If I could only eat one flavor of ice cream for the rest of my life, it would be vanilla. Although, this is said with great reluctance. Chocolate, my first love, is being thrown in the dust. But vanilla…real vanilla…is a revelation. It has a delicately floral tone that sings the moment it hits your tongue. Vanilla can be the most elegant flavor, nevermind how common it is.
This is coming from the girl who, at one time, wouldn’t touch vanilla ice cream with a ten foot spoon. It was usually white and flavorless. Chocolate has always been temptingly dark and rich in flavor. Yet, every other kid seemed to love vanilla, which alluded me. Unless it was folded with mix-ins, drizzled with topping, or nestled next ot a slice of (chocolate) cake, I never craved it.
Then, one day, I was introduced to the vanilla bean. This was more than a few years before I started my ice cream making escapades. It is a hazy memory, but I remember my mother taking out a tub of fancy ice cream from the freezer to go with a celebration cake. There were little black specks sprinkled throughout the ice cream. To my young mind, it looked as if someone accidently added pepper. When my mom told me what it really was, I’m sure I was in awe. Vanilla always seemed mysterious…where did it come from? Yet here it was, a bunch of black specks in my ice cream.
Vanilla is much more romantic than that. Its seeds (those tiny specks) come naturally packaged inside the vanilla pod (aka bean). The vanilla pod is the fruit of a certain variety of hibiscus…the only variety that produces fruit. Cool, right?! So that’s why vanilla has a floral scent and taste. That’s also part of the reas0n it is so expensive. The brand I bought for my ice cream cost $5 for two beans. I have seen some brands that charge $10 for one bean! It is easy to understand why there are a lot of crappy vanilla imitations out there.
I guess I shouldn’t be so harsh, but once you’ve had the real thing, it is hard to appreciate anything else. Real vanilla tastes like vanilla. My perception of it as a food was changed by the food itself. Sort of like the first time I tasted real mango as opposed to flavoring. So, I make my own ice cream. Not always, but when I get the chance, it is a real treat. Especially vanilla. This is some good stuff.
Cutting open the vanilla bean is a cool experience. When I was little, I used to pop open the bottle of vanilla extract in the cupboard and inhale the deep scent. A vanilla bean packs that intense punch without the alcohalic undertone. It is pure. The frangrance blossoms as the knife is dragged through its woody skin. Then the fun part comes…scraping out the seeds.
As the milk and cream is heating, the seeds are dropped into the mixture. At first, they clump up in big chunks. This can be worrisome, but take a deep breath. They will spread evenly. The emptied bean is also added to the mixture and allowed to steep off of heat for 30 minutes. This extra time really makes the magic happen.
Vanilla ice cream never has much of a scent. Take a lick, though, and your taste buds will dance. Flowery, woody, and fruity at the same time. Vanilla is both a complex and simple flavor. It can blow the mind and be comfortingly reassuring at the same time. For these reasons, it is worth the higher price and the extra work.
This is why I have made vanilla ice cream more than any other flavor…. and I always thought it would be chocolate 🙂
Though I love it on its own, I will always be a fan of ice cream accompanying another dessert. Apple pie a la mode is a classic. It never disappoints.
I have to admit, I wanted to make individual plum tarts with vanilla sugar dusted around the crust. I dunno, plums and vanilla seem to get along well. Unfortunately, the plums at the store were either hard rocks or mush. Not knowing which was better, I headed straight for the granny smith apples. They are usually consistent, and apples are pretty forgiving when baked.
Yes, apple tarts seem more fall than summer, but they taste good all the same. The vanilla steals the show anyway. My family ate up both the tarts and the ice cream lickity-split.
A short tip before I finish writing. Vanilla sugar is super expensive in stores. It is also super easy to make. Save your used vanilla pod after making ice cream. Wash it off and add it to a small container of sugar. After a few days, the sugar will be fragrant with vanilla. Sprinkle it on cookies, pie crust, fruit, or whatever floats your fancy to give your desserts an added burst of flavor. How delicious does that sound?! 🙂
Vanilla Ice Cream
adapted from The Perfect Scoop by David Lebovitz
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup sugar
2 cups heavy cream
pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean
6 large egg yolks
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
Warm milk, sugar, 1 cup of the cream, and the salt in a saucepan. Split the vanilla bean in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add directly to the warm milk. Then add the emptied bean. Cover, remove saucepan from heat and let the mixture steep at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Return the saucepan to a burner and slowly bring up the temperature on medium low heat. Meanwhile, pour the rest of the cream into a large bowl and set a mesh strainer over it. In a smaller bowl, whisk the egg yolks thoroughly. When the vanilla mixture in the saucepan is warm, slowly pour ladlefulls into the egg yolks until half the mixture is added. This brings up the temperature of the egg yolks so that they do not cook when poured into the saucepan.
Scrape the warmed egg yolks into the saucepan, stirring constantly with a heatproof spatula. Turn the heat to medium and continue to stir. When the mixture either thickens and coats the spatula so that a trail is left when you drag your finger across it, or it reaches a temperature of at least 165 degrees, remove from heat. Pour through strainer into the cream and add vanilla extract. Stir until cool over an ice bath.
Drop vanilla bean into bowl and set, covered, in refrigerator to chill for at least 8 hours. The mixture will thicken during this time. When it is ready to churn, prepare ice cream maker and remove vanilla bean from ice cream mixture. Then freeze the mixture in the ice cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.