Sunday, February 1, 2009

Madam, You are Not Fair!

All in all, passion fruit aside, I wasn't overly impressed with the level of really fun market produce in Uganda, at least until our second to last day. After weeks of markets that pretty much featured cabbage, plantains, sickly tomatoes, and various starchy roots, we visited the main market in Kampala, which was a little more like what I'd hoped. I can't vouch for the local pedigree of all the offerings, but given the state of the roads in East Africa, I'm going to hope that most of it (South African apples aside) hadn't come too far. Plums from Jinja, source of the Nile, bitter melon, spices...after the very limited village diet Liana lives on, it was overwhelming.My eye was caught by a product that I'd just learned was one of Uganda's major exports--vanilla beans. I came back with a fat bag of desiccated pods for about US$5, although I was actually put off buying all I would have wished by some truly dedicated sales techniques. No sooner had I glanced at the beans, than the eager salesman was all over me...initially quoting me a price nearly double what I eventually paid (which was no doubt nearly double the actual going rate). I tried to beg off, after I couldn't get him to a price I wanted, and moved on, but he followed us insistently and we finally agreed to wait at the market edge while he got a bigger bagful. I waswaiting, and suddenly a hand shoved a huge fat worm under my nose. It was a monster bourbon vanilla bean, soft and wet and four times the size of almost any one I had ever seen. Here's where things got hasty, because I looked up to see that the man attempting to sell me the amazing beans (at a better price I might add) wasn't my original man, who had just returned with his bag of beans. I deliberated for a minute, but guy #1 won Liana's soft heart over by his plaintive 'Madam, you are not fair...' and sad face, so I bought his beans and left the market. Next time I would have stuck it out and found all kinds of wonderful things, but this time, I'm pretty happy with my 20-bean haul, enough to play with for the first time. I can't wait to use them for ice cream, pound cakes, custards. Look out for little black seeds everywhere, as I redeem myself for being an overwhelmed white person and not diving deeper in.

The first recipe I had in mind for these beans was from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte. As I may have mentioned, I have a grudging fascination with this weird little book. The writing, culled from a year of newspaper columns, lacks depth, but the recipes are flawless, and something about the way she writes them up has earned many of them a permanent spot on my mental to-do list. Many of the ones I've made have stayed on the roster simply because they're excellent. At the end of one chapter, my eye was caught by a recipe for vanilla pound cake from Boston's Hi-Rise bakery.

Normally, I wouldn't make or order pound cake, although I like it very much, because it doesn't excite my imagination. When I make plain cake, I usually go for yogurt cake, or just biscuit draped with berries and whipped cream. This recipe, though, seemed like something special, largely because it came with conditions and a particular type of restrained excess. While resolutely simple, just a pure pound cake brushed with syrup, it uses not one, not two, but three kinds of vanilla, and the recipe calls for 'as many vanilla beans as you can afford'. With all my new vanilla on hand, I wanted to feature it, and this recipe just seemed like it would showcase the essence of vanilla.

And it was perfect, down to the crunchy crust flecked with vanilla seeds, so here's the recipe for the next time you find yourself in a crowded market with men showering you with fat, wet vanilla beans.

Vanilla Bean Loaves
Adapted from Hi-Rise Bread Company in Cambridge, MA, via Amanda Hesser

3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups vanilla sugar (sugar in which a split vanilla bean has been buried for at least a few days)
1 vanilla bean
1 Tblsp vanilla extract
8 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt

For the syrup:
1 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup water
2 vanilla beans, split and scraped

Thickly butter two loaf pans and preheat oven to 325 farenheit.
Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy.
Scrape the first vanilla bean and get all the seeds into the bowl, along with the vanilla extract.
Add the eggs one by one and beat to combine.

Sift the flour, salt, and baking powder. Add the dry ingredients to the batter and fold in, mixing minimally with a rubber spatula, until just combined.

Divide the batter between the loaf pans. Bake for 30 minutes, then turn the pans and bake another 25-40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out almost clean.

While the loaves bake, make syrup. In a small saucepan, dissolve the sugar in the water over medium heat. Add the vanilla beans and seeds and stir a little to loosen the seeds. Remove pan from heat.

When the loaves are done, cool them for 10 minutes in the pan on a rack, and then turn them out onto the rack. Brush them generously on all sides (bottom too) with the syrup. Repeat the brushing with syrup a few more times as the loaves cool. Amanda Hesser says the cakes can be wrapped and frozen, but as she cautions, it's hard to wait that long.

1 comment:

Libby said...

that vanilla sounds amazing. i love fresh vanilla.