"Package came for you," I looked up to see my co-worker Shanette holding a box for me. "Now will you stop hovering and looking for the mail guy?"
"YES! Thank you!" I snatched the box from her hands with gusto. I had been waiting eagerly over the past week for this to arrive - a box with what I assumed to be a small sample of sweet vanilla.
About a week before I had received a letter from Beanilla where a guy named Rob had inquired if I would like to try a some of their vanilla beans, and if I enjoyed them if I might write about them and if I didn't then no worries. I told him I would love to and that since this was the first offer of anything due to the blog I couldn't have been more ecstatic.
That is until I opened the box. The second the box opener sliced through the tape a gust of vanilla surrounded me. Rushing out of the box like Pandora's demons they quickly engulfed my office and everything was redolent with sweet, creamy, and spicy vanilla aromas.
Rob had sent me well over 200 vanilla beans of varying varieties. So many that I even called over all of my blogging and cooking friends and offered them free vanilla beans. Even after all the gifting, giving, and mailing I still had more than enough to last me years. In fact I still have a jar full of beans from that original shipment and since each bean can be used so many times I doubt I'll run out any time soon.
Since that post went up I ran across Indian vanilla beans - India now becoming a major exporter of beans that possess a dark rummy scent that hints of cherries like the Bourbon variety. In addition, Rob recently wrote me and asked if I would be down with trying some new beans imported from Indonesia. I agreed and he once again sent me a large package of beans, along with a few samples of vanilla paste and extract (the paste now becoming my choice of vanilla for blondies, bread, and other rich baked goods). The beans themselves were strong, the scent reminiscent of sweet prunes and cinnamon. One of the most unique vanillas I've ever encountered.
I decided to run a new test to try out some of these vanillas. Looking at my old notes I decided to make a few batches of sugar cookies and whipped cream, two nicely blank slates which would best be able to show off the flavor of the vanillas. While at first I was curious if each would be just the same old vanilla once baked, each demonstrated a prideful arrogance in its individual flavor profile. One cookie had a a slight creamy flavor to it, while when sniffing the other I caught a slight boozy scent. One whipped cream was classic vanilla, and the other a smokey hint of tobacco seemed to linger in the background.
Once again, varieties of vanilla had proved themselves to possess particular flavor qualities that should be taken into consideration when purchasing vanilla.
Bourbon - Bourbon is defined by its fruity profile. Your nose may detect scents of figs, papaya, persimmon and cherries. Its diverse qualities make it good all around variety, but I personally prefer it with cookies and cakes where I want the vanilla to add dimension and complexity.
Mexico - This vanilla is sweet, smooth, and creamy; designed for infusions in milk, pastry cream, whipped cream, and all manner of ice creams. My personal favorite.
Tonga - This variety reminds me of cherries and of autumn, very brisk and felicitous. More of a delicate flavor. I've dedicated this one to using in developing fruit sauces for adorning meats as it seems to compliment the savory tastes of chicken and pork and at the same time enhance the fruit.
Papua New Guinea - Subtle notes of chocolate and red wine define this vanilla. Not a favorite as often it seems to disappear in the background of other more prominent ingredients, and when I want vanilla to stand front and center I usually want something a bit bolder. Still, for delicate tea cakes and that ilk of pastry this is a choice vanilla.
Tahiti - Generally floral, with hints of licorice and fig. I found that I prefer this vanilla in jams and preserves as it adds a floral bouquet to the overall taste. In addition, that slight licorice taste makes it choice for developing your own chai mix or spice rubs where you wish to include vanilla. Some Tahitian species are grown in other places that actual Tahiti. Tahitian strains actually grown in Tahiti have a darker, chocolate-like flavor.
India - The beans are huge and very oily, with a very muted, woodsy quality. A good vanilla that would stand up well to spices with a more heady comportment in a dish where the presence of cloves, rosemary, cinnamon, or thyme (and other such flavors with a dominating flavor) may threaten to eclipse other vanilla varieties.
Indonesia - These beans are thick, oily, and pliable. One of the mightiest of beans in physical presence. Also, it's one of the oddest. The scent of vanilla is somewhat fermented and the overall scent profile is one you would associate with prunes. In fact, I would say they smell more like prunes than vanilla. However, when cooked the vanilla flavor becomes more pronounced. Perfect for stewing fruit, or in pies and compotes.
Tahitensis & Planifolia Blend - The most typical and assuring of the vanillas - a genetic Wunderkind. This is what you might assume "typical" vanilla to smell like. A bit of a one note wonder, but because it possesses such a strong and reliable vanilla flavor that doesn't change with cooking it's my regular go-to vanilla variety. Probably the one I use more than any other - particularly for making vanilla extract or vanilla sugar. It's also one of the cheapest varieties.
So which one to pick? I suggest going with one or two that intrigue you the most and starting with that. As I noted earlier in the post sugar cookies are a great way to test the flavor profiles of vanilla. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream are other good options. Whatever you do decide to use be sure that vanilla is the only and predominant flavor.
Vanilla Bean Sugar Cookies
Adapted from Anita Chu's Field Guide to Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen
3 cups of flour
1 teaspoon of baking soda
pinch of kosher salt
1 cup of butter, room temperature
1 3/4 cups of sugar
1/4 cup of brown sugar
1 vanilla bean
1. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Set aside.
2. Cream the butter and sugars together at high speed for about 3 minutes.
3. Cup open and scrape out the contents of the vanilla bean. Add to the butter-sugar mixture and mix in for 30 seconds.
4. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating for 30 seconds between each. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl and mix a bit more.
5. With the mixer on a low speed slowly add the flour mixture. Mix until just incorporated.
6. Cover dough and refrigerate for 45 minutes. While it chills, preheat the oven to 325F and line some baking sheets with parchment paper.
7. Roll the dough into balls about 1/2 to 1 inch in diameter. Place them on the baking sheets and give them a small press to flatten them.
8. Bake for 9-10 minutes or until edges are golden brown. Allow to cool on the sheets for a minute before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Thanks again to Rob at Beanilla. You've given me a chance to explore one of my favorite flavors and share that knowledge.