Not so Plain Vanilla
I have always been gonzo for chocolate. For some reason I think most women gravitate towards the cocoa bean as their comfort sweet of choice. Chocolate chip cookies, brownies, hot chocolate—all are designed to make me happy. But as I’ve gotten older, I have learned to really appreciate the clean fruity flavor of vanilla, which unfortunately is often seen as chocolate’s dull and boring cousin. A few years ago, I had one of Oprah’s Ah Ha Moments [again, insert Harpo trademark here] when I was at a Baskin Robbins with some friends, and one of them ordered two scoops of vanilla. I couldn’t believe it, 33 flavors from which to choose and she wanted vanilla?
“You obviously have never had a good vanilla ice cream,” she said. And I realized she was right. The vanilla we bought for baking when I was a kid probably had never been within 10 miles of a real vanilla bean. Artificial seems to be a term used a lot when describing its use in a product. I’ve recently learned (thanks Cook’s Illustrated) that if a product doesn’t say “vanilla extract”, it’s most likely artificial. It tends to be found in pricier goods, like the $4/pint ice creams. If you check that 5 quart pail of vanilla ice cream in your freezer, I’ll bet it won’t have the good stuff. (FYI, Blue Bunny’s Homemade Vanilla is reasonable in price and has the real deal.)
So, the problem is that vanilla extract is expensive. I “invested” in a bottle before Christmas in anticipation of baking cookies for the holidays. Alas, the dozens of cookies I wanted to make didn’t get made, but I still use the vanilla quite a bit—stirred into plain yogurt, baked into my favorite Sunday morning scone, or used to make pudding from rice left over from a stir fry. It is like a having a classic string of pearls in your wardrobe—they go with a lot of different things, are understated yet always dresses up your outfit.
If the price tag on a bottle of real vanilla extract throws you off, you can save a few bucks and make your own. Just slice a vanilla bean in half lengthwise, place in a glass bottle and pour in a good quality vodka. Use about one bean for every 6-8 oz of liquid. Then set in a dark cool place for 4-6 months to steep. Your initial investment is probably less than $10. (Obviously a bottle of good vodka is more than that—you will have to find a use for the rest!) The best part of making your own is that you can add a bit more vodka to replace what extract you’ve used and thereby keep it going. It’s my understanding that it keeps for at least 7 years.
So, I’m down to about a half bottle of the store bought stuff and have assembled my homemade brew which should be ready when the other runs out.
Just in time for the holiday cookies that I probably won’t end up baking.
Are you a vanilla fan or do you go for more jazzy flavorings? Have you made extract from scratch? Let us know.
Leftover Rice Pudding
1 cup cooked white rice
2 cups milk
¼ cup sugar (more if you like it sweet)
1 tsp vanilla extract
Add the rice, milk and sugar to a small saucepan and bring up to a very gentle simmer. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until the milk is absorbed and the pudding has a creamy texture, usually 20-30 mins.
Stir in the vanilla and cool to room temp, then refrigerate.