As promised, here’s the recipe for the vanilla apple compote. The perfume-y vanilla in this compote transforms regular old apples to a whole other level. I used Ugandan vanilla, which I was first introduced to back in 2005. I was working in rural Uganda at the time and during a weekend break, a few of us ventured into Kampala to be tourists. While wandering one of the big, outdoor markets just outside of town, we came upon an old woman selling vanilla beans. Vanilla beans! In Uganda?! In my mind, Uganda conjures up images of gorillas, Ebola, HIV, and child soldiers, not vanilla. And perhaps the random, unexpectedness of it all was what made it feel even more surreal and fairy tale-like – this old woman selling culinary gold on an old blanket in the middle of this far flung market on the outskirts of the Ugandan capital.
My first taste of Ugandan vanilla was transformative. It’s hard to describe any other way, but to say that it’s more intensely bold and vanilla-y than any vanilla I’ve ever had before. The beans are more plump, bursting with seeds, and shiny from all the oils. I find that half a Ugandan bean is more than enough for recipes that call for a full bean. In this recipe, I actually used a bean that I had already used in another recipe. I store the scraped beans in vanilla extract – I just can’t throw them away. Anyway, that once-used bean still had plenty of vanilla seeds and flavor left!
Well, after I finished my original batch of vanilla beans, I was desperate for more. Every time a colleague was planning a trip to Uganda, I’d put in a request for more beans. But, alas, no one ever came back with beans. No one could ever find that old woman again.
For a while, it really did feel like this had all been a fairy tale. It wasn’t until many years later and through the glories of the internet that I was finally able to secure a reliable source for Ugandan vanilla beans. If you are at all curious, I highly recommend Amadeus Vanilla Beans. I was really impressed with this company and the super high quality of their Ugandan vanilla beans. Nowadays, my beans arrive by USPS. It’s not quite the same, of course. But that’s OK. That my vanilla bean seller remains mysteriously elusive, it’s a little more magical this way.
Vanilla Apple Compote
3 medium-sized Honeycrisp apples (or Fuji, Granny Smith), peeled, cored, diced 1/4-inch
1 large Asian pear, peeled, cored, diced 1/4-inch
1/3 cup unsweetened apple cider or water
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
3 to 4 Tablespoons sugar
1 vanilla bean (alternatives: 1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste or vanilla extract)
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon cornstarch dissolved in 1 Tablespoon water (cornstarch slurry)
Add apples, Asian pear, 1/3 cup water, lemon juice, sugar, and cinnamon to a pot.
Split a vanilla bean and scrape out the seeds. Add the vanilla seeds and the split bean to the apples. If using vanilla extract, wait and don’t add it until you’ve taken the compote off the heat.
Bring everything to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes. The apples should be tender, but not mushy. Add more water/cider if too much has evaporated. There should be just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot and lightly surround the apples, about ¼ cup of liquid.
Add cornstarch slurry to the tender apples and bring to a simmer until slightly thickened. It shouldn’t be too thick, just thick enough to lightly cling to the apples. If too thick, add more water/cider. Remove from heat. If using vanilla extract, stir in vanilla extract at this point.
Serve cold or warm over plain Greek yogurt with granola, ice cream, etc.