Vanilla is the secret ingredient in many recipes — so many, in fact, that we sometimes take for granted its unique depth and intense flavor. Almost nothing smells as rich and amazing, whether it’s a fresh vanilla bean pod or a bottle of pure vanilla extract from Madagascar, where the best varieties are grown. Here’s everything you need to know about vanilla, including a recipe for this stunning tart made with vanilla-poached pears.
Vanilla Bean: Whole vanilla pods should be soft and pliable, which ensures freshness. To use the bean, slice it lengthwise with a paring knife and use the back of the knife to scrape out the seeds. Because they are hand pollinated and hand picked, vanilla beans can be expensive, but the pods may often be reused several times.
Vanilla Extract: Extract is made by chopping the beans, soaking them in a mixture of alcohol and water, then aging the solution. Always choose pure vanilla extract for cooking and baking, not the imitation version made of artificial flavorings (which can taste like chemicals).
Vanilla Sugar: Vanilla-flavored sugar couldn’t be simpler to make, and it can be used as a replacement for regular granulated sugar in most recipes. Just bury a vanilla bean—whole or halved—in 1 cup granulated or confectioners’ sugar, then cover tightly and let stand for at least 24 hours. Replace the sugar as it is used and replace the bean after 1 year. Keep in mind that 1 Tbs. vanilla sugar equals 1⁄4 tsp. vanilla extract in flavoring power.
Pear Custard Tart
For the poached pears:
3 cups water
3/4 cup sugar
3 ripe but firm pears, preferably Bosc, peeled, quartered and cored
Peel of 1 orange, removed in strips with a vegetable peeler
1/2 vanilla bean
1/4 cup plus 1 Tbs. sugar
3 Tbs. all-purpose flour
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tsp. vanilla extract or 2 Tbs. brandy (optional)
Pinch of kosher salt
1/4 cup sliced almonds, lightly toasted
To poach the pears, cut a circle of parchment paper that will fit in a medium saucepan. Cut a small circle in the middle of the parchment. In the saucepan, combine the water and sugar and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and add the pears and orange peel. Split the vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds with the back of a paring knife; add the pod and seeds to the saucepan. Lay the parchment in the saucepan to submerge the pears. Adjust the heat so that the liquid simmers gently and poach the pears until just tender, about 15 minutes. Let the pears cool in the poaching liquid.
Preheat an oven to 400°F.
On a lightly floured work surface, roll out the dough into a 13-inch round. Transfer to a 10-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and ease the dough into the pan. Trim away any excess dough. Line the tart shell with aluminum foil and fill with pie weights or dried beans. Bake until the crust is dried out and just starting to color a bit, about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and weights. Let the crust cool. Reduce the oven temperature to 350°F.
Cut each pear quarter lengthwise into 4 slices, then lay most of the pear slices in the crust in an overlapping circle close to the rim. Use the remaining slices to fill the middle.
In a bowl, beat together the egg and the 1/4 cup sugar until thick and pale. Beat in the flour and then the cream, vanilla and salt. Pour the custard evenly over the pears. Bake until the custard starts to puff up, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the toasted almonds and the 1 Tbs. sugar over the top of the tart. Continue to bake until the custard is set and lightly browned, 15 to 20 minutes more. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool until warm or room temperature before slicing and serving. Makes one 10-inch tart.