Tuesday, May 21, 2024

The Most Treasured Jar in My Pantry

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Of all the ingredients in my pantry, my jar of vanilla is my most treasured. It’s not the ordinary kind of vanilla that you can find at any grocery store; I’m talking about pure vanilla extract and real vanilla beans. I’ve always wondered why the flavor is called “plain vanilla,” which implies an absence—it’s not chocolate or strawberry or caramel. But trust me when I say there is nothing “plain” about really good vanilla.

Vanilla pods are harvested from a variety of orchid plants that grow in the tropics. Much of what you think of as vanilla flavoring is, sadly, imitation, made from chemicals that try to mimic the flavor of the real thing. But good vanilla extract is one of those deep, complex flavors that infuses everything you cook with it. It’s oddly both bitter and sweet; add it to a chocolate cake and the chocolate tastes better, but you’re not quite sure why; in a crème anglaise, it balances the sharpness of the Cognac, and in a crème brûlée, its bitter edge cuts the richness of the cream and the sweetness of the caramelized sugar. I have a friend who even put a whole vanilla bean into each packet of her fish en papillote (fish in parchment paper) so that the flavor permeated the fillets. When each dinner guest unfolded their packet, the scent of vanilla and fresh herbs wafted into the air. Heaven!

Forty-six years ago, I bought a specialty-food store in the Hamptons called Barefoot Contessa. At that moment, I had no idea where it would lead me. I just wanted to bake really good chocolate-chip cookies and sell them to happy customers. The second summer I owned the store, I hired a chef named Anna Pump to run the kitchen. A stylish woman who’d grown up in the countryside between Germany and Denmark, she was formal and warm at the same time, and we quickly became great friends. I had very little experience in the food business, and Anna taught me so much about how to make food that was both simple and elegant, a style that has stayed with me ever since. This was during an era when home cooks were making beef bourguignon, babas au rhum, and other complicated dishes from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Instead, Anna taught me that if you use good ingredients, you don’t have to do all that much to make the food taste great.

A good example of Anna’s cooking was her apple tart: simple pastry, crisp apples, sweet butter, and lots of sugar, and then put it into the oven. Nothing else would have made that tart better, because the flavor of each of those ingredients shone through and perfectly balanced every other flavor. Each ingredient earned its place in the tart.

Of course, you can buy good vanilla extract in a specialty-food store, but one of the things Anna shared with me was how to make my own. It’s so much easier than you might imagine. You take a sealed canning jar that’s as tall as a whole vanilla bean, pack eighteen to twenty-four vanilla beans in the jar (they’re expensive, so buy them in bulk and wholesale!), fill the jar with vodka (any kind is fine), close the lid tight, and put it on a shelf. Four to six months later, you will have two precious things: the vodka, which will have become really good vanilla extract, and—my favorite part—the beans, which will have softened from all that time soaking in the vodka. I fish a vanilla bean out of the jar, snip off one end, and squeeze the seeds into whatever I’m cooking. You not only taste deep vanilla in your cake or custard but also see the vanilla seeds. (I love when a dish tells you what it’s going to taste like before you even eat it. When you open a container of Häagen-Dazs Vanilla Bean ice cream, the flecks of vanilla seeds stimulate your taste buds before you even put a spoonful in your mouth.) As I use up the contents of my vanilla jar, I add more beans and vodka, and the “brew” just gets more intense as time goes on.

Anna went on to run her own business, the legendary Loaves & Fishes specialty-food store in Sagaponack, New York. Sadly, she passed away in 2015. Recently, a young woman came to visit me and she brought me a gift. It turns out that she lives in Anna’s old house, and Anna’s original jar of vanilla beans (it’s probably fifty years old!) was still on the pantry shelf. My visitor had brought me extract and beans from Anna’s jar, and I will treasure them always. They remind me of our friendship, and of all the wonderful things Anna taught me. ♦



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