When You Visit Maui And Tote Home Exquisite Vanilla Beans, You Must Make This…

A rich cake fragrant with three vanilla beans and vanilla extract.
A rich cake fragrant with three vanilla beans and vanilla extract.

For the longest time, I have wondered what happened to the glorious Maui Gold pineapples that I used to snag so easily at Bay Area Costcos and local grocery stores.

A recent trip to Maui turned up an explanation for why they are MIA here — along with an unexpected gift of wonderfully aromatic Maui-grown vanilla beans.

It all started one morning just after I finished breakfast at the Westin Maui Resort & Spa. Guests like myself staying in the newly revamped Hokupa’a Tower rooms enjoy breakfast bites on the lanai included in their reservations. To make the lanai more festive, the resort often has featured performers, chef demos or other entertainment.

Maui-grown vanilla beans.
Maui-grown vanilla beans.

That morning, I spied Michael Schenk at a counter, cutting up samples of Maui Gold pineapples to give out to guests. Or rather, my nose first caught wind of the unmistakable sweet, tangy, tropical scent of the fruit and I followed it to its source.

As we talked, I mentioned how I missed being able to get these low-acid, higher-sugar pineapples easily in the Bay Area. He wasn’t surprised, explaining that after his brother retired from Maui Gold as president, it had been sold twice over, with one company coming in after the previous one went bankrupt.

At its height, Schenk said, the Maui Gold plantation comprised 6,800 acres. Now, it was down to just 800 acres. And the feral deer population, which has decimated agriculture all over the island, has done a number on the pineapple crop, too, which takes a long two years from planting to harvesting. In short, the supply of Maui Gold has dwindled precipitously. No wonder it can’t be found easily on the West Coast now.

The famed Maui Gold pineapples.
The famed Maui Gold pineapples.
My first taste of these sweet, low-acid pineapples in a long time.
My first taste of these sweet, low-acid pineapples in a long time.

Sensing my disappointment at that turn of events, Schenk told me he had a treat for me to try. With that, he pulled out a vanilla bean, sliced it open, scraped out its seeds and spread them on just-cut chunks of Maui Gold that he handed me. The vanilla made the pineapple more complex, with a flowery depth that added a different level of sweetness that somehow made it taste even more Hawaiian.

Turns out Schenk is the owner of Maui Vanilla Bean Co. As I thanked him, he pressed a packet of the plump, glossy vanilla beans into my hands and told me to use them when I got home for something special.

I’m happy to report that I accomplished exactly that by showcasing them in this regal “Three-Bean Vanilla Bundt Cake.” The recipe is from “The Artful Baker” (Abrams, 2017) by Cenk Sonmezsoy, creator of the web site, Cafe Fernando.

It’s like French vanilla ice cream — only in cake form.

You don't want to over-garnish this cake, but let its intense vanilla taste be the star.
You don’t want to over-garnish this cake, but let its intense vanilla taste be the star.

This cake batter gets a heightened vanilla flavor not only from the seeds of three vanilla beans but also 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract. It’s a rich batter made with plenty of butter, of course, but also whole milk, heavy cream, and melted white chocolate.

As it bakes, the heady scent of warmed, sweet vanilla fills the kitchen.

The cake emerges with the thinnest of crisp exteriors that gives way to a fluffy, moist and luscious crumb.

As rich and buttery as it gets.
As rich and buttery as it gets.

I dusted the cake with a light veil of powdered sugar for a finishing touch, which I added to the recipe as an option. You could also serve the cake with a berry compote or a fluff of whipped cream. But really, you don’t want to add many garnishes to allow the deep purity of the vanilla to really shine through.

When the cake is two or three days old and thus a little firmer, Sonmezsoy recommends cutting a slice to toast upright in your toaster for a marvelous leftovers trick. As the cake toasts, the heat reignites the perfume of the vanilla seeds, turns the exterior crumbs crunchy, and softens and warms the interior, creating a heavenly textural contrast.

After scraping out the seeds, I didn’t toss the vanilla pods. What sacrilege that would be. Nope, I placed them in a jar and covered them with granulated sugar to infuse. I’m happy that they remain one Hawaiian specialty item whose taste I’ll still be able to enjoy for many weeks to come.

Look closely and you can see the specks of vanilla bean seeds.
Look closely and you can see the specks of vanilla bean seeds.

Three-Bean Vanilla Bundt Cake

(Serves 10 to 12)

13 tablespoons (6.5 ounces) unsalted butter, softened, plus more for pan

2 1/4 cups (315 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for pan

6.3 ounces (180 grams) white chocolate, coarsely chopped

1 3/4 teaspoons (7 grams) baking powder

1/2 teaspoon (4 grams) fine sea salt

3 vanilla beans, split and seeds scraped

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (225 grams) granulated sugar

4 large eggs, at room temperature

2 teaspoons (10 grams) pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup (120 grams) whole milk, at room temperature

1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (95 grams) heavy cream, at room temperature

Confectioners’ sugar for dusting top of cake (optional)

Set a rack in the lower third of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

Generously butter a 10-cup Bundt pan. If your pan has an intricate design, use a pastry brush to reach all the nooks and crannies. Dust the pan with flour and tap out the excess.

In a medium heatproof bowl set over a medium saucepan filled with 2 inches of barely simmering water, melt the chocolate stirring occasionally with a silicone spatula. Remove the bowl from the pan and set aside to cool, stirring occasionally.

Sift together the flour, baking powder, and salt into a large bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter and vanilla seeds at medium-high speed until creamy, about 2 minutes. Add the sugar and beat until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat for 1 minute after each addition, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add the vanilla. Stir the melted chocolate to make sure it is still fluid (if not, warm it just slightly), then beat it in at medium speed until blended, about 30 seconds. Reduce the speed to low and beat in one-third of the flour mixture, followed by the milk. Beat in another third of the flour mixture, followed by the cream. Finally, add the remaining flour mixture and beat just until incorporated.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a silicone spatula, reaching down to the bottom to incorporate any unmixed dry ingredients. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake until a wooden toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, 60 to 65 minutes. Set the pan on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes, then invert the cake directly onto the rack to cool completely.

Using a cake lifter, transfer the cake to a serving plate. When cool, dust the cake with a little powdered sugar, if you like, and serve.

Storage: The cake will keep, wrapped airtight, at room temperature for up to 3 days. Alternately, individually wrap slices in plastic wrap and freeze for up to 2 weeks. Before serving, toast the slices in a toaster — no need to thaw.

Adapted from “The Artful Baker” by Cenk Sonmezsoy

Another Cenk Sonmezsoy Recipe to Bake: Carrot Cake with Blond Chocolate Frosting

And: A Visit to the Maui Westin Resort

And: The Maui Gold Pineapple Tour

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  • Carolyn, I am very much a word person, but am at a loss for all but one with which to comment on this entire post.


  • Hi Carroll: Thank you for that! It was so eye-opening speaking to Michael. I had no idea the acreage of Maui Gold pineapples had plummeted so much. It’s such a shame because those pineapples are the perfect balance of sweet and tang.

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