If you are a baker or have even the slightest of crème brûlée aspirations, you really need to get over to The Gourmandise School in Santa Monica. They are currently selling 4 ounces of vanilla beans -- about 35 whole pods -- for $6. No, that is not a typo.
Nor are these your average anemic grocery store beans. They're organic, fair-trade, sun-dried Planifolia beans from Papua New Guinea. For anyone who has ever paid upwards of $10 for a single bean, it sounds too good to be true. Get more on the various bean curing processes, and the school's vanilla extract recipe, after the jump.
Gourmandise School co-owner and pastry instructor Clemence Gossett says the price is her wholesale cost. She gets her beans from Vanilla Saffron Imports, a San Francisco importer, and says she is more interested in custard inspiration than turning a profit.
"These are for my students, I want them to have access to beans they can actually afford," she says, smiling and pulling out a bag of (really great) Cordillera baking chocolate. Yes, it is an incredibly generous gesture by someone whose rental expense in Santa Monica Place Mall most certainly is more than enough to merit charging $6+ per pod.
As Gossett explains, "These beans are sun-dried in the traditional way, which means they are cured in the sun by day, then covered in blankets at night to sweat the beans. Sweating them adds moisture that speeds up the process of curing the beans but keeps their flavor."
Gossett, incidentally, turns out to be a veritable encyclopedia on just about any given ingredient or pastry technique. As she notes, fell free to call the school (310-656-8800; Gossett calls it their "hotline") and ask any pressing croissant or everyday cooking questions you may have. "You wouldn't believe some of the questions we get on the hotline," she says. If it's anything like the questions called in to the Butterball Turkey Talk-Line, we can only imagine.
And as you're making your next batch of vanilla bean ice cream, tossing in a second vanilla bean just for kicks (it cost all of 20 cents!), you might go online and sign up for one of the school's pastry classes. You're going to need something to do with all of those vanilla beans. Upcoming class topics include laminated dough, brioche, pâte à choux, fruit tarts, and layer cakes. And yes, there are plenty of chocolate classes, too.
From: The Gourmandise School.
Whole vanilla Beans
1. For every cup of vodka, use at least 2 vanilla beans (3 to 4 for a stronger flavor or if you do not add leftover pods later). Scrape the seeds from the pods and add both to the vodka. Make sure the pods are fully covered with vodka and let macerate in a glass container in a cool, dark place for 6 to 9 months. As you scrape seeds for other recipes, add any leftover pods (uncooked) to the mixture.
Squid Ink Note: If you can't get by the Santa Monica school -- call first, they have a very small shop and occasionally run out of vanilla beans -- you can order a full pound (!) of vanilla beans from Vanilla Saffron Imports for $19.95 online. According to the company website, the online retail prices are similar to those offered to chefs and wholesalers in order "to offer the household chef the same high quality products we've been shipping to professional chefs, at the same low prices." E-commerce capitalism at its finest.