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Recipe: Vanilla is no plain Jane

                                A variety of vanilla extracts appear in Alexandria, Va.
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A variety of vanilla extracts appear in Alexandria, Va.

I used to take vanilla for granted.

Until the day I made chocolate chip cookies and found I was out of vanilla extract. So I left it out. It was like leaving out salt. The cookies lacked the round, full flavors they usually had. I realized vanilla was the foundation of all my favorite baked goods.

Vanilla is an essential ingredient like salt, and its usual supporting role is to enhance and bring out the featured flavor. Whether it’s part of the supporting cast or the star, however, it is important to use the best quality pure vanilla you can find, not imitation or a vanilla-flavored product.

“Only pure vanilla complements and adds all the depths of flavor,” says Matt Nielsen of Nielsen-Massey Fine Vanillas & Flavors.

Although the word “vanilla” can carry a “plain Jane” vibe, vanilla is anything but plain. Cultivating and growing vanilla beans is complex, making vanilla the second most expensive spice after saffron. But you use so little of it per recipe that the cost of even the highest-quality vanilla in a batch of cookies is nominal, and a small price to pay for maximizing flavor.

Vanilla planifolia originated in Mexico and was brought to Madagascar, Indonesia, Uganda and Tahiti, among other places. Today, Madagascar produces the most vanilla beans, and is likely the origin of the vanilla product in your pantry. Making extracts, paste and powder out of the fruit of an orchid is a time- and labor-intensive proposition.

Until recently, I didn’t realize how many vanilla options there were. Nielsen Massey, for instance, makes five single-origin extracts, and I wondered if I could taste a difference.

Vanilla tastings are generally done by making vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. To save time, however, I decided to taste the vanilla varieties dropped on a white sugar cube instead. And I really could taste the differences.

With the help of Nielsen, I have created a primer on vanilla. It includes the five single-origins that I tasted, as well as vanilla paste and powder, which can be substituted 1 for 1 for extract. Meaning, if your recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract, you can opt for 1 teaspoon of paste or powder instead.

Fresh Vanilla Whipped Cream

Make the most of vanilla by making fresh whipped cream. It’s so easy, there is no excuse to buy it.

  • 1 pint heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon powdered sugar
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract, paste or powder
  • Pinch fine-grain sea salt

Using an electric mixer, whip cream until stiff, adding sugar, vanilla and salt as it is being whipped. Serve immediately, but leftovers may be refrigerated.

Nutritional information unavailable.

Note: To spike the whipped cream, add 2 tablespoons bourbon or rum as it is being whipped.

Vanilla primer

>> Pure extract: The pantry staple is made from a blend of beans of different origins. A small amount of sugar and alcohol is generally added. The sugar keeps the vanilla suspended in the liquid, so if using sugar-free extract, it must be shaken before use.

>> Vanilla bean paste: Delivers the same flavor and look of a whole vanilla bean (those tiny black specks), especially appealing in ice cream and other desserts. May be brushed on mild fish before grilling — the sugar in the paste caramelizes and creates a glaze.

>> Vanilla powder: The Nielsen-Massey version is extract encapsulated in a cornstarch base, which dissolves when blended with any wet product. It is sugar- and alcohol-free, best used in dry applications or when you don’t want the brown tint of extract, as in a white cake. Also good for spice rubs for grilled fruit.

Single-origin extracts

>> Madagascar bourbon: Deep, smooth, creamy flavor ­ — what most people associate with vanilla. Best choice for a multipurpose extract.

>> Mexican: Spicy; works well with warm autumn spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice. Has an affinity to chocolate as well.

>> Ugandan: Creamy and sweet, but with a chocolate note. Good in caramel and citrus dishes.

>> Indonesian: Has a woody and earthy profile, with natural smoky notes. Retains its flavor in high heat and is a good choice for a grilling marinade, as well as cookies like biscotti that are baked twice.

>> Tahitian: Uniquely fruity and floral, this vanilla is delicate and cannot withstand heat well. It has a cherry fruit note and is best in fruit-based desserts, or chilled foods that won’t be cooked.

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