Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Vanilla Buttermilk Pancakes

I’ve often said that chocolate is one of the two original and best flavours on the planet. What I don’t often mention is that vanilla is the other.

I recently discovered, much to my surprise and delight, that vanilla is the fruit of an orchid plant from Madagascar. In fact, the vanilla planifolia vine was transported to Madagascar from Mexico (and other French colonies) in the early 1800s. The vanilla plant is actually a vine, usually found winding itself around a bamboo plant or coconut tree, which grows an orchid-type flower. In Mexico, the vanilla flower is pollinated by a bee. Outside of Mexico, the bee cannot survive, so pollination is undertaken by human hand – a laborious process which is responsible for the incredibly expensive price of vanilla bean pods. The mature pods are harvested from the vine and dried to reduce the moisture content, thereby producing the distinct vanilla aroma we all know and love.

I never stopped to question where vanilla came from before. Yet like most cooks, I use vanilla in virtually everything that I bake. Quite often I’ve found that if the flavour of a cake or biscuit isn’t quite right, vanilla will stabilise and enhance it. Vanilla makes everything taste good.

As a kid one of our favourite frozen treats was a Streets Paddle Pop. Not quite an ice cream, our first choice in Paddle Pop flavour was chocolate. But frequently my father, who was a delivery guy for Streets at one point, would bring home vanilla Paddle Pops. I thought vanilla was bland back then. And in fact, many people today use the word “vanilla” to describe something that is totally lacking in excitement. But I beg to differ. There is nothing ordinary about vanilla. It is one of the most exotic flavours I can think of.

Did you know that typhoons wiped out much of the world’s vanilla crop in the early eighties, forcing the price of vanilla up to $500 per kilo? These days the price is more stable, resting at around $40 a kilo. Madagascar is still the world’s primary producer of vanilla, with Indonesia following fast on its footsteps.

As a baker, I sing the praises of vanilla. And I commend it to you as a spice that you must simply always have in your pantry.

Vanilla Buttermilk Pancakes

1 cup buttermilk
1 vanilla pod
1 cup plain flour
1 egg
1 tsp baking powder
1 tblsp caster sugar
2/3 cup butter milk extra

1. Measure out the buttermilk the night before you wish to cook your pancakes. Carefully split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds off with a knife and transfer them into the buttermilk. Cut the seed pod into one inch long pieces and place them in the buttermilk too.

2. The next day, sift the flour and baking powder into a large mixing bowl. Add the sugar.

3. Make a well in the centre and crack the egg into it. Strain the buttermilk into the well to remove the vanilla bean pod pieces. You won’t be able to get the vanilla seeds out – and that’s a good thing! Carefully begin stirring the egg and buttermilk together, gradually drawing the dry ingredients in from the sides. At this point, you should have a very thick mixture.

4. Using a stick blender, continue mixing the batter while adding the extra buttermilk until you have a consistency similar to custard. You want your batter to be thin enough to pour, but thick enough to hold its form on the hot plate. Set the batter aside for 30mins.

5. Heat a non-stick frying pan on a high heat (but not the maximum). Grease the pan with a teaspoon of butter.

6. Pour quarter cup amounts of the batter into the pan. Once bubbles have formed and popped on the top side, turn with an egg flip and brown on the other side. Remove from pan and keep warm between the folds of a tea towel while you finish cooking the rest of the batter.

7. Serve with whipped butter and maple syrup. Makes about 8-10 pancakes.

Whipped butter
125g salt reduced butter
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tblsp icing sugar

1. Combine the butter, vanilla extract and icing sugar in the small bowl of an electric mixer. Increase speed to high (about 6 on a Kitchenaid) and continue to whip until the butter turns a very pale yellow.

2. Spread into tiny ceramic bowls (the kind you serve soy sauce in) and refrigerate until you serve the pancakes.