For all of you at-home bakers, this is something you're very familiar with: vanilla. We put in our chocolate chip cookies, our brownies, our coffee cake and summer berry cobbler. A teaspoon here, a tablespoon there, but seriously, what's the point? Ever wonder why you add vanilla extract? Vanilla comes in many forms, many varieties, many, many different prices.
Let's discuss vanilla extract first, since it's the most widely used. Did you know you could make your own extract at home? It only has two ingredients: vanilla beans and vodka. Manufacturers macerate the vanilla bean in vodka for a very, very long time.
The FDA requires that pure vanilla extract contain 13.35 ounces of vanilla beans per gallon of liquid and contain 35% alcohol. Products labeled "Vanilla Flavoring" are a combination of pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla extract. When buying vanilla extract make sure it is labeled "pure". The imitation vanilla extracts are made with synthetic vanilla and can often leave a tin-aftertaste. And it's usually watered down to the point of not even resembling vanilla.Vanilla extract can be extremely useful and flavorful, just make sure you start out with the good stuff. Do not add vanilla extract to hot liquids as the alcohol evaporates, along with some of the vanilla flavor.
Onto vanilla paste: this is a good alternative to using a vanilla bean. It has a rich, sweet smell to it and you get the beautiful vanilla specks in your product. Vanilla paste is just as it sounds: a paste made from vanilla beans, sugar, and water. It's a valuable ingredient for sauces, custards, and some baked goods. Yes, it will have sugar in it, but this doesn't change the quality.
I've saved the best for last: vanilla beans. There are three different locations vanilla beans are grown: Madagascar ("bourbon vanilla"), Tahiti, and Mexico. You actually can't find Mexican vanilla in the United States anymore so you'll really just see Madagascar vanilla or Tahitian. Smell them, feel them... this all matters. Vanilla beans consist of an almost waxy dark brown pod filled with thousands of little brown flavorful specks.
You can use vanilla beans for just about anything, and I mean that seriously. Plus, the best part: you can save the "pods" or the shells they come in for later use. You need to be most careful when buying vanilla beans, and check for sugar in the ingredient list. (Bad!) For lighter, fluffier desserts like white cakes, cupcakes, or muffins I'll always use a vanilla bean because the flavor is so intense and the visual component of being able to see the little black specks in the finished product is always satisfying.
How do you exactly use a vanilla bean, you ask? You need to slice the bean in half, lengthwise, and then run your knife along the bean to scrape off all the actual vanilla "seeds." The dull side of you knife will work best for this part. Also, do it on a cutting board! You need to do this for everything and anything, you can't just slice a bean in half and toss it in your pot/dough (d'oh!). You need to scrape off the seeds. Once you've removed the bean, rinse it, dry it, and stick it in your freezer. During the warm summer months I like to take all of my collected pods, toss them in a big pot of milk, and make vanilla ice cream. But that's just a little secret from me to you.
As far as conversions go, 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract is equal to one 2-inch piece of vanilla bean, so 1 typical vanilla bean will equal 3 teaspoons extract. As for vanilla paste, there are usually directions on each jar indicating proper equivalencies, so consult that first as the concentrations can differ.
One of my favorite summer beverages to make is a vanilla summer-berry soda. This is quite simple and quite refreshing. Plus, you can through in some alcohol and make it an adult beverage!
I like to take whatever berry/summer fruit I have on hand that might be on its last legs, and toss it in a sauce pot with vanilla, sugar, and water. Cook it down, strain it, chill it, and add sparkling water. Oh my, it's life-altering!
The most recent summer refreshment I've made was with some cherries that were getting a bit too ripe for my liking.
Here's the recipe I followed:
Cherry Vanilla Sprtizers
4 cups pitted cherries
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water
pinch of salt
1 vanilla bean
-Combine all ingredients in a sauce pot over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Keep an eye on your cherries, making sure not to burn them on the bottom of the pot.
-Once your cherries have broken down and your kitchen fills with a sweet, fruity smell, take your syrup off the heat and strain into a large container. Let this chill over ice.
-Pour syrup into a glass about a quarter of the way up, and add sparkling water.