The aroma of a good vanilla pod is almost impossible to resist. It's a smell that is pure, clean and somehow like icing sugar, orange and lemon peel; a celebratory scent, reminiscent of Christmas, Easter and birthdays rolled into one. I'm not talking about vanilla essence bought in a bottle – that has only a vague association with the original pod. I'm talking about the sticky, jet-black bean itself – headily aromatic and quite irreplaceable.
At Petersham we get our vanilla from wholesalers, but you can buy decent vanilla pods from supermarkets and good delicatessens. They come sealed in a little glass test tube-style container. This is to prevent it drying out when exposed to the air. A good vanilla pod should be soft, sticky and pliable. A bad one is dry and brittle and breaks like bark. In this condition it's almost impossible to get the seeds out.
Admittedly, the pods are expensive – I have seen them as high as £1 for just one pod – but they are worth the price. Some consolation for forking out can be found in the fact that, once used, they can be washed, dried and placed in a jar of caster sugar, where they will continue to impart their flavour into the sugar itself.
Madagascar produces some of the best vanilla, along with Mexico, India and Indonesia. We don't produce it at all in this country, although I have seen it growing in Kew Gardens. The stuff you find in the shops is most likely to be from Madagascar.
When it comes to making desserts, vanilla is undoubtedly one of the most invaluable ingredients. In fact, I find it almost impossible to make really good puddings without it. It's what gives that amazing warm, clean baking smell. It just makes my tummy rumble. It's important, though, that you use really good vanilla or vanilla extract or bean as opposed to cheap vanilla essence. Like saffron, however, the flavour can be overpowering, so less is definitely more. It's about seeking balance and experimenting.
Baking is not the only thing you can use it for: in Mexico they use vanilla to flavour their drinks. Alternatively, you could use it to make your own essence. My friend, a pastry chef from Chez Panisse in California known as Claire Cakes, has a stall called Violet Cakes at east London's Broadway Market. She makes her own extract by laying the pods in vodka. It sounds like a recipe worth experimenting with. In the meantime, here are four of my favourite, vanilla-infused desserts. *
Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. Her book 'A Year in My Kitchen' (Quadrille) is the 2007 Guild of Food Writers' Cookery Book of the Year
Scones with crème Chantilly and strawberry jam
Crème Chantilly is a lovely, vanilla-scented, sweetened cream, and is delicious with scones and jam. In my book, scones are really good only when they are warm and straight out of the oven; it doesn't take long before they become heavy and dull. They do freeze well, though, so it's a good idea to make double the quantity and place half in the freezer. They're easy to thaw in a medium-hot oven.
Makes 18-20 scones, allow 2-3 per person
For the crème chantilly
250ml/8fl oz double cream
1tbsp icing sugar
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out
For the scones
900g/13/4lb plain flour
A pinch of salt
60g/21/2oz caster sugar
3tsp baking powder
170g/6oz unsalted butter, melted
2 organic eggs
420ml/15fl oz full-fat milk
A generous helping of jam, to serve
Heat the oven to 250C/480F/Gas9.
Double cream is much easier to whip if it is not too cold, so before starting, remove it from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature. Place the cream in a bowl and whisk it until soft, billowing peaks have formed. Sift in the icing sugar. Add the vanilla seeds to the cream and fold in gently – it should be gloriously speckled with the black seeds.
For the scones, sieve all the dry ingredients together in a roomy bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the butter, eggs and milk. Make a well in the centre of the flour and add the egg and butter mixture. Stir together and mix to form a soft dough. Turn it out on to a lightly floured board and continue to knead lightly, just enough to form a round. Take a rolling pin and roll it out until it is an inch thick, and using a circular-shaped biscuit-cutter, stamp out the scones. Evenly space them apart on a baking tray and bake on the middle shelf of the hot oven. Bake for 10 minutes until golden brown. Remove and allow to cool slightly on a wire rack.
When cool enough to handle, split in half and spoon in a teaspoon or so of the jam of your choice and top with the sweetened cream.
Raspberry and orange pudding
This is a light, delicate but cosy dessert. Served warm with a big dollop of cream, it's the perfect end to a meal in cold weather.
100g/31/2oz unsalted butter, softened, plus a little extra for buttering the moulds
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, cut in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out
2 organic eggs
100g/31/2oz self-raising flour
Finely grated zest of a lemon and an orange
A small pinch of salt
16 plump raspberries
4tbsp golden syrup
Jersey cream to serve
4tbsp finely chopped candied orange to serve (optional)
Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Butter four darioles (pudding-shaped moulds) and set aside. Mix the butter and sugar together until it forms a pale, smooth cream. Add the seeds from the vanilla pod, followed by one egg at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift in the flour and fold in gently. Finally add the lemon and orange zest and a small pinch of salt.
Divide the raspberries among the moulds, placing four in each. Spoon the golden syrup on top, allowing about one tablespoon per mould. Spoon over the sponge mixture and cover each mould loosely with some buttered foil. Place on a baking tray and cook in the hot oven for 30 minutes, until they have risen and are cooked through.
To serve, run a knife around each pudding and turn out on to warmed plates. Finish by adding a dollop of cream and, if using, a spoonful of chopped candied orange. Eat while piping hot.
This icy-cold dessert is a very gentle way to finish a meal and is so light in flavour it's almost ethereal. The absence of eggs make this refreshing rather than rich.
8 sweet, juicy clementines
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
200ml/7fl oz double cream
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise, seeds scraped out
3tbsp sherry (Lustau or Pedro Ximenez)
Slice the clementines in half and squeeze to remove as much juice as possible. Strain the juice through a colander and set aside. Place the sugar and cream in a small, heavy-based pan. Scrape out the seeds from the vanilla pod and add them to the cream-sugar mix along with the pod itself. Place over a medium heat and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer and cook for about a minute – you simply want to infuse the cream with the flavour of vanilla and dissolve the sugar. Remove, and set aside to cool and continue to infuse. Once the cream is cool, pour through a strainer on to the clementine juice. Stir well, add the sherry, pour into an ice-cream maker and follow the manufacturer's instructions. '
Cupcakes with quince and vanilla icing
Everybody seems to love cupcakes these days. I understand why. Heavenly scented and old-fashioned in feel, these cakes are completely irresistible.
For the cupcakes
100g/31/2oz unsalted butter, softened
100g31/2oz caster sugar
2 free-range eggs
A couple of drops of vanilla extract
Zest of one lemon
140g/41/2oz self-raising flour
1¾tsp baking powder
For the icing
100g/31/2oz unsalted butter
250g/8oz icing sugar
2 tbsp milk
3 tbsp quince syrup
For the quince syrup
300g/9fl oz caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, cut in half lengthwise
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas6. Mix the butter and sugar together until pale and creamy. Beat in the eggs one at a time, add the vanilla extract and lemon zest, and sift in the flour and baking powder. From a good height, add the milk; the consistency should be soft enough to drop from a spoon. Divide among 12 paper cupcake cases (they should be about two-thirds full) and bake in the oven for around 15 minutes. They should be puffed up and golden-brown. Remove and allow to cool on a wire wrack.
To make the quince syrup. Wash and dry the quince. Place whole in a large pan and pour the sugar over the fruit. Add enough water to just cover. Add vanilla pod and place over a medium heat. Bring to boil the turn down and simmer for one-and-a-half hours. Take off the heat, strain through a colander and retain the juice. Press down on the quince to extract as much juice as possible. Cool and keep refrigerated until ready to use (this can also be used diluted in water as a cordial or in champagne).
To make the icing sugar, place the butter and icing sugar in a blender and purée until you have a smooth, creamy butter. Add the milk and purée again. Pour in the quince syrup, purée one last time and spread generously on top of the cooled cupcakes.
The Forager by Wendy Fogarty
Petersham's food sourcer on where to find – and find out more about – authentic vanilla pods
The only edible orchid, housing the vanilla bean, originated in Mexico, where it was known as "tlilxochitl". Pronounced "tea-so-shill", its literal translation from the Aztec is "black flower". It had sacred and religious connotations, and was used as both a fragrant incense and an ingredient.
Today, this coveted plant, which is second only to saffron in value, is cultivated in Madagascar and the Reunion Islands, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, Tahiti, India and Mexico.
The aroma, flavour and size of the pods (fruit, not beans, I am told) vary according to region of origin. Tahitian vanilla, for example, is delicately fragrant and floral, whereas good Mexican vanilla is intense, strong and spicy.
Unfortunately, Tahitian and Mexican vanilla are almost impossible to buy in the UK, although Madagascan vanilla is readily available.
Beware the synthetic vanillin that is found in "vanilla" essence and used as cheap flavouring in many ice-creams and chocolate.
Where to buy
Steenbergs Organic Pepper & Spice (www.steenbergs.co.uk, tel: 01765 640 088) Sells organic Madagascan vanilla pods and Fairtrade vanilla-sugar made using organic Bourbon vanilla aged in organic Fairtrade sugar from Paraguay.
Lakeland (www.lakeland.co.uk, tel: 01539 488 100) Sells pure Madagascan Bourbon vanilla extract, Taylor & Colledge's vanilla bean paste and vanilla bean dusting sugar
Oakleaf European (www.oakleaf-european.co.uk) Sells Madagascan Bourbon vanilla pods and Tahitian pods
Island Rose's Strawberry Vanilla Tea Available from www.purebeans.co.uk, tel: 0800 075 4555
Where to research
Vanilla: Travels in Search of the Luscious Substance by Tim Ecott (Penguin)
Vanilla: The Cultural History of the World's Favourite Food & Fragrance by Patricia Rain (Jeremy P Tarcher)Reuse content