A few years ago, I was at an event that involved a cooking demonstration. I remember that the woman doing the demo was making strawberry shortcakes, and she emphasized how using vanilla bean paste was better than your standard vanilla extract. As soon as I bit into the dessert, I understood why she said that. When I returned home, I immediately ordered a 32 ounce bottle of the Nielsen-Massey vanilla bean paste, and I’ve been using that brand since.
Heading to an event at Nielsen-Massey to learn about what makes them so special is definitely my idea of heaven. Walking away with a small bottle of vanilla bean paste and Nielsen-Massey chocolate extract? That just made it all that much sweeter (and no, I didn’t have to write about this, but I did anyway – and all opinions are my own. Even though they did give me two bottles of baking heaven.)
So yes, I do actually bake enough that I can go through a 32 ounce bottle of vanilla. And I recently ran out of the vanilla bean paste (which is used as a 1:1 substitute for vanilla extract by the way), and I needed to bake something. I ran quickly to the store and bought pure vanilla extract – though not Nielsen-Massey – and used it, thinking nothing of it. Once the baked goods (I forget now what I was making) came out of the oven and I took a taste, I was shocked by the difference. I could taste a slightly bitter note, and I missed the gorgeous vanilla flavor I had come to rely on.
Needless to say, I am now very aware of how much of a difference there can be in vanilla – just like there is in olive oil. When I headed to the Nielsen-Massey headquarters earlier this week with a couple other bloggers and students from the French Pastry School, we got schooled on what makes Nielsen-Massey so special.
We heard all about the story of Nielsen-Massey from Matt Massey, himself, one of the owners of the company (along with his broher and sister – a true family business as it has been for generations.
It starts with the beans. Nielsen-Massey makes vanilla from beans originating in Madagascar (the most common bean we use at home), Tahitian (more expensive and with a flowery note), and Mexican (with a little zing and something I so want to experiment with). The different beans create the different vanillas, but Nielsen-Massey doesn’t just take any bean. They go through a rigorous process of selecting their beans. They only purchase the highest quality beans – about 15% of what is harvested. When the beans arrive at Nielsen-Massey, they go through a second inspection that usually includes one of the brothers or sister of this family owned company. Even though a bean may have the perfect chemical composition, it may be rejected if it doesn’t look perfect or smell perfect or feel perfect in some way.
From there, the vanilla beans have their vanilla extracted only via a cold press method, which helps preserve all of the flavor compounds found in vanilla. Heating the bean, which more quickly releases the flavor, destroys some of those compounds, which explains why the vanilla I bought (that non-Nielsen-Massey mistake) tasted flat compared to what I had so easily gotten used to. They also spend three to five weeks running the water and alcohol through the vanilla beans to create their extract, rather than the three days many other companies use.
And yes, you can taste the difference. It was fascinating for me to see the factory and how vanilla is created – I had never really thought in depth about it before – and even how it is packaged. I was surprised, for instance, to see that the labels are all afixed by hand rather than having a machine speed roll them on. It’s an amazing level of care and detail, and it shows in the finished product.
Nielsen-Massey has also expanded beyond just vanilla, which was news to me. They now have a line of eight Pure Flavors extracts for various applications. The rose water was an obvious choice, as was almond extract. The more unique flavors include chocolate extract, coffee extract, lemon extract, orange extract, lemon extract, peppermint extract, and orange blossom water. They are all made offsite right now, as the vanilla so easily absorbs other flavors and scents, and Nielsen-Massey wants to ensure the vanilla is as pure as possible. There are so many amazing ways to use these pure flavors, and I know I want to experiment with them. I loved some of the ideas of using various flavors in savory dishes, which is something I had never thought of previously.
Even better? All their products are certified kosher and gluten free. That makes me feel so much more comfortable when cooking for friends with dietary restrictions. And yes, there is also an organic line of the vanillas, as well.
Of course, with students from the French Pastry School in attendance, you knew there was going to be something amazing. One of their chef instructors demoed how to make both a take away dessert and a “simple” plated dessert. I officially had my first macaroon, and the plated dessert was to die for. Of course, his definition of simple is very different from mine. But that’s why he teaches at the French Pastry School and I don’t!
The macaroons used the rose water to scent the cookie portion of them, and we saw some amazing techniques to create a gel to go into the center of the macaroon. And I learned that they need to cure for three days, which allows the cookie to absorb some of the moisture from the filling. While I’m not generally a white chocolate fan, these were surprisingly good for how shockingly pink they were, though I suppose that is sort of a hallmark of macaroons.
But seriously… check out this oh so cool raspberry gel in the center. It was such a fun surprise as you bit into it, and it tasted amazing.
On the simple plated dessert side, we saw a whole bunch of fun techniques from poaching the apples in a vacuum sealed bag to freezing the yogurt mousse into a mold for presentation to creating a delicate little sesame sugar wafer to place around the dessert and keep the saffron ice cream from touching the plate and melting everywhere.
I was amazed watching him put it together, sure that the plate was going to look frou frou but… not pretty. I was so very wrong, and I should never have doubted Joel. This is one of the most gorgeous desserts I’ve ever seen.
I could have eaten every sample that was passed out to those of us in the audience. And the spoons were so adorable, too. I loved how the use of the orange blossom water was so subtle but really added an amazing essence to the caramel. I don’t think I’m quite ready to create this entire dessert – especially not looking this way – but each individual component is definitely something I want to make at home, especially the honey yogurt mousse.
I walked out that day understanding more about why I instinctively wanted to stick with my Nielsen-Massey vanilla. And now I want to have fun with some of their pure flavors. So yes, expect to see some chocolate extract in my next batch of chili!