This from the Associated Press:
"Madagascar farming officials say a deadly and incurable crop disease has spread widely in the island's main vanilla-producing area.
"Assessment teams say in a report released Monday that the world's main vanilla producer has to radically change farming methods to fight the fungus attacking plants at the root.
"Malagasy agronomic research chief Simeon Rakotomamonjy says the situation is 'critical.' He says the disease has hit 80 percent of plantations around Sambava and Andapa, two of three main centers of vanilla production on the Indian Ocean island's northeast coast.
"Most of Madagascar's vanilla is exported to the United States, where it is used for making confectionary, soft drinks and ice cream."
Imagine a world without vanilla. Now that would be plain. Our baked goods would lack depth, our pie a la mode would be served with what? chocolate ice cream? Future generations would only know the fake scent emanating from plug-in air fresheners and Yankee Candle votives. Woe! If we've taken the wonderful vanilla bean for granted, let's not do so any longer.
Here is a recipe for a pound cake that really makes the most of vanilla. It's well worth the time and expense of the beans. It comes by way of Amanda Hesser's book "Cooking for Mr. Latte" (which, despite the goofy title, contains many good recipes), but it's originally from the Hi-Rise bakery in Cambridge.
Vanilla bean loaves
For the vanilla sugar:
1 split vanilla bean
1 pound sugar
For the cake:
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 1/2 cups vanilla sugar
1 vanilla bean
1 Tbs. vanilla extract
8 large eggs at room temperature
3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
For the syrup:
1 3/4 cups sugar
2 vanilla beans
1. Make the vanilla sugar in advance: stir bean into sugar and let sit for several days.
2. Preheat oven to 325. Heavily butter two 8x4x3-inch (or similarly sized) loaf pans. Using a paddle attachment, cream the butter and vanilla sugar in a mixer until pale and fluffy.
3. Split the vanilla bean and scrape its seeds into the mixer, along with the vanilla extract and eggs. Beat to mix.
4. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt into a bowl. Add this to the batter and mix just until smooth -- a few turns of the paddle should do it. Take the bowl off the mixer and use a spatula to scrape the bottom and fold the mixture a few times, to make sure everything is blended. Divide the batter between the buttered pans.
5. Bake for 30 minutes, then rotate the pans and bake until a cake tester or skewer comes out almost clean, another 25 to 40 minutes.
6. While the loaves bake, prepare the syrup: In a small pan, dissolve the sugar in 1 cup of water over medium heat. Split and scrape the vanilla beans, then add beans and seeds to pan and stir a bit to disperse the seeds. Take the pan off the heat.
7. When the loaves are done, cool for 10 minutes on baking racks, then turn them out of their pans and set back on the racks. Place the racks over parchment paper or a baking sheet and brush generously all over -- bottoms, tops, and sides -- with the syrup.
8. Brush a few more times as they cool. Eat right away or wrap and freeze.
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ContributorsSheryl Julian, the Globe's Food Editor, writes regularly for the Food section.
Devra First is the Globe's food reporter and restaurant critic. Her reviews appear weekly in the Food section.
Ellen Bhang reviews Cheap Eats restaurants for the Globe and writes about wine.