The Tropical Spice Garden’s shop has many delights and none more so than its new selection of culinary pastes. Packed with flavour, they come in delicious little bottles with gold tops making wonderful gifts. You can choose from vanilla, cocoa, and coffee but you will probably want all three when you realise how easily a small quantity of these high-quality pastes can up your home cooking to the professional level. But that’s not all. All of these substances have proven health benefits as well. Vanilla is a powerful anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-depressant agent. Cocoa, or chocolate, is also an anti-oxidant and an excellent mood enhancer, helping to lower the risk of heart disease and to prevent memory decline. Coffee has a proven protective effect against such conditions as Type 2 Diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Alzheimer’s.
There was a day when you could only buy vanilla essence, a synthetic substance that had never seen a vanilla pod. You could just about use it to flavour a sponge cake but that was the limit of its powers. Nowadays things are different, you can get high-quality vanilla extract, made from actual vanilla beans that have been macerated in a mixture of alcohol and water as well as the vanilla beans themselves. Some recipes call for the bean to be split and the seeds scraped out. These little black flecks of pure vanilla do give an intense flavour but if you find the process fiddly and time-consuming then the answer is vanilla paste. It has all the convenience of the extract with the super fragrant sweet aroma of the scraped-out vanilla pod seeds. With a small scoop you can transform ice cream, pastries, and cakes into food for the gods. You can also use it to spike coffee or hot chocolate and you can slip a drop into casseroles and homemade sauces such as salsa, chutneys, and ketchup. If you are trying to lose weight, try this tip. Take a whiff of vanilla just before a meal and trick your brain into thinking you’ve eaten more than you actually have, painlessly reducing your food intake.
Cocoa paste is produced by crushing the beans of the cacao tree into a liquid that quickly solidifies at room temperature. Just as vanilla has undergone a revolution so has chocolate. Once laced with dairy products and laden with sugar it was sold in bars. Now aficionados want the unadulterated health benefits of this highly nutritious super-food and insist on pure cacao. So use the paste to provide a shot of flavour in smoothies, ice creams, cakes, and in all sorts of desserts. Be creative, it’s chocolate. You could even mix it with the coffee paste to produce the most heavenly mocha flavour. Coffee, of course, needs no introduction as most of us enjoy drinking it every day. But in paste form it’s much more concentrated and so can be used in pancakes, waffles, French toast, cookies, fruit breads, pies and cakes. It marries with the nut butters, such as peanut and almond, really well. And a hint of it in whipped cream will really get people guessing what the secret flavour is.
There’s just one thing to note with these pastes, though. If you buy them for a friend, make sure you also get a set for yourself because you won’t be able to resist playing with the gorgeous tastes and aromas.