Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Aromatic Allure of Tahitian Vanilla

Tahitian vanilla's unique floral aroma has made it a favorite choice among chefs who use it to flavor pastry cream, crème brûlée and ice cream. It's taste differs in subtle ways from the more commonly used Bourbon vanilla. Tahitian vanilla (Vanilla tahitensis) is floral and fruity, its plump cured pods exuding notes of cherry, raisin, musk, lactones and anisic aldehydes. In contrast, Bourbon vanilla beans (Vanilla planifolia) exude sweet, woody tobacco notes. You can bring the beauty of vanilla beans into your kitchen by making an infusion in vodka. The infusion process, which is used to create tinctures and elixirs, is also known as maceration.

Tahitian vanilla may contain less vanillin than the Bourbon variety, but it possesses heliotropin, a distinguished molecule that has garnered attention in the medical community. In 1991 Drs. William Redd and Sharon Manne, researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, conducted tests utilizing the diffused molecule and found that the odor of heliotropin reduced anxiety in cancer patients receiving magnetic resonance imaging scans. Folklore has always promoted the aphrodisiac and stomachic properties of vanilla, but it seems that science has made vanilla's benefits more tangible.

Regional crop size, limited harvests and the requisite hand-pollination of blossoms make Tahitian vanilla expensive and difficult to procure. Inferior beans and imposters exist, but The Spice House in Chicago has managed to develop relationships with distributors of genuine Tahitian vanilla beans. Their Tahitian “Gold” Vanilla Beans are rich, plump and highly flavorful. You can purchase the extract, but making Tahitian vanilla infusion is an indulgent pleasure that every sensualist should experience. Don’t let the cost of bona fide beans and premium vodka stop you; experiencing something authentic and precious is a worthwhile luxury.

Tahitian Vanilla Infusion
Recipe by Michelle Krell Kydd

6 Tahitian Gold Vanilla Beans
1 375ml bottle of vodka

· Using the tip of a sharp knife, gently run the blade along the length of a vanilla bean to expose the seeds, making sure the bean stays intact and is not cut in half. Place the bean inside the bottle of vodka and repeat with the other five beans.

· Seal the vodka bottle and gently shake five to ten times. Store the infusion in a cool, dark place.

· Shake the contents twice a week for the first two weeks and macerate for an additional ten weeks, undisturbed. The Belvedere vodka bottle is imprinted with a bare white tree. When the Tahitian vanilla is properly macerated there will be a strong contrast between the color of the tree and the dark amber color of the infusion. The black lettering on the bottle should be barely visible at the 12th week of maceration.

Maceration does not duplicate the making of an extract. What is being created is a flavored tincture. The use of several split beans macerating over a three-month period will produce an intensely flavored infusion. Use twice the vanilla recommended in a recipe when baking or cooking with a mature infusion.

Belvedere Vodka (derived from rye) is a neutral spirit that possesses nuances of vanilla in the nose and body. Bourbon isn't recommended for macerating Tahitian Vanilla because it adds a quality of woodiness that detracts from the bean’s fruity floral flavors. Bourbon whisky is appropriate for macerating Bourbon vanilla beans, which possess darker flavor tones.

Want to learn more about vanilla? Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Ice Cream Orchid by Tim Ecott and Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favorite Flavor and Fragrance by Patricia Rain are great places to start.

Photo of Ecstasy Singing by Krista Lynn Brown can be viewed on Devaluna. An inspired collection of beautiful paintings by the artist are for sale on the site.