October 2nd, 2009
Vanilla Bean Heaven Cupcake – soft vanilla bean cupcake frosted with whipped white chocolate ganache and topped with a chocolate crescent moon. Price available upon request.
I am not really a fan of vanilla but when vanilla beans became readily available here, I thought it’s time I add vanilla cupcakes to my repertoire. I developed my own version—soft and light, just the way I like it. In addition to the vanilla bean, I also used vanilla sugar to further boost the vanilla flavor.
I chose to frost this with white chocolate ganache that is not cloyingly sweet (only 3 ounces of chocolate per 1 cup of cream) because white chocolate also has shades of vanilla. I whipped the ganache to match the cupcake’s delicate flavor and light texture. And I think a chocolate crescent moon is the perfect topper for this ethereal dessert.
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the real thing
Vanilla may seem like a common flavoring but do you know that it is the second most expensive spice after saffron? Real vanilla, that is. But why is it so expensive?
Growing vanilla is so labor-intensive. A member of the orchid family, it was originally cultivated in Mexico and can only be pollinated by the Melipone bee which is endemic to that country. When vanilla was brought outside Mexico, the vines grew but did not bear any fruit because no other insect would pollinate the flowers. Several attempts to transport the Melipone bees proved futile. It took a 12-year-old slave named Edmond Albius to develop a simple method of hand pollination and that led to the successful cultivation of the plant outside Mexico. That method is still being used today and it is the only way to produce fruits without the bees.
The vanilla flower also just blooms for a day so growers are always rounding out the farm for open flowers. And each flower must be hand-pollinated within 12 hours of opening. Harvesting the bean is also as labor-intensive as pollinating the flowers. Each pod must be picked by hand just as its end begins to split to ensure the finest flavor.
Vanillin, one of several hundred aromatic components of vanilla, can be produced synthetically making it a cheaper alternative to the real extract. Cooks Illustrated conducted an experiment comparing natural and artificial vanilla extracts in prepared food. The experiment concluded that if you use vanilla mainly for baking, imitation vanilla is at par with the real thing, but natural vanilla is best for custards, ice creams and savory dishes. I think in the end, it depends on one’s preference: if you want vanilla to be the standout flavor and you have the budget, then go for the real thing.