vanilla beans: 3 posts

Crepe Cake with Sweet Cheese, Raisins and Raspberries (Solozhenyk)

I love nothing more than to pour a cup of tea and to flip through my great-grandmother Olena’s recipe books. Although there are many good cooks in my family, Olena was uncontested in her expertise and passion. I was a toddler when she passed away, but my mother and aunt’s stories and Olena’s handwritten books give shape to the woman of whom I only have a few sepia tinted photographs. Our family lore wouldn’t be complete without stories of Olena’s garlicky pork roasts, bright yellow sponge cakes filled with vanilla cream and raspberry compotes.

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My favorites among Olena’s recipes are the forgotten old dishes that got lost during the decades of Soviet food shortages, standardization of the cuisine and obliteration of regional traditions. Some of it was forced by the state to create a market for commercial products; some of it was a part of a natural process as more women joined the work force and no longer had time to prepare complex meals. Olena’s recipes belong to another generation, but this is not to say that all of them are time consuming, extravagant affairs. For instance, her solozhenyk, crepe cake filled with lemony cheese garnished with raspberries, is elegant, but it’s also inexpensive and easy to make.

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Walnut Crescents : Vanilla and Cinnamon

“Did you buy stock in a walnut farm?” asked my husband when I returned home from the market with a bag full of tawny colored nuts. I simply couldn’t resist them. The flavor is creamy and sweet, with hints of maple syrup and spice. What better way to finish a meal than with a glass of port, a handful of walnuts and a slice of blue-veined cheese?

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But the other evening, as my grandmother told me about her 40 pound walnut harvest, I was inspired to browse through my family recipe books for something Ukrainian themed. My grandmother’s walnut and honey torte and rich walnut roll are delectable, but they are desserts for times when you have a whole evening to devote to cooking. By contrast, I had just finished my work day and was too exhausted to tackle a complicated project. So, I settled on a recipe for walnut crescents that I knew by heart.

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Viennese Vanilla Crescents with Tonka Bean (Vanillekipferln)

Tonka beans look like dusty, wrinkled pods, but they smell like smoky cherries, sugared almonds and sun warmed hay. Many fragrance raw materials have heady aromas that are as complex as those of a finished perfume, but few rival tonka bean for its luscious seduction. Gourmand doesn’t even begin to describe it. It’s decadent, sultry, and addictive.

The best way to experience the complexity of tonka bean is not just to smell it, but to eat it. Tonka bean is the flavor of the moment in Europe, where I’ve encountered it in cakes, ice cream, chocolates, and even savory dishes. The sweetness of tonka lends itself perfectly to desserts, especially anything that contains almonds, vanilla, or cherries. These ingredients explore natural affinities, and you can’t go wrong by adding a pinch of tonka to cherry compotes, almond cakes or vanilla custard. The best way to imbue as much tonka flavor as possible into a dessert is to grate it finely and either infuse it in warm liquid, or as I do in the recipe for Viennese Vanilla Crescents (Vanillekipferln), cream it with butter.

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