I've talked about my love of vanilla so many times on this blog, I should really start a foundation. I'm constantly craving and searching for great vanilla recipes. So when I came across a recipe for Vanilla Bean Loaves (Vanilla cake! Vanilla bean syrup! Extract! Beans! Glamour!), I pretty much needed to get to work immediately.
I made a special trip to Surfas, which always excites this food nerd, just to purchase whole vanilla beans. Sure, I'd been showing all of my baking projects plenty of vanilla love with my favorite extract, but whole beans are really where it's at for serious vanilla needs. And since I'd already made up my mind that this latest recipe was to provide the apex of my vanilla experiences, I didn't even mind forking over $12 for six potent, mahogany Tahitian beauties (this is actually an excellent price for the quality of beans that I purchased...some are so expensive it makes you wonder if you've traveled back in time, like before modern currency).
The original recipe makes two full-sized loaves this cake, but I opted to halve the recipe after looking at the list of ingredients and considering the cost as well as my waist size. I do consider both of those things on occasion, you know. Anyway, even in its halved state, this recipe calls for--brace yourself--one and a half sticks of butter, nearly three cups of sugar and four eggs. And then there's the vanilla. Oh, the vanilla! One loaf has half a tablespoon of pure extract and two whole beans between the batter and the glaze, plus another bean sacrificed to make vanilla sugar, which is used in place of boring old granulated sugar. So this cake is RICH--both in texture and expense.
The scent of the baking cake was really lovely, of course, and the applications of vanilla sugar syrup during cooling accumulated to create a sweet, laquered glaze that added nice visual and textural elements to the finished cake.
But unfortunately, for all the vanilla on vanilla on vanilla hype involved with this recipe, the flavor was not all that stellar. I'm keeping my insanely high expectations in mind here, so I don't want to call it boring, per se--the cake is a fine one, to be sure--a rich, tender pound cake with a beautiful velvety interior. But somehow it's not the breath of vanilla in every bite that I was hoping for. I decided to serve the slices with generous dollops of some sweetened vanilla bean cream that I whipped up, and that definitely added some interest. I suppose you could always serve some berries alongside or, even better, add some bourbon or rum to the batter and glaze, but then why go through all the vanilla effort? I feel like a recipe with this much vanilla grandstanding should deliver, or at least taste strongly like its name, and not torture poor vanilla with its very false stereotype for being, well....plain old vanilla. That's just how I feel. This cake freezes really well, so my leftover cake is being saved for a fondue party or something like that.
So if you want a good pound cake recipe, try this one. If you want to feed your vanilla addiction, umm...maybe try something else.
Vanilla Bean Loaf
Adapted from Amanda Hesser's Cooking for Mr. Latte
Makes 1 Cake
For the Cake:
1 1/2 sticks of unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 1/4 cups vanilla sugar*
1/2 whole vanilla bean
1/2 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
For the Syrup:
3/4 cup plus two tablespoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 whole vanilla beans
1/2 cup water
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees and set an oven rack to the middle position. Generously grease an 8x4x3-inch loaf pan, or one that is similarly sized.
For the cake, begin by creaming the butter and vanilla sugar in the bowl of a standing mixer with the paddle attachment, or use an electric mixer, until the mixture is pale and fluffy, like frosting.
Prepare both vanilla beans at once, by splitting them in half lengthwise. Set three of the halves aside for the syrup, and scrape the seeds of the remaining half, saving the scraped pod for the syrup as well.
Mix the seeds from the one vanilla bean half into the butter and sugar mixture for the cake, along with the vanilla extract and four eggs. Mix until thoroughly combined.
Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt, and fold carefully into the butter mixture until well-blended, but do not overmix. Pour the batter into the loaf pan and bake until the cake is golden and a cake tester comes out clean, about 55 to 60 minutes.
While the cake is baking, prepare the vanilla syrup. Dissolve the granulated sugar and 1/2 cup water in a saucepan over medium heat and then stir in the 1 1/2 beans and the reserved, scraped pod as well. Bring the syrup to a boil, then remove it from the heat and let it steep as it cools.
When the cake is done, let it cool in the pan for ten minutes on a wire rack, then turn the cake out onto the rack to cool completely. Every so often, while it's cooling, brush coats of the syrup onto the entire surface of the cake--top, bottom and sides--with a pastry brush until all of the syrup has been absorbed into and brushed onto the cake. Wait until completely cooled, and then slice. Serve with sweetened vanilla whipped cream.
*To make the vanilla sugar, simply bury a split vanilla bean in a pound of granulated sugar in an airtight container and let it sit for a few days, shaking every so often. This is a great way to use leftover vanilla pods from other recipes. Vanilla sugar is awesome in place of plain sugar in just about any baking recipe, sprinkled in oatmeal, your morning coffee, etc.