You know how you sometimes see little brown specks in baked goods, custards or frostings? No, those aren’t dirt from a careless chef…they’re something wonderful that adds a delicious flavor to all they touch: real vanilla bean seeds. Vanilla beans can be expensive and messy, but they’re oh so worth the effort…the flavor they impart is rich without being cloying, with none of that artificialness that you get from inexpensive vanilla extracts. (yes, I’ve decided that’s a word)
What are vanilla beans? How do you use them? Glad you asked! Here’s a primer (oh boy…here we go):
[ ** Warning: Wiki-lecture alert **]
Vanilla is actually the dried fruit pod from orchids. It was first cultivated by Pre-Columbian Mesoamericans and was brought to Europe in the 1520s by Spanish conquistadors. Now grown in the tropical regions of Mexico, the South Pacific, Indonesia, and especially Madagascar, vanilla is the second-most expensive spice after saffron because it’s very labor-intensive to grown the pods. Beyond baking, vanilla is used in sorts of products for its lovely aroma. I buy Madagascar vanilla beans from Beanilla, and store them in a ziplock bag either at room temperature in a cool, dry place (like the back of my pantry) or in the freezer. To get to the seeds, I just take the pod and cut it in half, then split it open lengthwise. Using the back of a paring knife, I then scrape the seeds and add them to whatever it is I’m flavoring. (Ok, lecture over…I hope your eyes haven’t glazed over too much!).
I use vanilla bean seeds when I want the vanilla flavor to really take center stage, such as in the aforementioned custard. When the flavor is a supporting actor (like in a chocolate cake or pecan pie), I’ll use vanilla extract. You can, of course, buy good quality vanilla extract, but I make my own by immersing spent vanilla beans in vodka…it’s a great way to recycle those expensive used beans, and I still get some of those little seeds into my products.
The reason I started thinking about vanilla beans in the first place is because I had a craving (you know, the usual way these thoughts are usually started)…I wanted vanilla egg custard, the kind with nutmeg on top. But I didn’t want to wait for hours for it to chill, so after a quick Pinterest search, I came across a recipe for Magic Custard Cake from Cinnamon and Toast. What is that, you ask? Well…
This magic custard cake is truly quite magical. Using simple ingredients, the batter separates into three layers as it bakes. The bottom is a slightly dense custard. The middle is a smooth and soft custard. The top is a light and moist sponge cake.
…and it was! The only change I made to the recipe is that used a whole scraped vanilla bean to intensify the vanilla flavor to counteract the “egginess” of the cake. Ok, I also added nutmeg because, well, it’s my kitchen, my rules.
- Prep time: 30 mins
- Cook time: 1 hour
- Total time: 1 hour 30 mins
- Yield: one 8 x 8-inch cake
- 4 large eggs, separated at room temperature
- ¾ cup granulated sugar
- ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- 2 cups milk, lukewarm
- 1 vanilla bean, scraped or 2 tsps. vanilla extract
- Powdered sugar & nutmeg for dusting
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Lightly grease an 8 x 8-inch square cake pan and line with parchment paper with some extra hanging over the sides to help lift the cake out of the pan.
- Warm milk in microwave. Add scraped vanilla beans (if using) and allow them to infuse the milk.
- Using an electric mixer, whisk egg whites on high speed until soft peaks are formed. Transfer to another bowl. Set aside.
- Add egg yolks and sugar to mixing bowl and beat until smooth, creamy and pale yellow in color.
- Add butter and continue mixing for approximately 2-3 minutes on high speed.
- Mix in flour until incorporated.
- Slowly add the milk and vanilla extract (if not using vanilla bean), beating at low speed.
- Gently fold in egg whites, ⅓ at a time (the batter will be quite thin). It will be difficult to fully incorporate the egg whites.
- Pour batter into prepared cake pan.
- Bake 50-60 minutes or until top is lightly golden and firm to the touch.
- Let cool completely.
- Dust with powdered sugar and nutmeg.
Full disclosure…I actually halved the recipe and baked it in a standard loaf pan, but still used the entire vanilla bean. The final cake was thinner than I thought it would be, but it was wonderful, completely fulfilling the custard craving that I had started with. My husband has already asked me to make it again, and for him, that’s a real stamp of approval. Oh, and that spent vanilla bean? I rinsed it a little bit and put it into my extract jar, there to await my next baking adventure. Hmmm…what sounds good now…?
Slainté! L’chaim! Cheers!
p.s. to my Boston baby…all I need is to take a whiff of orange blossoms and I’m transported to when I’m holding you in my arms, when caring for you became the focus of my life. Your empathy and caring for others started so young, and has never abated…it shines in all you do. I’m so proud of the person you are, and I wish you a wonderful day filled with love and laughter. Happy birthday, my love!