Given a choice between chocolate and vanilla, I'll always pick chocolate.
Chocolate ice cream and chocolate cookies. Chocolate cake with chocolate icing.
Brownies over blondies.
And yet I've found quite a lot of pure vanilla extract in The Perfect Pantry.
All of my favorite chocolate desserts contain vanilla extract, because it's vanilla that gives chocolate the rich flavor we love. Specifically, Madagascar Bourbon vanilla is what's most familiar to our taste buds.
Vanilla, the second-most-expensive spice in the world after saffron, is the fruit of an orchid vine. Each vine can produce up to a thousand flowers. The flowers are hand-pollinated, and thinned to allow for sufficient light and air circulation. After pollination, the flowers develop into thin pods (beans), 8-12 inches long. The pods are picked when green, plunged into hot water, and then dried and sweated for up to six months until they turn dark brown and develop vanillin, a crystalline white "frost" on the outside of the bean that gives the bean its flavor and aroma. Then the beans are aged for up to two years, to concentrate the fragrance and flavor.
The majority of the world's vanilla (80 percent) comes from Madagascar and Réunion Island. The extract produced there is often called "Bourbon", not because it's made of bourbon but because Réunion was formerly called Isle de Bourbon. These beans are the sweetest, with a rich flavor.
Mexico also produces vanilla extract; the bean is darker and the flavor more intense.
And then there is Tahitian vanilla. The beans are almost black in color, and though less flavorful are more intensely fragrant.
Of course, this being The Perfect Pantry (which should be renamed the Do You Really Need Three of Everything Pantry), I have each of the main varieties on hand. My favorite Bourbon-type extract is made right next door in Massachusetts. The no-name Mexican vanilla comes courtesy of Cousin Martin, world traveler and primo procurer of good things for my kitchen.
This particular Mama Vanira vanilla, along with some lovely vanilla pods, traveled half way around the world in Martin's suitcase to reach my pantry. Here's his story:
The boat left Moorea. Then I took a morning tour into the mountains to include a coconut pineapple plantation and a vanilla plantation. We didn't see the actual production of the liquid vanilla; but they had plants growing around the main buildings in various stages of ripeness on the way to harvest. It was definitely low tech but the Tahitian government was trying to foster relatively small-scale "boutique" Moorean and Tahitian vanilla as a niche product to compete with mass-marketed bourbon vanilla. If memory serves me correctly, this was the site:and we overnighted in the harbor of
After the bridge by the beach, a paved road runs up Moorea's central valley through pasture land, across which www.formation-agricole-opunohu.org) to see vanilla and other plantations. The pineapple and vanilla plantations are located at or adjacent to the Lycée.and Annette Bening strolled in their flop movie Love Affair (the scenes with were filmed in the white house on the hill to your right). You can stop at Lycée Agricole d'Opunohu (Opunohu Agricultural School) on the main road (
I appreciate the cherry overtone of Tahitian vanilla, as opposed to the spicy/woody taste of Mexican vanilla and the "purer" -- what we call vanilla -- taste of Madagascar Bourbon vanilla.
On that trip I saw an eclipse and the Easter Islands, both of which verge on the spiritual -- but the vanilla was right up there and a great way to start the trip!
Such a great story, and I value my little stash of Tahitian vanilla all the more because of the journey it took to get here.
I'm not much of a baker, but here's one fact I do know: you usually cream the vanilla with the shortening or butter portion of the ingredients, so that the fat encapsulates the vanilla and stabilizes it in the baking process.
And should you be tempted to buy imitation vanilla extract at the supermarket (oh, don't tell me), and then don't know what to do with it because you surely will not want to use it for baking, here's an idea: add a teaspoon or two to a can of paint. It will neutralize the paint smell.
Sea bass with vanilla cream sauce
Adapted from a recipe on La Vanillére, this elegant dish -- a savory use for pure vanilla extract -- serves 4.
4 fillets of sea bass, mahi mahi or cod (1-1/4 lb total)
2 tsp olive oil
1 shallot, sliced thin
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and fresh-ground black pepper, to taste
In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Sauté the fish fillets gently until golden on each side, 3-4 minutes. Remove fish from pan and cover with foil to keep warm. In the same pan, lightly sauté shallots for 1 minute, adding a half teaspoon of olive oil if needed. Add vanilla extract, chicken stock and wine. Stir to combine. Slowly mix in cream, salt and pepper; cook for a few minutes until the sauce is reduced by half. Return the fish to the pan, coat with the cream sauce, and cook for 2 minutes until everything is nicely combined. Serve with jasmine rice.
Disclosure: The Perfect Pantry earns a few pennies on purchases made through the Amazon.com links in this post. Thank you for supporting this site when you start your shopping here.