Vanilla Sugar & Other Fine Sweetness

Vanilla Sugar & Other Fine Sweetness

Make mine vanilla! Vanilla is one of life’s simple pleasures, and inevitably, we caught vanilla fever this month.

My first introduction to vanilla was the bottle of vanilla extract I faithfully added to every cake and cookie I made as a kid. With its rich, fruity fragrance, that bottle fast became the most prized ingredient in many of my recipes. I even remember, one day, enthusiastically drinking a teaspoon thinking it would taste as delicious as it smelled. But, imagine my surprise when all I tasted was (what I would later discover) alcohol, and experienced an horrific burning sensation on my tongue. Still, that didn’t quell my love affair with vanilla; it only spurred my quest for the best.

Typically associated with things that are mundane, average or bland, there is nothing plain about vanilla. In fact, vanilla is anything but boring. By far one of the world’s sweetest, soothing and most sought after flavors, vanilla’s widespread appeal makes it an incredible ingredient perfect for all recipes, sweet to savory. For a flavor that has remained mysterious and elusive, vanilla is the most widely used spice.

Though there are about 150 varieties of vanilla, only two types, Madagascar Bourbon and Tahitian, are widely used. Although utilizing the beans in their whole form best releases the complexity of flavor and aroma, vanilla is sold in several different forms: extract and essence, paste, powdered, and vanilla sugar. When buying vanilla beans, look for ones that are black, shiny, plump and moist, and never buy anything dry, heavy or shriveled. (See our Test Kitchen dossier, Vivacious Vanilla, for more details.) The entire bean is filled with flavor, and by splitting the bean in half lengthwise and scraping out the seeds and pulp, you will release the most flavor. Properly in an airtight container in a dark, cool place, beans should last up to 9 months and can be used several times, whether you rehydrate them or use them dried to make a delicately flavored vanilla sugar (see our Vanilla Vixen cocktail recipe).

Vanilla is undeniably the world’s popular flavor, and we love it for its warmth and comforting quality, for its luscious and seductive aroma, and above all for its sweet, intoxicating flavor. Most people immediately think of ice cream or sweets when it comes to vanilla, but from salad to lobster, many chefs actually incorporate this as a secret ingredient in savory dishes. A natural sweetener, a few drops of vanilla extract added to vegetables or savory dressings provides a delicate, subtle sweetness that actually enhances the pure flavor of the dish. It is my firm belief that a few drops of vanilla make everything better, and I am amazed by how much one small ingredient can affect the outcome of a recipe, an accidental experiment I had the great misfortune to discover a few weeks ago:

The brownies at the restaurant where I work (Gotham Bar and Grill) are phenomenal, and I have to admit, I always tend to indulge just a tad too much whenever we make them. But things came to a crescendo a few weeks ago when I sampled (for quality control only, of course) an ample square of freshly baked brownies. Blech. Something was terribly awry – the flavor was flat, and the brownies lacked the unforgettable oomph, the creaminess and the intense chocolate flavor to which we are so accustomed. I figured that whoever had made the brownies used the wrong kind of chocolate, or perhaps too little sugar.

Oh, but it was worse. The sabotager admitted to accidentally forgetting the vanilla, and had hoped that no one would notice; but indeed we did! From that one gaffe, vanilla will forever remain my passion.