You know what I love?!
I mean of course there are other things like my husband and my boys and chocolate, but vanilla is really something to admire.
I love the way the thousands of little black seeds disperse in a pot of simmering cream while I’m preparing a custard. I love the vivid scenes from childhood – baking cookies with my mom, each of us taking a prolonged inhale of vanilla before pouring it into the dough. And I love the way it perfumes anything it touches with a richness and complexity that makes an ordinary recipe fit for fine dining.
Take these cupcakes for example. Nothing seemingly extraordinary with a banana cupcake – except of course the dark chocolate that I dumped in at the end – but when you mash fragrant, ripened bananas with vanilla seeds you will begin to question whether or not you plan to share these cupcakes once they are removed from the oven.
The final vanilla flavor won’t slap you in the face with its abrupt personality but rather a subtle and intriguing aroma will leave you longing for more – as any good thing will.
If my budget allows I go for the bean. If not, I buy the best quality vanilla extract I can afford that isn’t flooded with additives (beware of the word vanillin, a.k.a. fake vanilla).
It is also a matter of personal taste. My vanilla of choice is Tahitian. I love the well rounded rich flavor it provides.
The least expensive (notice I didn’t say cheap – there is nothing cheap about vanilla) way to buy vanilla beans is to purchase in bulk. I’ve used Singing Dog Tahitian beans before and have been very happy with the flavor. You can order online. While you are buying your beans add extract to your order. Storing your beans in extract helps to retain a plump, fresh bean while at the same time infusing your extract with even more vanilla goodness.
I’ve managed to incorporate vanilla beans in both the frosting and the cupcake. If you don’t have a vanilla bean I still want you to make these. The cake is rich and packed with banana flavor. The addition of the dark chocolate adds a grown up taste that balances the sweetness and rounds out the cake.
The frosting is not very sweet because I love the tang of cream cheese – feel free to add more sugar if you think I’m crazy.
Banana Cupcakes with Dark Chocolate and Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, softened
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 large egg
3/4 cup well-mashed very ripe bananas (about 2 bananas)
1/2 vanilla bean
1/4 cup sour cream
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup chopped dark chocolate
Whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.
Cream the butter (1 stick) and dark brown sugar in a large bowl with a mixer at high speed until pale and fluffy. You can also do this by hand. Begin with a wooden spoon until the butter is incorporated with the sugar then switch to a whisk. Beat in egg and vanilla extract until combined. In a small bowl combine the bananas and the seeds from half a vanilla bean. (To remove the seeds, carefully slice the bean in half using a sharp paring knife or kitchen shears. With a paring knife scrape out all the seeds). Add the sour cream to the bananas then combine this mixture with the butter mixture. Carefully add the dry ingredients mixing until just incorporated. Stir in the chocolate if using.
You can bake these in a 9″ round or make cupcakes as I have done.
Bake in the middle of your oven at 350* for about 20 minutes or until a cake tester (toothpick or skewer) comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes then move to a rack to completely cool before frosting.
This recipe makes about 18 cupcakes.
8 oz. Cream Cheese (softened)
1 tbl. Sour Cream
4 oz. Butter (softened)
1/4 tsp. Salt
1 tsp Vanilla
1/2 vanilla bean
1 cup Powdered Sugar
Combine all ingredients and beat until smooth. To avoid lumps make sure the butter and cream cheese are very soft.
WAIT! Don’t throw out your vanilla pod! Sure, the seeds are removed but every part of the bean is edible. You’ve paid good money for those so use it all.
You have a couple of options. You could simply throw it into a container with sugar and let it scent the sugar which is great in your morning cup of coffee. OR for an even more vanilla flavored sugar – let the pods completely dry then pulverize in a well-cleaned spice grinder. Add the vanilla dust to sugar and use anywhere you deem worthy.