Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Vanilla Extract: The Facts!

Vanilla Extract: it is the second most expensive spice, the most expensive spice is saffron. Widely used in baking, it is an important and necessary ingredient. I like to think "vanilla is to baking", as "salt is to cooking": it adds depth, flavor, and sweetness. Different vanilla beans will produce a slightly different tasting vanilla bean. Please, avoid imitation vanilla at all cost, it is fake and unreal. True, real vanilla adds a declicate and full flavor to all baked items.
Why is PURE vanilla extract so expensive? Real vanilla extracts is so expensive becuase of how it is grown and how rare its growing conditions are. It starts with a rare orchid, called the celadon colored orchid (native to central America), which needs to be pollinated by Melipona bees to grow vanilla pods (beans). Once the orchid flower opens up, it must be pollinated by bees or the flower will fall off. Recently, farmers have discovered "hand pollination" to grow vanilla commerically. After pollination, the flowers grow long, green bods/beans, then they are picked the fermentation process begins. The beans are dried out during the day, then wrapped up in towels to "sweat" during the night. This process can range from 2-6 months, depending on the pod. The pods, during this process, start to have a "white crystal frost" on the outside, which is called vanillin. Vanillin is what gives the beans/pods their flavor.
The 3 main types of vanilla beans: 1) Madagascar or Burbon-Madagascar Beans (which are the most common and does not contain any Burbon, despite its name. The name came from the French, who planted their first vine on Isle de Burbon), 2) Mexican Beans (has a rich, darker, smoother taste; Some say it gives the best vanilla taste), and 3) Tahitian (not as rich as the previous two, but has a deep, complex flavor. Also, many vanilla-scented perfumes/lotions are scented with tahitian vanilla).
What is the deal with imitation vanilla extract? Be sure to buy "PURE' vanilla extract. Imitation vanilla extract is made from glycoside, found in certain sapwood of certain confiers or from coal extracts. Items labeled "vanilla flavoring" is a combination of pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla extract.
Vanilla is sold in these forms: beans/pods, extract, powder, and sugar. Vanilla powder are the beans grinded until very fine. Vanilla sugar is when sugar has been "marinating" in vanilla beans. It adds more depth to your regular, plain white sugar.
Vanilla is a flavor that has been tried and true in the pastry world. Think: vanilla cream brulee, French vanilla ice-cream, vanilla cheesecake, and adding vanilla extract to chocolate chip cookies. True vanilla taste is pure, simple, and delicate. Always use pure vanilla extract when baking to bring out the best flavor. Happy Baking!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

All About Flour

Flour is a important and dominate ingredient in the pastry kitchen. By grinding up seeds, cereal grains, roots, or nuts, a powder is formed, thus flour is born. Flour is made up of complex carbohydrates and starches, giving its products structure and form. Flour is classified by which variety of wheat it is milled, the location, and growing conditions. There are strong flours, which have a higher protein content, and weak flours, which have a lower protein content.
A brief overview on popular American flours:
-Bleached versus Unbleached white flour: When flour has been treated with chemicals, it will be labeled "bleached." Bleached flour has less protein than unbleached flour. Some bakers like bleached flour to make their pastries "extra white." I, on the other hand, do not like using bleached flour in any of my products. All purpose flour is a combination of cake and pastry flours.
-Bread Flour: has a higher protein content (13-14%) and is used primary in bread production. Bread flour will have a trace amount of malted barely flour, which helps yeast do its job in the bread making role!
-Cake Flour: Used when making cakes and fine pastries that require little gluten activity. Cake flour has a protein content around 8% and naturally is a pure white color.
-Pastry Flour: Another low portein flour (about 9%) yet a bit "stronger" than cake flour. Mainly used in cookies, quick breads, and some cakes.
-High Gluten Flour: This flour has a high protein content, 14%, and is used for pizza crusts and bagels.
-Whole wheat Flour: Made by the entire wheat kernel (where are the nutrients are located; white flour only uses about 75% of the wheat kernel) and is a "heavier" than white flour. Used for all baked items in the pastry kitchen and for healthier baked goods.

There are many other flours in the pastry world, esp. for gluten-free baking. Just like buying a good pot roast, buying quality flour is essential because it is the structure behind the baked good. Know about your flour! Happy Baking!