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Happy Endings: Vanilla

Once reserved for royalty, vanilla adds extraordinary aroma and taste to any dish.

"Plain vanilla" may have gotten its reputation for mediocrity from imitation vanilla, but such a so-so rating couldn't apply to true vanilla, bean or extract. If so, how could vanilla trail only saffron as the world's most expensive spice?

"No spice is just one flavor, but rather a series of flavors," says Bill Penzey, of Penzeys Spices in Brookfield, Wisconsin. "Vanilla beans have a fruity, rich flavor, and there are more than 250 identified flavor components in vanilla."

Patricia Rain, owner of the Vanilla Company in Santa Cruz, California, says, "Vanilla is the lasso that brings other flavors together." Its subtleties even enhance chocolate, for example, which tastes flat and dull without a touch of vanilla, she says.

Vanilla's history as a prized ingredient dates back to before the Aztecs, who reserved it for royalty. Today, its laborious cultivation and curing mean kings and commoners alike pay a high price for the bean.

Vanilla is the fruit of an orchid variety whose blossoms open for just hours one day a year. In that brief time, most vanilla orchids are hand-pollinated. Then, after the long, thin bean forms over the course of six weeks, it must be hand-picked and cured in a complex process taking three to six months.

Precisely because of vanilla's rarity, price, and delicacy, it pays to know when to use vanilla extract and when to use the bean.

Use vanilla extract:
• When baking and cooking, where the vanilla will be exposed to heat for long periods of time. Since heat weakens vanilla's fruitlike flavor somewhat, Penzey says, there's no point in using the more expensive bean.
• As an emulsifier in sweet and savory egg batters. In waffle and pancake batters, it helps smooth the mixture, Rain says. A drop or two is all you need.
• When you need vanilla's flavor quickly and don't have time to steep a bean in the recipe's liquid.

Use the whole bean:
• In lightly cooked sauces and syrups. "I use the bean whenever I want a larger bouquet of flavors," Rain says, "in crème anglaise, brandied apricots, and any caramel sauce."
• When the presentation of a dish calls for proof of the bean. The speckle of vanilla's black seeds in crème brûlée, Penzey says, tells guests they're worth the expense.
• If you object to the alcohol used in extract but still want vanilla's rich complexity.
• To flavor coffee. Drop a small piece of the hard, dry bean in with coffee beans before you grind them, or store a vanilla bean in your coffee canister for a little extra zip.

­Some desserts feature beans, others feature extract, and some use both, which provides layers of flavor. Whichever you choose, make these treats soon: Scientists have deduced that one scent above all others puts men in the mood for love―plain vanilla.

Even Sweeter Sugar
Vanilla-scented sugar can add wonderful flavor to baked goods. Instead of discarding a vanilla bean after using it, let the bean dry at room temperature, then drop it into a container of granulated sugar. One bean will permeate up to 5 pounds of sugar and will keep it flavorful for up to a year. More beans added over time will increase the depth of the sugar's flavor.

Vanilla beans can also add flavor to powdered sugar. Dry several beans at room temperature, then grind them in a food processor along with a cup of powdered sugar. Strain the mixture through a fine sieve to remove the vanilla bean pieces. This mixture can be used in whipped cream, to sprinkle on cakes, or to coat candies.

Accept No Substitutes
Though imitation vanilla is less expensive, we don't think it matches the rounded and complex flavors found in the genuine article.

Imitation vanilla is made from paper manufacturing byproducts treated with chemicals. Its flavor is one-dimensional and often has a harsh finish.

In the grocery store, labeling terms can be confusing. Here's how to translate:
• "Vanilla ice cream" must contain vanilla beans and/or genuine extract.
• "Vanilla-flavored ice cream" can contain up to 42 percent artificial flavoring.
• "Artificial-flavored ice cream" contains only imitation flavoring.