I also like orchids, and that’s where vanilla beans come from. I kid you not. A climbing orchid native to Central America, called Vanilla V. planifolia (or V. fragrans) is the source of that costly little brown bean. This is not a vanilla-producing orchid but it’s pretty enough anyway.
And the reason vanilla tastes so good in sweet things? Well, the vanilla bean makes its own sugars:
Vanilla’s rich flavor is the creation of three factors: the pod’s wealth of phenolic defensive compounds, preeminently vanillin; a good supply of sugars and amino acids to generate browning-reaction flavors; and the curing process. The plant stores most of its defensive aromatics in inert form by bonding them to a sugar molecule. The active defenses — and aromas — are released when damage to the pod brings the storage forms into contact with bond-breaking enzymes. The key to making good vanilla is thus deliberate damage to the pods, followed by a prolonged drying process that develops and concentrates the flavor, and prevents the pod from spoiling.
That’s an excerpt from On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee. Doodle gave it to me for Christmas. I highly recommend it if you are interesting in knowing why things work the way they do in the kitchen. It’s a great blogging tool, as well.
Did you know you can make your own vanilla extract? It’s super easy. I already have some steeping that I put up in October in preparation for Chel and Invis‘ wedding cake in June, but I got this cute little bottle from my brother Ando for Christmas. In it were two vanilla beans and all the tag said was “For Al: BLOG IT.”
So this is what I am doing. I love presents for the blog!
Basically, all you need to do is fill your bottle (make sure it has a good seal) with two vanilla beans and some booze. The instructions here call for vodka, but I have read elsewhere that rum makes a more mellow flavour that lends itself better to darker sweets. You can use bourbon as well, especially if you have bourbon vanilla beans from Madagascar.
Then you seal it and store it away for about 4-6 months.