Sunday, April 22, 2012

Vanilla that's worth the price of beans.

ne of my favorite magazines ever is Fine Cooking, produced by Taunton Press.  The recipes are simple, the tips are amazing, and the photography is brilliant.  If ever I'm not in the mood to cook, a quick 5-minute browse through any of their issues (I save them all) is all it takes before I want to spend the day in the kitchen.  Unlike Martha, these recipes typically call for a short list of good ingredients and don't take a zillion steps to complete.  The photography and the way they present alternative ingredients to vary the recipes is brilliant.

Article from Fine Cooking magazine. 
What does this have to do with vanilla??  Well, I was skimming through the April/May 2012 issue and came upon a wonderful story from a woman on the topic of sablé cookies.  (Sablé is French for "sand" - accurately describing the crumbly nature of this cookie.)  The article, which included a recipe (at right, full-size here) discussed the virtues of simple cooking and finding the best ingredients.  In this recipe, the emphasis is very much on the butter, a key ingredient.  This was very exciting to me, so I decided to make them.

For the first batch, I found Isigny Ste. Mere Beurre butter, a french butter known for it's high butterfat content (82%) from happy french cows.  When I went to grab my vanilla beans from the cabinet, however, disappointment struck.  The recipe called for "two soft, plump vanilla beans."  What fell out of the spice jar were two shriveled, not-so-plump, mildly stiff vanilla beans.  Not wanting to deal with another trip to the grocery store to find more of the same, I proceeded with what I had on hand.  The cookies were good (if not a bit too big) and were thoroughly enjoyed by grateful work colleagues.
 
For the second try, I knew I could do better outside of traditional grocery channels.  For starters, I found better butter from Vermont - Vermont Creamery's Cultured Butter with a whopping 86% butterfat.  Sorry, France.  Next, the game was on to find the right vanilla beans.  Search after search finally turned up Amadeus Trading Company, a vanilla bean importer based in California.  They have a wide selection of vanilla beans for sale, and similar to other companies I like, they do one thing: import vanilla beans.  Their site is extremely informational, and I was able to learn lots about the differences between Tahitian vanilla and Bourbon Vanilla, vanillin content, the effect of bean length, etc.  It greatly satisfied my OCD.  The president, Glenn Gottlieb, quickly responded to my email when I had questions.  The pictures on the site show that the company actually visits their suppliers around the world and develops the relationships that ensure good product.  I decided to try the Uganda Gold (Bourbon) beans with the higher vanillin count, and also scooped up a dwindling supply of the long Tahitian vanilla beans.  They were promptly shipped.

Armed with the new butter and amazingly soft, plump vanilla beans (of two varieties) I set out once more to make the ultimate sablé cookies.  This time, I used three beans - two Uganda Gold and one Tahitian.  The Tahitian beans (Vanilla Tahitensis) is a different species of bean with lower vanillin but with more aromatics than the Bourbon beans.  This second batch was hands down better than the first, and the apartment smelled of vanilla for days.  Upon opening the sealed carton of cookies I made, a room would fill with the smell of vanilla.  They were outstanding.

--A