I’m a sucker for fragrant flavorings like rose water and orange blossom water. Vanilla is no less of a swoon for me, and I find its creamy, heady scent to be anything but bland. Why must we insist on calling the boring, the plain, vanilla? No more! Without vanilla, pastry would be lost, especially the pastry cream that is the basis of so many to-die-for desserts and will fill our cream puffs for Mother’s Day.
How ironic that vanilla would have gone plainsong, seeing that it is one of the priciest flavorings you can buy, second only to saffron. With good reason too. Vanilla is actually a type of orchid pod that takes many years on the plant to mature. Then, once picked, the pod requires six months of curing and fermentation to arrive to us in its fragrant state.
The labels that read Madagascar Bourbon or Tahitian Vanilla refer not to the type of alcohol in which the vanilla has been fermented, but to the region from which it comes. Madagascar and Tahitian beans are considered the best.
To cook with a vanilla bean, simply cut it open lengthwise by scoring it deeply with the point of a sharp knife, then scrape out the pulpy seeds inside for use in whatever you’re making. Measurement equivalents for cooking with vanilla are 1 bean = 1 tablespoon of extract. Why go bean over extract when it costs so much more? It’s a complexity of flavor thing—the bean really gives it to you. Most of the time I use the extract, but when I want to be all special and have some extra fun making my pastry cream, I splurge on the bean. The leftover pod can be immersed in a canister of sugar to make vanilla sugar, or if you want to get heavy-duty DIY, you can submerge it in an unflavored alcohol like vodka and make your own vanilla extract (be sure to read up on to-do’s for this before diving in).