It's Very Vanilla in the Test Kitchen This Week A farmer teaches the team some things they didn't know about this essential spice.
All home bakers probably have a bottle of vanilla extract in the cupboard. A teaspoon here, a teaspoon there—the ingredient has become so ubiquitous in baking that it’s often taken for granted. But there’s an extraordinary amount of work that goes into producing vanilla, which the food editors discovered a newfound appreciation for after a recent visit from New Zealand-based vanilla company Heilala.
Women-owned and women-operated, Heilala started as an aid project in Tonga after a cyclone devastated the chain of islands in 2002. CEO & cofounder Jennifer Boggiss, along with her dairy-farmer-turned-vanilla-whisperer father, were offered a lease on land in the village of Utungake in return for providing employment to the community. They decided to grow vanilla, which like cacao and coffee can only be grown 20 degrees north or south of the Equator, and partnered with a local family to establish a small farm. (Heilala is named after the national flower of Tonga, as well as the eldest daughter of the family.)
Heilala’s vanilla orchids are grown in virgin soil on coconut husk frames, then hand-pollinated. The harvest happens nine months later, followed by a three-month curing and drying process. It takes three years to get the first crop from vine to flower. “Vanilla isn’t a hard thing to grow, but it does require lots of patience,” says Boggiss. “It’s as much an art as a science—you need really delicate hands and incredible attention to detail for the hand-pollination and curing and drying.” The pros for female farmers are that the work isn’t physically demanding, it can be done with their families, and the hours are flexible.
Top chefs in New Zealand went gaga for Heilala’s first crop of vanilla beans in 2004, and the company has since partnered with more groups of women throughout the islands. Sales and marketing manager Ruby Grant credits Tonga for the vanilla's distinctive flavor: “The beans take on some of the characteristics of the Tongan terroir, so they’re very smoky, raisin-y, and rum-y—deep and dark.”
Heilala’s range of products includes vanilla beans, extract, paste, powder, sugar, and what they've dubbed “breakfast vanilla,” a sugar- and alcohol-free extract. The reception has been just as positive among American chefs—New York’s Eleven Madison Park, Gramercy Tavern, Flora Bar, The Grill, Loring Place, and Ovenly are just a few of the heavyhitters that use Heilala in their kitchens. Boggiss says, “We try to partner with chefs who not only appreciate the flavor, but are also passionate about the traceability and ethics of vanilla.”
Shira was curious about ways to use up the whole pod. Grant’s recommendations: after using the vanilla seeds (or what she charmingly calls “caviar”), poach the bean with fruit. Or let the bean dry out, then grind it in the food processor and add to sugar. Or infuse alcohol with it: rum, brandy, and bourbon all pair well with vanilla. Lauryn had a culinary instructor in Italy who used to add a spent vanilla bean to his tomato sauce for a certain je ne sais quoi, a trick she's excited to try in the test kitchen. Lindsay likes to soak a leftover pod in a jar of simple syrup and use it to flavor her morning coffee.
As for how to use that “caviar,” the test kitchen has created so many delicious recipes starring vanilla over the years. Sarah just did a black-and-white dessert story with lots of ideas for vanilla beans and extract, including this irresistible Vanilla Pudding Pie. Shira’s partial to this Bruleed Vanilla-Bean Cheesecake she developed for the holidays. Lauryn loves the combo of pineapple and vanilla (an icy blended pineapple frappé with a hint of vanilla, anyone?). Lindsay prefers to keep it simple with “ice cream, custards, and sugar cookies that really let the flavor shine.” Who said vanilla was boring??!