Somewhere along the line, vanilla became synonymous with bland or ordinary.
Which is just plain wrong.
Blame it on a world of Chubby Hubby ice cream and Candy Cane Oreos, where “more” sounds like “better,” where fake flavors bolster profits.
It’s true that vanilla’s aroma, flowery and fragrant, usually gets top billing before its taste, generally described as rich, complex, woodsy or smoky. In any case, decidedly not plain.
Still, in many ways, one of vanilla’s best traits is its ability to amplify other flavors such as chocolate, caramel, custards and more, which explains why it turns up in so many recipes for sweets.
Think of vanilla as a baker’s best friend forever.
The world of vanilla isn’t particularly complicated. And yet shelves stocked with vanilla extract, vanilla paste, vanilla beans, vanilla flavoring and imitation vanilla can make it seem so.
There’s a role for each. It depends on what you’re seeking.
Vanilla originates as a long, thin pod on a tropical climbing orchid, the fruit of a flower that blooms for just one day. Just one.
Pollination must happen on that day, or no pod. That’s led to delicate hand-pollination, which accounts for vanilla’s prices. Plus, the entire cycle of ripening, harvesting, drying, curing and processing takes months.
Vanilla extract is the result of these vanilla pods being soaked in alcohol and blended with water. Some brands also add sugar. Check the labels. (Don’t want alcohol? Use vanilla flavoring, which still is pure vanilla, but made with glycerin or propylene glycol.)
Make your own
With vanilla pods, you can make homemade vanilla extract — as many serious baking books urge. Most recipes call for several vanilla bean pods added to 8 ounces of alcohol, often flavorless vodka, although you can also use bourbon, brandy or rum. Slice open the beans, scrape out the seeds, then add everything to alcohol in a glass jar. Cover and steep for at least a couple of months. The internet is full of details.
The pods also are great for infusing white sugar with flavor and aroma. Just bury a pod or two in a 2-cup container of sugar and use as you would plain sugar.
Vanilla paste mostly is for those times when you want what you’re making to show flecks of actual vanilla seeds.
Vanilla comes in several varieties, with many of the best extracts using pods from Madagascar, valued for their rich and complex flavor. Tahitian vanilla is more floral in nature, while Indonesian vanilla has smokier notes. Mexican vanilla is considered the spiciest of the varieties.
You can order or buy specific vanillas, but many grocery store brands don’t specify origins other than to guarantee that the extract is pure.
All in all, the differences can be subtle, especially when combined with other flavors in a baked good.
Which brings us to imitation vanilla flavoring, and a discussion about heat.
Recipes for custards, fillings and puddings often say to add vanilla after you’ve taken the pan off the heat, and even let it cool slightly.
That’s because vanilla extract’s alcohol evaporates when heated, taking some vanilla flavor with it. So adding it after cooking retains the flavor and is reason enough to use high-quality vanilla.
But what about vanilla in cookie or cake recipes when the batter is yet to be baked? Some say that imitation vanilla is fine for recipes headed for the oven. Even tests by America’s Test Kitchen found that many tasters couldn’t discern a difference in cookies baked with real and fake vanilla.
So if imitation vanilla’s lower price point is a consideration, it’s OK to use it in baked goods, especially those not dependent upon vanilla flavor.
Some bakers, however, will always use genuine extracts in any recipe — because they’re genuine.
Our Vanilla Pound Cake recipe celebrates pure vanilla, using a generous dose of extract and vanilla sugar, as well. It tastes great, but an unexpected benefit for the baker is the extraordinary aroma of this cake as it bakes.
It’s a winner, plain and simple.
Vanilla Pound Cake
Note: A Bundt pan is best, but a tube pan (angel-food cake pan) works fine, too. If you have vanilla sugar on hand, substitute it for some or all of the sugar here for an extra boost of flavor and an amazing aroma. To make vanilla sugar, simply bury a pod or two in a 2-cup container of sugar and use as you would plain sugar. From Kim Ode.
•1 c. (2 sticks) cold unsalted butter, plus 1 tbsp. softened butter for pan
• 2 1/2 c. flour, plus 1 tbsp. for pan
• 2 c. sugar, or vanilla sugar (see Note)
• 5 eggs, room temperature
• 1 tbsp. vanilla extract
• 1/2 tsp. baking powder
• 1/4 tsp. salt
• 1 c. heavy whipping cream
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place a rack in the center position.
Using the 1 tablespoon softened butter, thoroughly coat Bundt pan. Add 1 tablespoon flour, tilting and shaking the pan until all surfaces are dusted with flour. Shake out any excess. Set aside.
Cut the 2 sticks butter into 16 pieces and place in the bowl of a stand mixer, or a large mixing bowl for use with a hand mixer. Beat until creamy, about 1 to 2 minutes, scraping often. Add sugar and continue beating on medium-high speed until the mixture is fluffy and almost white in color, about 3 to 4 minutes, scraping the bowl several times.
In a separate medium bowl, whisk eggs with vanilla until just combined.
With the mixer on low speed, gradually dribble in the beaten eggs to the butter-sugar mixture, blending each addition before adding more. When all the eggs are added, beat at medium speed for about 30 seconds.
In another medium bowl, combine 2 1/2 cups flour, baking powder and salt, whisking well to blend.
With the mixer on low speed, alternately add the flour mixture and whipping cream to the butter-sugar mixture, beginning and ending with flour. Beat until just combined, scraping to make sure there are no pockets of flour.
Scrape batter into the prepared pan. With a knife, cut through the batter to eliminate any bubbles and even out the top surface.
Bake for 65 to 75 minutes, or until a wooden pick inserted into the cake’s center comes out clean. Remove from oven and cool in pan on a wire rack for 20 minutes; remove cake from pan to wire rack and cool completely.
Nutrition information per serving (without sauce):
Calories 350 Fat 19 g Sodium 80 mg
Carbohydrates 41 g Saturated fat 11 g Total sugars 26 mg
Protein 5 g Cholesterol 110 mg Dietary fiber 1 g
Exchanges per serving: 1 starch, 2 carb, 4 fat.
Cream Cheese Sauce
Makes 2 1/2 cups.
Note: This luscious sauce, with the creamy, tangy flavor of unbaked cheesecake, is wonderful drizzled atop a slice of pound cake, further heightening the glory of vanilla. From Taste editor Lee Svitak Dean.
• 1 (8-oz.) pkg. cream cheese, at room temperature
• 1/2 c. sugar
• 1 tsp. vanilla
• 1 c. sour cream
• About 1/2 c. half-and-half, cream or milk, to desired consistency
In an electric mixer, blend cream cheese and sugar together until smooth. Add vanilla, sour cream and enough half-and-half to make the sauce the consistency you want.
Nutrition information per 1 tablespoon:
Calories 45 Fat 3 g Sodium 20 mg
Carbohydrates 3 g Saturated fat 2 g Total sugars 3 mg
Protein 1 g Cholesterol 10 mg Dietary fiber 0 g
Exchanges per serving: ½ fat.