The truth is, I bought my very first vanilla bean only last week when I was making rice pudding. It’s not that I didn’t know how fantastic they are in all of their clarity of flavor and little-goes-a-long way charm, I was just both too cheap to buy them, and too afraid to go down that slippery slope whereby no extract would do ever satisfy me again.
I finally justified the expense by rationalizing that rice pudding is such an insanely inexpensive dessert, even half — half! — of a five-dollar* bean wasn’t that big of a deal. And I’d reuse it until it was tapped out, next time in something that didn’t require as strong of a flavor and then pulsing it in the food processor with sugar for the best sweetener in the world. Isn’t it incredible the way we fuss over a twice-reusable $2.50 expense that can carry over to a dozen or more dessert portions, but rarely note the difference between a 10 or 13 dollar pasta dish on a restaurant menu? (Oh wait, someone wrote a book on this.)
This hasn’t kept me from feeling despicably posh in the week since as my worst fears were quickly confirmed: nothing else will ever do, ever. Fine, brownies don’t need freshly-scraped vanilla speckles, and maybe not banana bread either. Apple pie can do without and, yes, butter cream frosting as well. But custards, creams, puddings and, for certain, white cakes just hit the big time because, sweet mercy, fresh vanilla is a flavor more profound than chocolate. More profound. Than chocolate. Hold me.
So what am I doing with these beans, besides sticking my nose in their jar and whispering sweet nothings to them whenever we are alone together? Most embarrassingly, not much that I can share with you. The rice pudding of half-bean fame, so decadent that I felt that I was eating an entire fresh white truffle, in Paris in an outdoor café on a sunny spring day by the Seine, went ka-pouf before I took a picture. The tapioca pudding that my husband rejected (“What … is … this? Oh, god. It’s rubber. I can’t chew it. Why would you feed me this?” he sobbed), was swallowed up by my spoonfuls in just three days, the act of pausing my consumption long enough to take pictures seeming ridiculous. (“Oh this here thing?” she asks, gulping one spoonful after another, “It’s nothing special.”)
But I did bake a cake, a pound cake to be exact and it gave me the chance to alleviate two fixations; one, grinding up a leftover bean with sugar, sifting it twice, and replacing the sweet component of a recipe with this blend, and two, making a real, old-school pound cake, the kind with one pound each of sugar, butter, eggs and flour and that’s it, no artificial leaveners, just as much air as you can beat into it. Of course I scaled it down to two tiny, and slightly over-filled loaves (please don’t ask about the half egg; it was a mess), and you know, clipping recipes and not getting to them for three years is dangerous because your expectations are so high and though this is a delicious cake, it leans toward the dry side of cake-dom. It has a great outer shell, though, which sort of shatters when you bite into its spongy center and it will be crazy delicious with some ice cream or grilled peaches, or both. Alone in its speckled simplicity, it doesn’t steal any shows, but it does hold it’s own. Some days, that’s enough.
But wait, there’s more! Alex and I are going away next weekend on a real vacation, with a plane and a suitcase full of warmer clothes and everything! So, if you have suggestions of things we simply must do when in Savannah, Ga. or Charleston, SC, let us know. I don’t want to miss a thing.
Vanilla Bean Pound Cake
Adapted from Martha Pearl Villas, New York Times Magazine, 3/16/04
1 pound (2 cups) sugar
1/2 vanilla bean, used is fine
1 pound (4 sticks) butter, at room temperature
1 pound (9 large) eggs
1 pound (4 cups) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1. Preheat oven to 325°F. In a food processor, grind vanilla bean and sugar until vanilla is as finely chopped as it can get, about one minute. Sift this mixture twice, making sure all larger pieces have been filtered out. Set aside.
2. In a large bowl, cream the butter with an electric mixer, then gradually add the vanilla sugar, continuing to beat until well creamed and smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Gradually add the flour and salt, beating constantly. Add the vanilla extract and continue beating until well blended.
3. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube or bundt pan. Pour in the batter and ”spank” the bottom of the pan to distribute the batter evenly. Bake until a straw inserted into the cake comes out clean, about 1 hour 15 minutes, taking care not to overcook. Turn cake out onto a rack and let cool.