Last summer, I got a mysterious package in the mail. There was a return address, but I didn't recognize it, and there was little else to identify the sender - no note, no name. Inside was a little treasure trove of kitchen goodies - a packet of gray French sea salt, glass jars of shallot-pepper seasoning, herbes de Provence, Vietnamese Cassia cinnamon, a pretty wooden bud vase. The package also included a long, thin glass container of whole vanilla beans - dark, exotic, intensely aromatic and absolutely beautiful.
There is little in this world so wonderfully delicious as pure vanilla. When given the choice, I almost always choose vanilla ice cream. I like to throw a bit of vanilla extract into any sweet recipe, even if not called for - waffles, apple crisp, caramel corn. I have always loved baking, and have burned through many a dark brown bottle of pure vanilla extract. But in all those years I've never actually used real vanilla beans. My never having used them before, coupled with their mysterious origins, made these vanilla beans the most special of all.
I later learned that the mystery package came from my friend Nick, a fellow foodie whose been busily mastering all things culinary since early childhood. Though we're now separated by a great distance, one way we now stay in touch is to send each other links to deliciously written and photographed food blogs, and by supporting each other in our own blogging adventures. The little mystery package was a wonderful surprise, but learning who it was from made it even sweeter.
I made this recipe for coconut vanilla bean custards for Valentine's Day this year. The recipe makes several servings and kept well in the refrigerator for several days.
Coconut Vanilla Bean Custards
adapted from Martha Stewart Food
1/2 cup plus 2 Tablespoons finely shredded unsweetened coconut
1 1/2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup sugar
1 envelope (1/4 ounce) unflavored gelatin
1 cup half and half
1 whole vanilla bean
1/8 teaspoon salt
strawberries, for garnish
Toast coconut in 350 degree oven until browned, watching carefully so it does not burn. In a small saucepan, heat milk and sugar over medium, stirring often, until sugar dissolves and milk is steaming, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, stir in 1/2 cup toasted coconut, cover, and let stand 15 minutes. In a large bowl, sprinkle gelatin over 1/4 cup cold water and let soften for 5 minutes. Strain warm coconut and milk mixture through a fine mesh sieve into gelatin, discarding coconut. Whisk until gelatin dissolves, then whisk in half and half and salt. Use a sharp paring knife to split the vanilla bean and carefully scrape all of its seeds into the bowl. Reserve the empty pod for another use. Divide the mixture between 6 4-ounce ramekins or custard cups and refrigerate until set, about 3 hours. Top with remaining toasted coconut and garnish with strawberry, and enjoy with someone you love.