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Friday, 25 May 2012

Who's the fairest of them all?

A heat wave is upon us and I am loving every single scorching second of it.
I look at my sun drenched garden, my rhododendrons in full fuchsia bloom,  and I think to myself: It's the sort of day that needs to start with dessert.
Cold dessert.  Cold, creamy, dessert.  Cold, creamy, consummately decadent dessert.
The end.
I have some Greek yogurt. And I have vanilla pods. And I have strawberries that have just come into season. And a boxful of bouncing British blueberries. And I want to use the lot of them to make dessert. Cold, creamy, consummately decadent dessert.
What do you think?
Now, here’s a little secret. Shhhhhh....
I am a vanilla junkie.
I get positively high on the stuff.
But you can't tell anyone. You have to swear to be silent
As silent as a fish in a grave on the moon
(I told you. High as a kite.)
But, really. I think vanilla was created to be worshipped.
There’s really very few things on God’s earth as miraculous as vanilla.
It’s subtle. It’s delicate. It’s indulgent. It’s transformational.
It’s full-on flavour. And I love it.
It’s funny. My earliest association with vanilla was the slabfulls of ice-cream my dad would bring home for us.  Growing up in India in the 80's there were only  three flavours of ice-cream on offer – Vanilla, Strawberry and Chocolate – and even these were big city luxuries! But we didn't mind. There was a certain amount of charm in the simplicity. And if I remember correctly, for the longest, longest time, Kwality Walls was the only ice-cream brand around. Then Amul joined in the fun. The economic liberalisation of the 90’s brought foreign player Baskin-Robbins and then a decade or so later Haagen-Dazs followed. A Rainbow of colours and flavours proliferated the market, but interestingly, the original trio still makes up 60% of the country’s ice cream market! Old habits die hard. Or soft, I suppose, in this case!
Anyway, so back in the day, my dad would bring home alternating flavours of the Kwality Walls take-home packs of ice-cream – one week vanilla, one week chocolate, one week strawberry and then vanilla again and so on – in thick, flat, rectangular slabs, packed in hideously poor quality cardboard that you had to peel away as you worked your way through.  We’d lick the bits of ice-cream off the paper before discarding it. I haven’t the faintest clue why, because it tasted – frankly disgusting.
But the ice-cream inside, was heaven.
We’d eat it with cut fruit, I remember, a combination that was looked upon favourably by my mum’s eagle eye. In fact, Ice-cream and other milk-based desserts – yogurts and custards and things were (for whatever reason) the only dessert we were allowed to have on a somewhat regular basis. And these too, with fruit. Always with fruit. The other stuff – cakes and so on – we’d only be allowed on the weekends. And very, very, rarely on weekdays, under exceptional circumstances  – only if someone’s birthday (or other deserving occasion) happened to fall on a weekday.  We almost never ate Indian sweets. My parents were really strict like that, a lot stricter than I would be with my kid, I think.
But it’s amazing when you think about how one’s tastes get defined gradually and over the years. And how early influences craft desire: I like this. I don’t like that. You carry forward so much of what you grow up with.
And so (quite sadly for me) I haven't a sweet tooth in my mouth. I love fruit. I love ice-cream and yogurt. I adore custard and jelly (the cold, wobbly kind – not jam, which is what they call jelly in America). But I find most Indian sweets too sweet to eat, and I can pass on cake without so much as a single longing glance.  I’ve mentioned before in this blog that I very rarely crave chocolate, and when I do, it’s the dark, bitter almost 75% (upwards) cocoa kind. This is an adult taste, because I was never given chocolate as a kid! Carbonated drinks were locked away in the pantry, brought out only for guests. I don’t think coco-cola touched my lips until I was nearly thirteen! Which means I have niether the taste nor the slightest desire for the stuff.
So if you've come to the conclusion that I had no fun, you have my parents to thank for that. And for my non-existent sweet tooth. And I suppose (because I give credit, where credit is due) for my remaining 31 exceptionally good teeth  :-)
Anyhow, back to vanilla, what’s funny is that even back then, when we were kids - and I'm talking way before we were sophisticated enough to understand the implications of the term "plain vanilla" - we'd refer to vanilla ice-cream, as "plain ice-cream."
It's such a sorry little name for it, really. And I don't know why we came up with it. I can only guess that because it was white, and the other two were coloured, it just somehow got branded the "plain" one, by default.
Which is all very ironic to me, because as far as flavour is concerned – whether it’s ice-cream, yogurt or just about anything else – strawberry and chocolate can never hold a candle to vanilla. Never. Not in a million years to the power of max.
Vanilla is amazing.
Vanilla is like nothing else.

Vanilla is, unquestionably, the fairest of them all.
Especially "real vanilla" like in the yogurt I am making.
See for yourself.
Now what I mean by "real vanilla" is that in addition to a teaspoon-full of vanilla extract, I am also going to use vanilla beans. Which is the real stuff. And it's not just to kick up the flavour. Or for that brilliant subtle crunch. It's also because I simply love the visual impact it creates.
It's like a makeover for dessert.
Here's what you need:
- 1 hand-held mirror. You know the kind with the oval looking glass and the long sleek handle, that you'd find lying on your grandmothers dressing table?
- 720g Greek yoghurt
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- Seeds scraped from 1/2 vanilla bean (optional)
- As many berries as you want. There’s no portion control on fruit. As least according to my mum!
Look for strawberries that are shiny and scarlet and bursting with flavour. And blueberries – purple and plump, a round squirt of sugar.
And, if you can get a hold of the pods, do! But if you can't, just use the extract. No problem.
But try to get them – there’s something seriously special about those perfumed black flecks of vanilla scattered in every creamy spoonful.  It adds depth and it adds dimension and it is divine.
And if you are buying the pods, look for beans that are shiny and really dark, almost black, and tender, plump and moist. The outside surface should look sleek and supple not hard and dry. And really – the best way to tell a good pod (unlike a good egg which is quite impossible to tell this way) is to get down and dirty, and inhale large quantities of the stuff until you are virtually hallucinating. you know why I'm flying...(and do you blame me??)
No really, you've simply got to do the smell test. It's a load of fun. The good ones will always give out a rich, deep aroma. And the bad ones won't smell like anything at all. So it’s all very straightforward.

I smell about 50 and narrow it down to 5. But I’m obsessive...’s how you do it:
Add the vanilla extract to the yogurt.
If you are using the pod, slit it open lengthwise, then scrape out the small, sticky seeds from both sides of the bean using the tip of a small, sharp knife. Add the “caviar” directly to the yogurt.
Mix it all together and refrigerate for an hour or so.
Cut the strawberries. Basically, take off the leaves and cut them on the vertical - each slice should look heart shaped. I'm digging the heart shape these days – it’s turning out to be a very fashionable shape...
You don’t need to do anything with the blueberries. That’s the beauty of blueberries.
When you’re ready, pour the vanilla scented yogurt you’ve just made into a beautiful tall glass or desert bowl. And top with the berries. And pause to admire. Because objects of beauty must be admired.

And this is beautiful.
It’s luscious, it’s light.
It’s seasonal, it’s fresh.
It’s utterly sublime.
But before you do anything else – please, if you will – pick up that hand-held mirror and hold it (like a beacon) on top of your cold, creamy, consummately decadent dessert.

And ask that all important question: Mirror, mirror (not) on the wall, who's the fairest of them all?
And look me in the eye and tell me it’s not vanilla!
And now, dig in. Because sometimes, and for no particular reason, we all deserve to be high on life.


  1. I love vanilla, I've never known how to use the pods before, so I will give this a try. By the way, I stumbled upon your blog by accident, your writing is incredible!

    1. Thanks Sarah, thats so kind of you to say!! I'd love to know how you get on with the vanilla :)