Burke & Triolo Productions/PictureArts/Foodpix
• Hot Vanilla Milk
• Vanilla Syrup
• Vanilla-Scented Sugar
• Homemade Vanilla Bean Extract
• Vanilla Vinegar
• Waldorf Salad
• Tropical Fruit Salad with Vanilla Mint Syrup
• Vanilla Layer Cake with Sour Cream
• Vanilla Butter Cream
• Decadent Vanilla Creme Brûlée
I have always adored the fragrance of vanilla. More than once as a child, I tasted vanilla extract from the bottle — knowing full well that I wouldn’t like it. I just couldn’t resist a little taste because it smelled so good.
The fragrance of pure vanilla extract and its essential oil is at once exotic, tropical, warm and sensual. We often associate vanilla with sweets because it is used in many confections and sweet foods, but vanilla’s flowery, resinous quality allows it to partner with many flavors. It works well with spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves and ginger, and subtly enhances just about any baked good. It complements dairy products: Fats such as butter, cream and milk seem to intensify its fragrance and flavor. Coffee and tea work well with vanilla, and it brightens any fresh fruit bowl or cooked compote. Vanilla highlights most foods without being too forward or overbearing. It is a harmonious ingredient, but also can stand on its own and shine.
Vanilla is everywhere today, sometimes in inconspicuous roles, used in many foods, including drinks, soups, sauces, rice dishes, with seafood, as a glaze for poultry and pork, in barbecue sauces, condiments and even mashed potatoes.
Whole lines of body care products from perfumes and lotions to cosmetics and household products highlight the fragrance of vanilla. It is used in aromatherapy to calm and soothe. Just be aware of what kind of vanilla is being used in your foods and on your body by reading labels; avoid imitation vanilla or synthetic vanillin because it has a different flavor and aroma than pure, natural vanilla.
Vanilla comes in many forms. Although vanilla beans are the source for pure vanilla extract, they aren’t as commonly used as the extract by the home cook. Here are a few ways you can purchase vanilla.
The largest producers of Vanilla planifolia are Madagascar and Mexico and they are renowned for growing and curing the world’s best beans. Tahitian vanilla beans, V. tahitensis, are known for their intense perfume, though they are said to be less flavorful. When purchasing whole beans, look for beans that smell fragrant and are a dark, chocolate brown and somewhat pliable, rather than hard and dried. Store them in a tightly closed jar in a cool dark place away from light and they should last a few years. Do not freeze or refrigerate.
Alcohol is used to extract the flavor from vanilla beans. It is usually done with a solvent of alcohol and water (rather like making a tincture). A commercial extract must be 35 percent alcohol; if it is less than this, it is considered a flavoring. Read your label. It should say “pure vanilla extract”; imitation vanilla is often made from artificial vanillin, which is a synthetic byproduct of the paper industry. Mexican vanilla extract can be very good if it is pure, but beware inexpensive extracts. Low price should alert you that it is probably synthetic.
A relative newcomer to the market, this thick brown paste is made from pure vanilla extract, vanilla bean seeds, sugar, water and gum tragacanth, a natural thickener. According to the label, 1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste equals 1 vanilla bean or 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract. It is sweeter than vanilla extract and much thicker, but can be used anywhere you would use vanilla extract. I use it in all kinds of baked goods from muffins and cakes to cookies and bars. It elevates oatmeal to another level when combined with dried blueberries or cherries and maple syrup.
Made from vanilla bean extractives and alcohol-free, this fine-textured powder can be used in place of vanilla extract. It is slightly sweet and is appropriate for dry and liquid mixtures. You can sprinkle it on fruit or in your coffee, tea or hot cocoa. I have used it in whipping cream, butter cream and angel food cake.
Vanilla sugar has been made for centuries by placing a vanilla bean in sugar to give it a lovely vanilla perfume and flavor. Today, vanilla sugar can be purchased commercially, but we share a simple recipe for making your own on Page 20.
• Nielsen-Massey Vanillas are fine-quality products. The company uses a cold-process method (a lengthy but superior process to heat extraction) to extract the vanilla essence from the beans to make pure vanilla bean paste and pure vanilla powder, as well as Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Extract. You can order these products from their most-informative website. Contact Nielsen-Massey, (800) 525-7873 or visit www.NielsenMassey.com.
• Penzeys Spices sells beautiful Madagascar and Mexican vanilla beans, both single- and double-strength pure vanilla extract, and vanilla sugar. Contact Penzeys Spices, (800) 741-7787 or visit www.penzeys.com.
• The Vanilla Company offers several products, including vanilla beans and extract, vanilla body products, and the book, The Vanilla Chef. Also check their website for vanilla recipes, history and legends and lore. Contact The Vanilla Company, (800) 757-7511 or visit www.vanilla.com.
The International Vanilla Association (IVA) was created in October 2004 out of a need by exporters, traders, extractors and flavor houses throughout the world to consider and support the growth, distribution and legislation of natural vanilla. For more information, contact the IVA? at www.Vanilla-Association.com.
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