Posts tagged ‘vanilla bean’
Today, after work, after eating lunch in my car and then driving home, I found myself back in bed. Even though it was only three o’clock. For some reason that made me feel old – shouldn’t I be outside, doing something fun? So I compromised by sitting up and writing for the first time in a long time.
What’s new? Still missing the excitement of studying abroad, this semester I got busy. I took a British literature class tougher than leather. I juggled two jobs, maintaining a 50 hour work week. I declared an art history minor and surprised myself, mostly, by taking a solo trip to New Orleans. In April I celebrated my 20th birthday. Best of all, I landed an editorial/social media internship with America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Illustrated Magazine, which I’ll be continuing in the fall (more on that later!)
What I didn’t do was bake. I blamed it on my lack of time, on the fact that my dorm’s mousy kitchen didn’t get any natural light and constantly smelled microwaved, and on the expense of ingredients. But truthfully, there at the midpoint of my college career, many things that seemed everlasting in high school had changed. I found myself drawn to new opportunities. Like finding an apartment – living in the freshman dorms was fun and kind of campy, but it was a drag this year, and moving on felt right.
I scoured Craigslist and contacted realtors, explaining our budget and requirements. We’re looking for three equally sized bedrooms, a big living room, and windows. We don’t mind commuting to campus, but proximity to the T is a must. Finally, because I couldn’t help myself, a nice kitchen.
A week later I fell in love with the third apartment we saw, and then nothing else could live up to its standard. A ground floor apartment, we were warned that its upstairs neighbors could be “rowdy” and that mice lived in the walls. The price didn’t include heat or utilities. The apartment looked more like a house than a complex, which I liked, but it was 40 minutes away on the B line, which was notorious for filling up and breaking down. As the last straw, it was a twelve minute walk from the subway stop, and that was enough for my friend S- to reject the place altogether.
“You realize how cold that’ll be in the winter?” she’d later say. “Plus, I don’t want to get mugged at night.”
I overlooked all of that because the apartment had charm. So many places we went on to consider were convenient, sure, and met our requirements on paper. But none of them felt as much like home as this one. I liked the character of the crown molding, the funky bamboo door to the bathroom, the stained glass detail at the top of the windows. But the kitchen sealed my fate.
I’d buried my interest in cooking for so long that I was surprised to care. But walking in and seeing the clean countertops, new-enough oven, and ample sunlight stopped me cold. While my friends snapped photos of the other rooms, I opened all the cabinets and stuck my head in the fridge. I saw myself setting out eggs and sifting spices. Making cupcakes for birthdays and cookies for the holidays. The kitchen was big enough for a lot of people to hang out, big enough for a fold up table in the corner (maybe I could sit there and blog?). Big enough to make me miss baking.
Nobody understands it, but for some inexplicable reason I like to work in the dark.
Well, not complete darkness. But as long as there’s a bit of gold left in the sky, I flick the light switches off before preheating the oven or leaving out the butter. I watch the lightbulb gradually dim until all that’s left is the little red glow of the filament, like the scarlet flicker of a snake’s tongue, until that too goes out in a snap. Then I get to work.
I throw open all of the curtains. Despite the chrome-colored damper of winter in Seattle, there’s a natural light that filters through the glass and brightens the kitchen in a way that artificial light cannot. I like the shadows that fall from the measuring cups on the counters. I like the burnt-edged way my photographs come out, and despite my father’s eye rolls and my friends’ confusion, I like the way I feel at home.
Some days I want to tackle big projects, like French pastries and gourmet spice profiles. I feel ambitious, and I turn on the lights to help me keep focused.
But sometimes I’m having one of those afternoons where I want my mind to de-clutter. I had one of those last week. I wore my oversized hunter green sweater and soft brown slippers to school, calling it “the macaroni and cheese of clothing.” In a word, it’s comfort. That day, I wanted to eat something just as simple and comforting as a day in sweatpants or a kitchen bathed in vanilla-sugar light.
It’s always hard to decide what to make. I usually pick based on what I feel like baking, since that’s where I derive most of my joy. But that day, I focused on what I felt like eating. I couldn’t think of anything that satisfied my craving, though, so I heated water to make myself a cup of jasmine green tea instead. That’s when it came to me.
When I stumbled upon rice pudding, I felt my heels lift off the floor a little, and then I could think about nothing else. Rice pudding is my very favorite comfort food – creamy, soft, and studded with a million little vanilla bean seeds.
It’s funny. I don’t like to waste money or ingredients, so I have a “vanilla scale” in order to save on both. I have two brands of vanilla extract – one cheap and one quality – and two brands of vanilla beans – one cheap and one quality.
I use the cheap vanilla extract for experiments and where it “doesn’t matter,” in muffins and scones. I save the good vanilla beans for dishes where they’ll shine, in my opinion where they belong: ice cream, custards, and really good rice pudding.
I didn’t even blink before deciding to use one of my most precious vanilla beans for this rice pudding. As I began to cook the rice, I had a sudden stroke of inspiration. I quickly lit another burner on the stove, poured in the milk, and added three of my family’s favorite jasmine green tea bags.
I didn’t know how it would turn out. I didn’t even consider that it might be awful and ruin my vanilla bean. I just inhaled the fragrant steam coming up from the jasmine milk, and the powerful aroma of the vanilla bean seeds speckled on my fingers. I knew I wasn’t making a mistake.
The pudding came together quickly. I felt more and more serene with every stir of the wooden spoon. The kitchen was warm, and my heart felt full. I held a warm bowl of rice pudding and curled up in the rocking chair in our living room, the one by the huge window that stretches from floor to ceiling. I took the first spoonful of rice pudding.
Oh, oh, oh, the jasmine was so not a mistake!
I didn’t taste it at first, just the beautiful woody creaminess of the vanilla. But then there it was, quietly, floral notes that crept up like crocuses in spring. The slight flowery bitterness of the jasmine green tea, complimented perfectly by the vanilla… I turned off my cell phone and put away my iPod. Then I got myself another bowl of rice pudding and snuggled into the chair until the very last ray of light went out in a snap.