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Vanilla-bean cuisine takes on chocolate for Valentine’s Day

Vanilla bean sugar cookies from The Sweet Pea, a bakery and caterer in Phoenix are made with one vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped.

Vanilla bean sugar cookies from The Sweet Pea, a bakery and caterer in Phoenix are made with one vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped.

On Valentine’s Day, chocolate usually shoves vanilla aside with the insolence of a schoolyard bully. But today, vanilla – empowered by a newfound appreciation of its legendary bean – finally is refusing to cower.

A vanilla-bean cake says love as lustily as a box of single-origin dark chocolates.

There’s a good reason for vanilla’s newfound strength. Savvy consumers are discovering the difference between the real deal – a bean harvested from the orchid – and the widely available, artificially flavored extracts made from wood-pulp byproducts.

Pure vanilla, whether the whole bean, extract or ground, has a smooth flavor with earthy, complex undertones. Imitation vanilla, on the other hand, is saddled with an overpowering flavor and lingering chemical aftertaste.

“I tell people that they have no idea whether they like vanilla or not if they have only tasted imitation. The difference between real and imitation is night and day,” says Eric Elsberry, who, along with his wife, Patty, owns Arizona Vanilla Company, a Mesa-based Internet import store that sells to the public and upper-crust bakeries.

Like magic, this small brown bean makes just about any food, from pork chops to chocolate, taste better. A sprinkling of ground vanilla tames bitter coffee, while a small scrape from a bean turns mashed sweet potatoes from a side dish to dessert.

“Vanilla acts like salt and pepper. It’s an aromatic flavor enhancer,” Elsberry says.

Like wine, vanilla’s subtle undertones change by region. The key is matching the dish to vanilla from one of the world’s top growing regions – Mexico, Tahiti and Madagascar.

Patty Elsberry, an accomplished cook and co-author of the “Simply Vanilla” cookbook, recommends using Mexican beans for salad dressings, chocolate desserts and flavored vinegar. Madagascar beans work best in savory dishes and fruit compotes, while Tahitian teams well with cream sauces and roasted garlic.

Vanilla comes in four basic forms: whole bean, extract, ground and paste. The bean, the most expensive at about $1.35 to $3 a pod, has become the vanilla of choice for bakers, chefs and food hobbyists drawn to its fuller, richer flavor.

The high cost of vanilla is due to the labor involved in cultivating and harvesting the pods. The process begins with hand pollination of the orchid on the single day of the year the flower opens. After the vanilla bean forms and matures, it is harvested and then subjected to months of curing and fermentation.

Pure vanilla extract, ground and paste are less expensive and more convenient. Although the flavor is still pronounced, these three forms taste less intense than fresh beans.

Treats for the sweet that skip the chocolate

The Sweet Pea Sugar Cookies


1 cup butter

1 cup sugar

1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped, or 1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 egg

Zest of 1 orange or lemon

2 tablespoons orange juice

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder


1 pound powdered sugar

1 tablespoon powdered egg whites

1/2 cup water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. In a large mixing bowl, mix together butter, sugar and vanilla. Add the egg, zest and juice. Mix until smooth. Gradually stir in the flour and baking powder until well mixed. Wrap tightly and chill for 2 to 3 hours, or until firm. Sprinkle flour along a clean surface and roll out dough. Use heart-shaped cookie cutters to cut out cookies. Place on ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake about 8 minutes, or until edges of cookies are golden. Timing will vary depending on the size and shape of the cookie cutter. Let cool.

For icing, whisk together powdered sugar, powdered egg whites and small drizzles of water until icing is smooth and thick. Whisk in vanilla. Place in a pastry bag fitted with a decorator tip, or spread on cookies with an offset spatula. Makes about 12 cookies.

Source: Chef Danielle Librera, The Sweet Pea Baking and Catering, Phoenix

Old Fashioned Vanilla Bean Cake

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon sea salt

8 ounces butter, softened

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 vanilla bean split, seeds scraped

3 eggs

1 3/4 cups milk

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift flour, baking powder and sea salt together and set aside. Use a mixer, preferably with a paddle setting, to mix together butter and sugar until well combined. Add vanilla bean seeds and blend well. Add eggs one at a time, continuing to mix until ingredients are combined. In a separate mixing bowl, combine all dry ingredients. Add in three batches to butter mixture, gently stirring. Add milk and mix until all ingredients are combined. Be careful not to overmix; it will cause the cake to become tough.

Spray two round 8-inch-by-1 2/3-inch pans with cooking oil and dust with flour. Pour batter into pans and bake 45 to 55 minutes. Allow to cool in pan before removing and slicing or frosting. Makes 8 servings.

Source: Chef Danielle Librera, The Sweet Pea Baking and Catering, Phoenix

Vanilla dry rub pork chops

4 boneless pork chops, about 1/4 inch thick

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sweet paprika

1 tablespoon brown sugar

1/8 teaspoon black pepper

1/8 teaspoon dried thyme

1/2 teaspoon onion powder

1/4 teaspoon garlic powder

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground allspice

1 vanilla bean split lengthwise, seeds scraped

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

Place pork chops in a glass container and set aside. For dry rub, combine salt, paprika, brown sugar, black pepper, dried thyme, onion powder, garlic powder, ground cinnamon, cloves and allspice in a small bowl. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape the seeds. Rub the seeds in the chops, and sprinkle generously with the dry rub.

Heat the oil in a large skillet at a medium-high temperature. When hot, place pork chops in the skillet. Cook about 2-3 minutes. Turn and cook the second side about 2-3 minutes. Reduce heat to medium low. Add more oil if the chops begin to stick. Cook for another 3-4 minutes, until the juice runs clear. Makes 4 servings.

Source: Arizona Vanilla Company

Filet mignon with vanilla wine sauce

For the sauce:

2 cups organic beef stock

1/4 cup dry red wine

1 small onion, sliced in half

3 large sprigs of fresh marjoram or oregano

2 whole garlic cloves

1 teaspoon Nielsen-Massey Organic Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract

1 1/2 tablespoons tomato paste

1 teaspoon light brown sugar

2 tablespoons butter, softened

For the steaks

4 (4-ounce) 1 1/2-inch-thick filets mignons

Salt and pepper to taste

2 tablespoons olive oil


2 cups sliced mushrooms

1/4 cup clarified butter (see note)

For the sauce, combine the stock, wine, onion, marjoram, garlic, vanilla extract, tomato paste and brown sugar in a saucepan. Simmer until reduced by half. Strain through a fine mesh strainer into a small saute pan. Whisk the butter into the sauce 1 tablespoon at a time over medium heat. The sauce will become glossy and slightly thickened.

For the steaks, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Season the steaks with salt and pepper. Heat the olive oil in an oven-safe skillet over medium-high heat.

Add the steaks and sear each side for 2 to 3 minutes. Place the skillet in the oven and roast for 8 to 10 minutes for medium or to the desired degree of doneness. Remove and let stand.

For the mushrooms, saute the mushrooms in the clarified butter in a medium saucepan until brown.

To assemble, place the steaks on a serving platter. Spoon the sauce over the steaks. Garnish with mushrooms. Serves 4.

Note: Clarified butter is melted butter that has had the white milk solids skimmed off the top, which allows the butter to be less heat-sensitive and reduces the risk of burning.

Source: “A Century of Flavor by Nielsen-Massey Vanillas” (The Cookbook Marketplace, 2008, $27.95)

This old fashioned vanilla bean cake with whipped mascarpone filling and buttercream icing is from The Sweet Pea, a bakery and caterer in Phoenix are made with one vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped.

This old fashioned vanilla bean cake with whipped mascarpone filling and buttercream icing is from The Sweet Pea, a bakery and caterer in Phoenix are made with one vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped.



In May 2005, Eric and Patty Elsberry bought their first shipment of vanilla beans from Mexico and have been selling the coveted spice to bakeries and home cooks ever since through Arizona Vanilla Company, a Mesa-based Internet import store that sells to the public and bakeries.

The couple attributes the steady increase in sales to the quest by foodies for top-of-the-line ingredients, whether vanilla or coffee beans. Along with selling beans, extract and ground vanilla from around the world, the Elsberrys act as ambassadors for the spice.

Here are a few of their top tips and vanilla facts:

• Select beans that are pliable and fresh, not dry. Fresh vanilla beans should not rattle when you shake them.

• Bring dried beans back to life by soaking in warm water for several hours before using.

• To use, split a bean lengthwise with a sharp knife and scrape out the powder-fine seeds. Add the seeds to your recipe. The seeds from one vanilla bean are equivalent to 2 to 3 teaspoons of extract.

• After splitting open, allow the vanilla pod to dry for a couple of days. Add the dried pod to sugar for extra flavor and aroma. Or tie pods in cheesecloth and use as a potpourri. Basically, don’t throw out the pod until there is no aroma left.

• Store vanilla for six to nine months in a sealed container or jar that is kept in a cool, dark place, such as the pantry, but never in the refrigerator.

• Why does vanilla extract contain alcohol? The alcohol helps to extract the flavors from the vanilla bean. Plus, the federal government requires that pure vanilla extract be made with no less than 35 percent alcohol solution.

• Vanilla extract, like fine wine, gets better with age. Most reach the peak of flavor at age 2.

• Use pure ground vanilla in warm drinks or substitute for vanilla extract in baking and cooking.

• Not all vanilla tastes the same. Madagascar, Bourbon and Mexican vanilla are all the same species, but because they are grown and cured in different climates and soil, their taste profiles are slightly different. All possess a fruity aroma and strong vanilla flavor. Tahitian beans are a different species and are known for their earthly aroma and flavor.

On the Web:

Arizona Vanilla Co., arizonavanilla.com



Most home cooks use vanilla extract, whether pure or imitation. The editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine recently tested 12 extracts to determine which had the best overall flavor. Tops in the test: McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract ($7.99 for 2 ounces), Rodelle Pure Vanilla Extract ($7.99 for 4 ounces) and Nielsen-Massey Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla Extract ($9.99 for 4 ounces).

Gannett News Service

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