Sometimes, I feel like vanilla gets a little overlooked in my kitchen. That's not to say I don't use it often; a teaspoon or two of golden vanilla extract regularly makes its way into my baking and even sometimes into my breakfast. But it's always there as a background to other things, a pleasantly sweet, bland, blank canvas to be painted over in vivid stripes by other flavours. It's so easy just to tip vanilla extract out of the bottle without thinking about it, without really enjoying its heady (there's more than a little alcohol in there) perfume, to just let it blend in. You get a totally different experience using vanilla pods.
Opening a thin glass jar of vanilla pods is a wonderful thing. First, there's the incredible aroma that hits you like a powerful blast of sweet air as you take off the lid. Then there's the feel of the pods - slightly moist, almost silky, damp with flavour and perfume. I always find it odd how something ostensibly so gnarled, black and ugly can produce the flavour we associate with everything light, white and aesthetically pleasing - think vanilla ice cream or vanilla cheesecake.
Then there are those beautiful little seeds, tiny capsules of flavour that should look so wrong peppering a dish like dust, but instead are pleasing to the eye, promising an abundance of sweet vanilla goodness. I hate recipes that tell me to scrape the seeds from a vanilla pod and add to something, because inevitably some seeds always get lost in the process - they stick to the knife, or the bowl, or the spatula, or you just can't get them all out of the pod.
Still, I also like that you can recycle vanilla pods. After infusing things with them (ice cream, jam, etc.) I give the pod a quick rinse, let it dry on some kitchen paper, and then stick it in a jar of caster sugar, where it infuses the sugar wonderfully with its scent. Our vanilla sugar jar at home now has a total of five pods twisting up out of the mound of sugar - that's got to be some potent stuff. While vanilla pods aren't cheap, they're certainly good value. And while a good brand of vanilla extract (or vanilla paste, which is my new love - it contains all the seeds as well, in a viscous, treacle-like black goo) is perfectly fine for most things, you sometimes can't beat a vanilla pod in the kitchen.
This jam is one example. While I used to think ginger and orange were the best things in the world to pair with rhubarb, this jam changed my mind. There is something about the combination of rhubarb, sugar and vanilla that is just incredible. I think it's the intense sweetness of it, reminiscent of childhood desserts and sweets from the corner shop. Combine the fragrance of vanilla with the tart sugary hit of rhubarb, and you have something utterly wonderful.
This jam arose as a way of using up six bags of rhubarb from my freezer, but I've made it again since with specially purchased rhubarb, because it's just so good. The rhubarb and sugar cook down into a rather unassuming brownish pink mass, flecked with those all-important vanilla seeds, but it is definitely one of those things that tastes better than it looks. Spread on toast, where it becomes a lovely dusky pink colour, it's the ultimate sweet morning pick-me-up.
I've also added cardamom, which I have to say was a bit of an inspired idea. Cardamom works well with rhubarb, lending it a delicious citrus note, but the combination with the vanilla as well is ridiculously good. There's tartness from the fruit, sweetness from the sugar, fragrant perfume from the vanilla, and an alluring exotic citrus note from the cardamom that is reminiscent of those beautiful syrupy sweet Middle Eastern desserts.
This is a very special jam indeed, yet one that hardly takes any effort; in fact, it's more effort to sterilise the jars to put it in than it is to make the jam. A fine use for the special vanilla pod, as well as one of England's most neglected vegetables.
Rhubarb, vanilla and cardamom jam (makes 5 jars):
- 1kg rhubarb (weighed after trimming)
- 1kg jam sugar
- 1 vanilla pod, split lengthways
- 12 cardamom pods, seeds removed and crushed to a powder
- Juice of 1 lemon
Chop the rhubarb into 3cm pieces and put in a large, heavy-based saucepan or preserving pan. Add the sugar and vanilla pod, and heat gently until the rhubarb starts to turn juicy and the sugar starts to dissolve. Put a small plate in the freezer (to test for when the jam is set). Add the cardamom and lemon juice to the rhubarb, then turn the heat up and let it bubble quite vigorously for 30 mins-1 hour. Stir occasionally to prevent the rhubarb and sugar catching on the bottom of the pan and burning - this happens if the heat is too high.
Meanwhile, sterilise your jars and lids. I do this by washing them well in soapy water, then putting the jars upside down in an oven at 120C for 40 minutes, adding the lids (also upside down) for the last 10 minutes. Turn the oven off and leave the jars inside until ready to bottle the jam.
To test for a set, put a teaspoon of jam onto the cold plate from the freezer and leave for 2 minutes. If you can run your finger through it and it wrinkles and separates, it's ready. If not, let it bubble for a bit longer.
When the jam is set and still hot, ladle through a clean funnel into the jars, add wax discs and put on the lids. Voilà!