Monday, November 17, 2008

Vanilla Spices Up Holiday Dishes

(ARA) - Pro chefs and casual cooks alike will soon create confections for the holiday season. The best-loved delicacies will have one of the world's most popular flavors in common -- vanilla, with its heady, aromatic taste combined with sweet, fruity and floral scents.

Americans consume about 1,200 tons of vanilla beans a year. Vanilla is exciting and comforting, sexy and simple all at the same time. But not all vanilla is the same, and it pays to know the different kinds before you begin your seasonal baking.

The flavor is extracted from vanilla beans which are grown in four locations around the world -- Madagascar, Indonesia, Mexico and Tahiti.

Madagascar beans are creamy, sweet, smooth and mellow and work well in rich foods and in recipes that call for high heat, like cookies. Madagascar vanilla also works in ice cream and blends well with coffee and in chocolate recipes. Indonesian vanilla is typically a lower quality vanilla which has smoky, woody flavor notes and is often sold in supermarkets and warehouse clubs as just "Pure Vanilla Extract."

Vanilla was discovered in Mexico, and Mexican beans are spicier and complement chocolate, cinnamon, cloves and other warm spices. Surprisingly, Mexican pure vanilla extract also smoothes out the heat and acidity of tomatoes and chili peppers, which are used in salsas and barbecue sauces. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns consumers to purchase only Mexican pure vanilla that is produced in the United States. Mexican-produced vanilla is often made with coumarin, a toxic substance banned in the U.S.

The fourth kind of bean, Tahitian vanilla, is more delicate and works best in cooler cooked foods like refrigerated and frozen desserts, fruit pies and sauces, smoothies and shakes. Tahitian pure vanilla is known for its aromatic, cherry-like flavor and decorates fruit recipes splendidly.

Confectioners, bakers, chefs of fine restaurants and home cooks make sure they have vanilla like Nielsen-Massey Vanillas on hand to perfect their holiday baking. Nielsen-Massey Vanillas Inc. is known as the producer of the finest vanilla because it uses an exclusive cold extraction process, which slowly draws out the delicate and distinctive flavors of the vanilla beans.

One way to expand your holiday recipe list this year is to use vanilla in savory dishes like Creamy Vanilla Sweet Potatoes, in addition to cakes and cookies. Vanilla helps to enhance the inherent flavors of sweet potatoes, rather than concealing their flavor in sweeteners.

Creamy Vanilla Sweet Potatoes

Serves six

4 medium sweet potatoes
canola oil
2 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/2 cup butter softened
1/4 cup real maple syrup
1 tablespoon Nielsen-Massey Tahitian Pure Vanilla Extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
5 strips bacon, crisp-cooked and crumbled

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash sweet potatoes and lightly coat skins with canola oil. Pierce each potato several times with a fork, place the potatoes on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for one hour or until fork-tender.

Cut the hot potatoes into halves. Scoop the pulp into a mixing bowl, discarding the skins. Beat at medium speed for one minute using an electric mixer. Add cream cheese, butter, syrup, vanilla extract, salt and pepper. Whip until creamy.

Spoon whipped potatoes into six ramekins coated with nonstick cooking spray and top with the bacon. Place ramekins on a baking sheet. Bake in a preheated 375 F oven for five to eight minutes or until heated through. Alternatively, they may be reheated in a microwave.

Courtesy of ARA content

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