Tuesday, December 14, 2010

ingredient: VANILLA (part 2)

I think all children fall into one of two categories; chocolate or vanilla. I fell firmly in the vanilla camp (as well as muesli over frosted flakes, pop tarts over toaster strudels, cranberry over orange juice and jelly sandwiches above all). In fact, I have to admit that I just didn’t like chocolate for the first half of my life and to be honest I still can’t stand chocolate ice cream. Viva vanilla was my motto, and white chocolate if you must.

So while I’ve come to enjoy chocolate, especially when paired with oranges, I take personal offense to the way people throw out the word vanilla to mean plain or bland. There’s no pejorative use for chocolate. Why don’t we use it to describe things that are indulgent or things which make kids go nuts? I’ll tell you why. Thomas “I Ruined Vanilla’s Reputation For All Eternity” Jefferson.

That’s right. I have found another reason to reexamine the legacy of Thomas Jefferson. It turns out that the man was really up to no good at Monticello. In addition to dubious relations with staff, he imported vanilla beans from France. But instead of making the popular, luxurious, fragrant French pastries which showcased vanilla, he made vanilla ice cream. To make matters worse, ice cream in Colonial America was apparently chock full of add-ins like nuts and fruits, so people looked at vanilla as a boring base flavor. It became plain ice cream.

Jefferson was frumping up what was actually a very expensive luxury item. Vanilla was brand new to America. It had been brought to Europe from Mexico in 1520 by Cortes to spice up, what’s that other flavor again? Oh, right, chocolate. Queen Elizabeth went nuts for vanilla, and thus so did all of Christendom.

Vanilla is actually still a luxury item. It’s the second most expensive spice after saffron. People don’t realize this because crafty scientists have found a way to extract vanillin, a crappy, second-rate imitation vanilla flavor which costs food companies a fraction of the price to put in their products. Now 90-97 percent of vanilla-flavored products in the US use this synthetic flavoring instead of the real thing.

True vanilla comes from beans of the vanilla orchid. For hundreds of years after its discovery in Mexico, Europeans couldn’t figure out how to grow the delicate orchids at home. It turns out that vanilla plants have a symbiotic relationship with the Melipona Bee. However sending the bees on a little European vacation didn’t solve the problem, and it wasn’t until 1841 that a young slave on the Ile Bourbon figured out how to hand-pollinate vanilla plants. Thanks to that twelve-year old boy, we can now grow vanilla the world-over. However four regions produce almost all of the crop which we use today: Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico, and Tahiti. The taste of vanilla does vary by region, meaning you should definitely try to buy all four.

Vanilla Cake with Pink Frosting

Growing up, my favorite part about birthdays was that I got to choose what we were going to eat for dinner, main course and dessert. Whatever I wanted, my mother would either cook it or buy it, and we’d all eat it, no complaining. Actually, there was complaining, but to my family’s credit, it was only ever me, and only on my sister’s birthday. She always, always chose the two foods I hated a) tacos, which were really just those hard Old El Paso shells stuffed with sautéed ground beef and topped with chopped lettuce, diced tomatoes, and some shredded Mexican cheese mix and b) ice cream cake. YUCK.

I also tended to ask for the same thing every year; ricotta and spinach ravioli from Raffetto’s and a yellow cake with pink frosting and rainbow (never chocolate) non-pareille (don’t even think about buying regular) sprinkles. What can I say? Menu planning comes naturally to me.

To this day, my mother bakes me a yellow cake with pink frosting for my birthday. You see I choose my moments to be unabashedly girly, and my birthday happens to be one of them.

And then, five or so years ago, a life-changing event took place in my neighborhood: Amy’s Bread opened an outpost on Bleecker Street, just mere blocks away from my house. Amy’s is my mecca. They serve a ton of different breads in “twist” form, which is essentially a very substantial breadstick. Black olive, Parmesan, rosemary, chocolate, prosciutto and black pepper; there is a twist to suit my every mood. And let me tell you, I am never not in the mood for bread. My desert-island food is bread. I believe that the reason that I’m not 5’7 as my pediatrician predicted is bread; that’s essentially all I ate for lunch growing up. NB: Parents, don’t let your kids pack their own lunch.

As if Amy’s wasn’t already made for me, they serve a yellow cake with pink frosting. And not just on my birthday! So while I visit Amy’s almost every day for coffee and a twist, sometimes when I need an extra bit of cheer, when I want to pretend it’s my special day, I get a big hunkin slice of their vanilla cake with pink frosting. The cake is more dense than airy, but in a toothsome way that I really like. Their frosting is thick, but doesn't coat your tongue, and sweet but not cloying. Magnolia who? Go to Amy’s, they also serve this cake in cupcake form.

Even though I could just go and buy the cake when the mood strikes, you know how I am about baking things myself. So when the Sweeter Side of Amy’s Bread cookbook came out, I bought it immediately. Now I make the cake for my friends on their birthdays, though I save the pink frosting for me.

*So the curse of vanilla continues: my computer decided to render my memory card defective after I had made the cake and went to upload the photos. I bought a new memory card and took a picture of a beautiful slice, but I'm afraid my wallet simply won't allow me to make a whole new cake. So imagine the steps in your head. It's a bit time consuming, all cakes are, but definitely easy to manage.

Makes one 9-inch two-layer cake


For cake:
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, sifted
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/4 cups and 3 tablespoons milk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 1/4 cups and 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened
2 3/4 cups and 2 teaspoons sugar
5 eggs

For frosting:
7 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/3 cups unsalted butter, slightly softened
1/3 cup poured fondant (if I have it on hand, if I don't, no big deal)
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tablespoon and 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
Red food coloring

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9 inch cake pans.

Make the cake:

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt. In a small bowl, combine the milk and the vanilla.

In a large bowl, beat together the butter and the sugar until they are fluffy. This will take a few minutes. Next, beat in the eggs.

Now you want to alternate adding in the flour mixture and the milk mixture. The reason that recipes tell you to do things in additions like this is to make sure that everything is really mixed well and evenly distributed. You want every last bite of your cake to taste like vanilla. So I start with a bit of the flour mixture, beat it in until it’s “disappeared” then add some milk. In total that’s three additions of flour interspersed with two of the milk.

Now pour the batter into the prepared cake pans. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the cakes are starting to get a bit golden and a tester comes out mostly clean (a few crumbs is OK).

While the cake cools, make the frosting:

In a large bowl, use an electric beater to mix together 5 ½ cups of confectioner’s sugar, the butter, the milk, the vanilla, the salt, and the fondant if you have it.

Good icing is thick but spreadable. You’ll probably have to add more sugar, and maybe all of it, but do so one cup at a time, so that you can see how things are progressing. Once you have the right consistency, mix in the food coloring, one drop at a time until you get that perfect pink hue.

To assemble the cake:

Frost one layer of cake completely. Then stack the other cake on top and frost again. I find that spreading in small clock-wise circles works best for me, but do what you will, because this cake is all about taste. Sprinkle with rainbow non-pareille sprinkles.

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