On Wednesday evening I was very excited to be invited to a vanilla workshop with master patissier Eric Lanlard which was hosted by Nielsen-Massey fine vanillas.
It was also my first visit to Cake Boy...and it won't be my last as I only live 10 minutes down the road! When we arrived we were greeted with the wonderful aroma of vanilla and the tables were decorated with beautiful orchids...vanilla pods are actually the fruit of an orchid...something I didn't know!
There were also some gorgeous nibbles, all made with a hint of vanilla. There were sweet and savoury offerings...a top tip is to use vanilla in your savoury dishes as it cuts through acidity. It was therefore perfect with the little shot glasses of gazpacho. You can also use vanilla to cure fish and Eric recommended adding it to your pumpkin soup!
My favourite was this combination of raspberry and pistachio mousse...it even had a little macaroon in the bottom of the glass.
I always use Nielsen-Massey vanilla in my bakes and I was glad to hear I'm in good company, as so do all the top bakers. At the beginning of July I conducted a blind taste test creating mini cupcakes using Nielsen-Massey vanilla and mini cupcakes using vanilla essence. The pure vanilla extract won hands down and you can check out the results here.
Whilst we were at the masterclass, there were three different types of vanilla laid out in front of us...Nielsen-Massey bean paste, Nielsen-Massey pure extract and an artificial flavouring. You could really see...and smell the difference but interestingly 98% of factories worldwide use vanilla flavouring in their products.
First of all Eric spent some time explaining to us about vanilla...it was good to see that it was something he was passionate about as he was very knowledgable. Eric even went so far as to arrange a visit to the Nielsen-Massey factory on a trip to Chicago.
Then we got to the baking...obviously my favourite bit...which kind of goes without saying with a blog name like 'Laura Loves Cakes'! Eric demonstrated for us a Gateau Fraisier, a traditional patisserie made with sponge, creme mousseline and strawberries. We were shown each step of how to construct the gateau and to remove it from it's ring, Eric used a blowtorch...apparently a good place to get a blowtorch is B&Q! The finishing touch was marzipan on top, it was hand crimped around the edges and finished with the blowtorch. You may sometimes find that the marzipan on a Gateau Fraisier is green. Finally, the word Fraisier was expertly piped in chocolate on top along with a border...et voila...a gorgeous gateau!
So what were Eric's top baking tips?
Take your time - when creaming butter and sugar together it takes longer than you think! The good news is you can't overbeat it.
Baking is like chemistry - you need to be precise. Mary Berry always advocates this too.
Always sift your flour
Ensure your ingredients are at room temperature.
Never leave your eggs and sugar sitting together - the sugar starts to cook the eggs!
If you have been storing your self-raising flour for a while it can lose it's va va voom, so just add a little baking powder to it before using.
After Eric's brilliant demonstration we were given a bag full of baking goodies...including of course some Nielsen-Massey vanilla. All I need to do now is come up with a recipe inspired by Eric's Gateau Fraisier! We also received a copy of 'British Baking in 2012' a lovely little book full of delicious, easy to make recipes. You can buy a copy of the book in Sainsbury's for £2.99. I also have to admit that I ate the delicious vanilla cupcake below as soon as I got home! :-)
So to finish off, here are a few facts about vanilla and how it reaches us ready for baking!
Madagascar is the world's largest producer of vanilla. It also produes the finest vanilla. Other producers include the Seychelles, Mexico, Uganda, Indonesia and Tahiti.
Vanilla pods are the fruit of an orchid and each one has to be fertilized by hand.
It takes around 7-8 years before a vanilla vine will produce well.
Each vanilla flower opens for only part of one day - if it's not pollinated on that day, no pod will be produced.
6-9 months after pollination the pod turns from green to yellow and is ready to harvest.
A curing process is then undertaken. The pods go into an oven for 24-48 hours, they're then spread in the sun, gathered in overnight and wrapped in a blanket to sweat, spread in the sun, gathered in...and so on.
Finally, they are stored in racks to further develop the flavour. This curing process can take between 3 to 6 months.
Who knew that it took so long to get one vanilla pod! And finally to leave you witha bit of vanilla trivia...the bean seeds that we often see in ice cream etc are purely cosmetic...they have no flavour, they're simply exhausted vanilla bean specks!!!