottles with the words vanilla "extract", never "flavouring".

As an ingredient, vanilla is more versatile than often thought: ices, custards and puddings are, of course, enhanced by it. But, it also marries well with chocolate and fruit such as pears, rhubarb, peaches or apricots. Many chefs infuse a vanilla pod in shellfish stocks, to add to lobster, prawn, sea bass or scallop dishes In Scotland, it is a popular flavouring in tablet, that wonderful hard fudge we Scots, with our renowned sweet tooth, adore. Traditionally flavoured with rosewater, ginger or orange, the old cook books reveal the introduction of vanilla in tablet recipes more than a hundred years ago.

Vanilla Tablet 125 g / 4½ oz unsalted butter 1 kg / 2¼ lb golden granulated sugar 300 ml / 10 fl oz full-fat milk 200g / 7 oz of condensed milk (half a regular tin) 2 tsp pure vanilla essence Place the butter in large heavy-based saucepan (only a reliable pan should be used, otherwise it will stick). Melt it gently over a low heat.

Add the sugar, milk and a pinch of salt and heat gently until the sugar is dissolved, stirring occasionally. Once it has dissolved, bring to the boil and simmer over a fairly high heat for 8 - 10 minutes, stirring often (and making sure you get into all the corners with your wooden spoon).

Add the condensed milk, stir well then simmer for a further 8 - 10 minutes (it should bubble, but not too fiercely), stirring it constantly as it does. After eight minutes, test if it is ready. What you want is the “soft ball” stage, which means that when you drop a little of the mixture into a cup of very cold water; it will form a soft ball which you can pick up between your fingers. On a sugar thermometer, it should read 240°F / 115°C.

Remove from the heat at once and add the vanilla (or other flavourings). Using an electric beater, beat on medium for 4 - 5 minutes just until you feel it begin to stiffen a little and become ever so slightly grainy. (You can of course do this by hand but it will take at least 10 minutes and it is hard work !) Pour immediately into a buttered swiss-roll tin (23 x 33 cm / 9 x 13 inches) and allow to cool. Then mark into squares or oblongs when it is almost cold. When completely cold, remove and store in an air-tight tin or wrap individually in waxed paper.

Black bottom cheesecake
50g / 2 oz butter 50g / 2 oz dark chocolate 200g / 7 ozg choc chip cookies, crushed 800g / 1 lb 12 oz light philadelphia cream cheese 200 ml crème fraiche 200g golden caster sugar 1 heaped tbsp custard powder, sifted 4 large free-range eggs 2 tsp vanilla extract or paste Melt the butter and chocolate then combine with the biscuits. Press into the base of a buttered 24cm springform cake tin.

Place the remaining ingredients in a food mixer and beat well until smooth (or beat well by hand. Pour into the tin and bake at 180C / 350F / Gas 4 for 15 minutes then reduce to 150C / 300F / Gas2 for a further 1 hour. Allow to cool in the oven with the heat switched off for an hour or so to prevent it from cracking.