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Vanilla Ice Cream: Not So 'Vanilla' After All

Julia Bainbridge
Food Editor
August 5, 2014

Jeni’s Splendid Ugandan Vanilla Bean Ice Cream. Photo credit: Stacy Newgent  

At a dinner party last weekend, dessert consisted of a stone fruit crumble with Tahitian vanilla bean ice cream.

"Tahitian vanilla beans. What are those? How are they different from ‘normal’ vanilla beans?” This question, posed by one diner, was met with five shrugs, one from each person seated at the table.

Jeni Britton Bauer to the rescue!

“I’ve been surrounded by vanilla for 20 years,” the owner of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams and author of the new Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream Desserts told us. “I’m surrounded by vanilla at this exact moment!” (At least a handful of vanilla beans graces her desk at all times, we discovered when we called her.)

“The first step is to start thinking of vanilla as unique,” she said. “Different vanillas are unique, just like different kinds of chocolate. Below is Britton Bauer’s breakdown of the most popular kinds of vanilla ice cream you’ll see in the freezer aisle, so you can enter the supermarket well-equipped on your next trip.

French vanilla: This is a style of ice cream, not a kind of vanilla. Usually, said Britton Bauer, French vanilla doesn’t have vanilla beans in it, just extract, and it’s made using egg yolks. “It’s more of a custard, for that reason; kind of a creme brûlée vanilla.”

Vanilla: “Good vanilla ice cream will be made with both vanilla extract and vanilla beans,” said Britton Bauer. The former is steeped in alcohol and the latter is steeped in cream. “It’s like a one-two punch: more top notes in the extract and smoky base notes from the cream,” she said. And know that just because you don’t see the black bits of vanilla bean doesn’t mean the ice cream wasn’t made with fresh vanilla beans (although much of it isn’t, so take a peek at the ingredient label). As for where the beans come from, if it’s not indicated in the title or somewhere on the carton, assume it’s a geographical mélange.

Vanilla bean: “The bean fleck thing came from Bassetts in Philadelphia; it was one of their innovations,” says Britton Bauer of America’s oldest ice cream factory. How exactly Bassetts makes their vanilla bean ice cream she doesn’t know, but in this case the use of vanilla beans is visible. She suspects they use vanilla bean powder. “Basically, a big company takes every last scent out of the vanilla bean; it pulverizes the super dried-out beans and then packages them,” says Britton Bauer. In that case, all the flavor is coming from extract, and the powder just gives the ice cream texture and that speckled appearance.

Mexican vanilla bean: All vanilla originated in Mexico, said Britton Bauer. Cortés, the Spanish explorer, brought them to Europe in the 16th century along with chocolate. Mexican vanilla beans are sweeter and smaller than others, she said.

Tahitian vanilla bean: Depending on their new region’s climate, imported Mexican vanilla beans will grow into bigger versions. This is the case with Tahitian beans. “[The ones] I’ve worked with are big and juicy and softer, rounder in flavor,” says Britton Bauer.

Madagascar vanilla bean: “Madagascar vanilla beans are known as the world’s most prized,” says Britton Bauer, although she would beg to differ (see below). They’re stronger in scent—smokier than Tahitian beans—but more petite in size.

Ugandan vanilla bean: Uganda has a smaller industry than Madagascar or Indonesia, but the nation is still known for its vanilla beans. Britton Bauer would argue that they’re the best. “They’re pretty much always organic—they’re grown with certain standards, even though they’re not certified,” she says. The Ugandan beans she uses for Jeni’s come exclusively from a small plantation called Ndali Estate and “have notes of jasmine, honey, leather, smoke, and doughnuts.” 

“We never see vanilla as plain,” she said. It’s one of the richest, most complex flavors.” Here’s how to put it to best use.

Vanilla beans from Ndali Estate in Uganda. Photo credit: Stacy Newgent

Ugandan Vanilla Bean Ice Cream
Excerpted from Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home by Jeni Britton Bauer
Makes about 1 quart

2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2/3 cup sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1 vanilla bean, split, seeds scraped out, seeds and bean reserved

Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry. Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth. Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

Combine the remaining milk, the cream, sugar, corn syrup, and vanilla seeds and bean in a 4-quart saucepan, bring to a rolling boil over medium-high heat, and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry. Bring the mixture back to a boil over medium-high heat and cook, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.

Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

Remove the vanilla bean. Pour the ice cream base into the frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy. Pack the ice cream into a storage container, press a sheet of parchment directly against the surface, and seal with an airtight lid. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.