Often, the best teachers are the ones who can tell a splendid story. I’m sure most of y’all can still remember a favorite instructor from your classroom days, and I bet most of those teachers could spin a really good yarn. Just like those paragons of education, I always try to inject a few good tales into my cooking instructions as a way of bringing students around to my way of thinking about food. The idea is to keep the spiels light and fun by using very descriptive, colorful language. Why is this important? Because the last thing I want someone to do is describe my classes as vanilla.
Wait! Hold the phone! Why wouldn’t I want my classes described as vanilla? Vanilla is anything but bland. Think about this for a second: Vanilla is actually one of the most sought-after ingredients on the planet. It’s also the second-most expensive spice available—saffron’s the apex. Yet we Americans treat this rare, exotic treasure as if it were as common as a Caesar salad on a lunch menu. How absurd!
Vanilla is thought to have originated on Mexico’s east coast. By the 15th century, it had become popular with the Aztecs—well, not quite as popular as sacrificing virgins, but what is? The Aztecs used the vanilla as a complementary flavor component in their hot chocolate. Delicious!
The infamous Cortez was the one who brought the first vanilla beans to Europe. By the 18th century, the French were using vanilla as an ice cream flavoring. From there, French pastry chefs began to exploit the stunning flavor of this mysterious spice and Chef Up all sorts of delicate treats. My favorite U.S. president, Thomas Jefferson, is credited with turning the Colonies on to the joys of vanilla ice cream, to which they soon became addicted.
Today, that vanilla addiction continues in America, though not only in ice cream. We also use vanilla to elevate most baked goods, such as cakes, cookies–even sauces. Using vanilla beans as a base ingredient became so popular and expensive, alternatives have been introduced. The first was vanilla extract, made by simply steeping used vanilla beans in alcohol; because of its intensity, only a tiny amount of this elixir is required. Chemists developed the second proxy, a nasty, ill-flavored, putrid potion of Satan. And, no, shoemakers, chemists are not renowned for having exceptional palates. Imitation vanilla will ruin the whole essence of any or all your baked goodies. Don’t use it!
Go ahead and say my classes are vanilla. And try this Anglaise sauce as well. Sublime.
CHEF BILL’S Crème Anglaise
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup milk
- 7 tbsp. sugar
- 1 vanilla bean, split
- 5 egg yolks
- Heat the milk and cream, with half the vanilla bean and 4 tbsp. of sugar, to a simmer.
- Remove from heat, infuse for 30 minutes. Scrape in the seeds, discard the pod.
- Whisk the egg yolks with the remaining 3 tbsp. of sugar to a ribbon consistency.
- Reheat the cream and slowly temper into the egg yolks.
Until we cook again,
Contact Chef Bill Thompson, owner of The Amelia Island Culinary Academy, at firstname.lastname@example.org to find inspiration and get you Cheffed Up!