Vamp Up Your Vanilla Baking

 ,  |  Updated: August 16, 2014 18:25 IST

Vamp Up Your Vanilla Baking
Vanilla may be a ubiquitous flavouring and its modern synonyms are 'bland' and 'boring', but here are two recipes to prove it's anything but ...

No quirk of language is crueller, or less justified, than the one that has come to equate vanilla with dullness. There is truly nothing "vanilla" about vanilla.

One of the most expensive spices in the world, second only to saffron, vanilla is a baker's best - if underappreciated - friend. Whenever you eat a forkful of rich, golden cake, vanilla is probably accenting the buttery richness; glance at the ingredients list on the back of your chocolate wrapper and you'll probably see vanilla working behind the scenes; any custard worth its salt will be nudged into life by vanilla's sweet kick.

Yet for a flavour so ubiquitous, it's difficult to find vanilla being done justice. So accustomed have we grown to synthetic vanilla flavouring - made with vanillin, which is only one of the many flavour compounds in vanilla pods - that the real thing can catch us off guard with its nuanced roasted, golden, floral and slightly bitter notes. It's a fantastically complex spice.


Tahitian vanilla and blackcurrant crème brûlée

Pudding-related sensations can rarely beat the feeling of bringing a spoon down with a crack on to the glassy top of a creme brulee. The thrill doesn't begin and end with the sugar-shard lid, though: dig beneath the surface and you'll find a thick, vanilla-speckled custard (all the smoother for being oven-baked rather than cooked on the hob).

I've used Tahitian vanilla here for its fruity, floral notes, which sit well with the sharpness of the blackcurrants, but you'll likely need to buy it online. It's well worth the purchase if you're a vanilla-phile. You can make this with the more readily available Madagascan vanilla, though, if that's all you can get hold of - it'll still taste sublime. And if blackcurrants escape you - although I dig mine out of those mixed bags of frozen berries, when they're out of season - bananas can be swapped in for maybe the best riff on bananas-and-custard you'll ever have.

Makes 4
1 Tahitian vanilla pod or 1½ tsp vanilla bean paste
300ml double cream
4 large egg yolks
100g caster sugar
75g blackcurrants

1 Use a sharp knife to make a deep slit along the length of the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds out using the point of the knife. In a small saucepan, combine the seeds and empty pod with the cream. Whisk lightly to break up any clumps of seeds. Stir over a low heat until boiling, then turn the heat off and leave to infuse for 30 minutes or so. Preheat the oven to 150C/300F/gas mark 2.

2 Whisk the egg yolks and 50g of the sugar in a mixing bowl, then strain the vanilla-flecked cream into the mixture, stirring continuously as you go. Fish out the vanilla pod. Scatter a few blackcurrants into the bottom of each of four ramekins, then divide the custard between them. Put the ramekins into a small oven dish and pour in enough hot (but not quite boiling) water to come around two thirds of the way up the sides. You might want to move the loaded oven dish to the oven shelf before pouring in the water, if you don't trust yourself not to slosh it over the sides as you move it.

3 Bake the puddings for 30-40 minutes, or until the custard is well set with barely a ripple in the centre when jiggled. Leave to cool on a wire rack then refrigerate for an hour or so.

4 Once chilled, sprinkle the remaining 50g of caster sugar on top of each custard. A small blowtorch is by far the easiest way to do this next step, but you can use the grill if you don't like the idea of pyrotechnics in your kitchen. If using a blowtorch, work quickly, but carefully, to melt and caramelise the sugar to a deep mottled brown. If using a grill, preheat it in advance, and place the ramekins on a tray underneath for 3-5 minutes, or until the tops have begun to bubble and darken. Don't leave them for too long, or the custard underneath will scramble and lose that silky texture. Leave to chill again before serving.

Rye, vanilla and poppy seed braided loaves

These loaves are braided with four strands and so need to be plaited differently from simpler, three-strand braids. They're not tricky though - just read carefully through the step-by-step instructions and resist the temptation to freestyle.

Makes 2 small loaves
100g dark rye flour
400g strong white flour
1 tsp salt
7g instant dried yeast
60g poppy seeds
2 tbsp soft light brown sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract or 1½ tsp vanilla bean paste
3 large eggs
150ml water
3 tbsp oil
A good pinch of salt

1 Combine the flours, salt, yeast, poppy seeds and sugar in one bowl, and the vanilla, 2 eggs, water and oil in another. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones and stir into a sticky dough. Cover the bowl with clingfilm and leave to rest for 20 minutes, during which time the flour will absorb more of the water and the dough will become less wet.

2 After 20 minutes have passed, knead the dough. It will be sticky to begin with, but try to resist the urge to flour the work surface, if you can. You can use a few drops of oil to grease the surface if kneading is proving really difficult. Knead for 10 minutes, then return the dough to its bowl, re-cover with the clingfilm and leave to rise at room temperature until almost doubled in size - around 1 hour.

3 Once the dough has risen, divide it into eight equal-sized pieces. Roll four of these pieces, on a lightly floured work surface, to 30-35cm-long sausage shapes. Lay them out in front of you like a fan. Pinch the ends nearest to you firmly together, so the four strands splay out away from you. Now to plait: weave the far right-hand strand over the two strands immediately to its left, then back under the last strand it went over. Now take the left-hand strand and bring it over the two strands to its right, then back under the last strand it crossed. Repeat, working with each far-right and far-left strand in turn until you've braided the whole loaf. Pinch the strands together at the end and tuck the join neatly underneath. Repeat with the remaining four pieces of dough.

4 Transfer the loaves to a greased baking tray or two, cover with clingfilm and leave to rise for 45-60 minutes or until 1½ times their original size. Heat the oven to 200C/400FC/gas mark 6.

5 Beat the remaining egg with the salt for the glaze and brush this over the tops of both the risen loaves. Bake for 10 minutes before turning the oven temperature down to 180C/350F/gas mark 4 to cook for a further 15 minutes. Leave to cool completely before slicing and serving.

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Tahitian vanilla and blackcurrant creme brulee Photograph: Jill Mead for the Guardian



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