Thursday, February 23, 2012

Not-so Plain Vanilla

I love good vanilla.  Did you know, it is actually one of the most expensive spices in the world?  Only saffron is more precious.  Thomas Jefferson ignited the American love affair with vanilla when he brought 200 vanilla beans home from France in the late 1700s. 

Vanilla comes from the vanilla orchid.

The plant must be hand pollinated for cultivation.  The flower opens in the morning and closes in the evening, never to reopen again.  If it is not pollinated, the flower will shed the next day.

When the vines are about 10 ft. long, the plant will begin producing pods, which are hand picked and cured in another labor and time intensive process until the resulting bean

looks like this.  Then the beans are graded according to length, color, sheen, the presence of blemishes or splits and moisture-content.  The entire cultivation process can take 5-6 years.  

Mexican vanilla is derived from a thicker, darker bean and is known for its stronger, creamy, spicy flavor.  It complements the flavor of cinnamon, and can help reduce the acidity of tomato-based dishes.  

Tahitian vanilla is lighter and very aromatic.  I love its light, fruity flavor with cherry overtones.  I use it when I'm making fruit-based desserts and sauces.  Prized by pastry chefs.   

Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, is sweet, smooth, and mellow and is great in ice cream, rich custards and batters.  For greater staying power in coffee or chocolate recipes, I use a mix of Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla and Indonesian Vanilla.  I also like this blend when I'm making cookies because I've found that under high heat, it keeps the best vanilla flavor.

Ever wonder what to do with those little vials of vanilla beans you see in specialty markets?  One bean will go a long way.  I use the entire bean.  

First, cut the vanilla bean in half length-wise, and scrape out the oily seeds to use them in recipes.  When you are making a cake or cookies, drop the seeds (or add liquid vanilla) into your mixture at the point where you are incorporating the butter.  The beans will mix better and the fat encapsulates the vanilla so it holds up better in the baking process.

The remaining pod can be tossed with sugar to create vanilla sugar, which is heavenly in coffee or tea, or almost any recipe calling for sugar.  In the Lemon-Vanilla Cake recipe below, you can substitute vanilla sugar for the granulated sugar.

Then, make your own vanilla extract.  Place the vanilla bean in a glass jar with an airtight lid with 3/4 cup of good vodka.  Let it sit undisturbed for a month.  When the liquid looks golden and smells like vanilla, remove the vanilla bean and strain the liquid through a fine sieve or cheesecloth into a bottle or jar.  Use this extract in any recipe calling for vanilla extract.

Then, rinse off the bean and let it dry completely at room temperature.  When it has dried, grind it in a coffee grinder or food processor and stir the grounds into 2 cups of confectioners or granulated sugar.  Strain out the grounds and save them, and use the vanilla sugar as above.

In the morning add the vanilla grounds on top of the coffee in your filter.  As the hot water passes through, your coffee will be infused with a wonderful vanilla aroma.

Nielsen-Massey, a family owned and run business in Waukegan, Illinois, USA has been making vanilla products since 1907.  Consumers, thankfully, are becoming insistent about not putting pesticides and chemicals into our bodies through the foods we eat.  The company has responded by offering their Madagascar Bourbon Pure Vanilla in an Organic form, using organically grown vanilla beans and organic alcohol.  The vanilla is produced using a cold extraction process, instead of a chemical extraction process.  The result is creamy, sweet, smooth and healthy.  You can find it by clicking here.  

Lemon-Vanilla Cake

1/2 pound of softened unsalted butter
2 3/4 cups granulated sugar or vanilla sugar
4 large eggs at room temperature
1/3 cup grated lemon zest (about 6 large lemons)
3 cups all purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 c. freshly squeezed lemon juice (please use fresh lemons not bottled juice or the kind in the little plastic lemon.  It will make a huge difference in the flavor of this cake)
3/4 cup buttermilk at room temperature
1 teaspoon excellent quality pure vanilla extract or paste.

For the glaze:

2 cups confectioners' sugar
2 Tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Make the cake:  Preheat the oven to 350ºF.  Grease two 8 1/2-by-4 1/2-by-2 1/2-inch loaf pans.  

Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and set aside.  In another bowl, combine 1/4 cup lemon juice, the buttermilk, and vanilla and also set aside.  

Cream the butter and 2 1/4 cups granulated sugar in the bowl of an electric mixer for about 5 minutes, or until light and fluffy. With the mixer on medium speed, add the eggs, one at a time, and the lemon zest.

Now add the flour and buttermilk mixtures alternately to the batter, beginning and ending with the flour. Divide the batter evenly between the pans, smooth the tops, and bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until a cake tester just comes out clean.  Do not overbake.

While the cakes are baking, combine the remaining 1/2 cup granulated sugar with the remaining 1/2 cup lemon juice in a small saucepan and cook over low heat until the sugar dissolves and makes a syrup.

When the cakes are done, let them cool for 10 minutes, then invert them onto a rack set over a tray, and spoon the lemon syrup over the cakes. Allow the cakes to cool completely.

Make a glaze:

Combine the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice in a bowl, mixing with a wire whisk until smooth. Pour over the top of the cakes when they are completely cool, and allow the glaze to drizzle down the sides

Jennings & Gates has received no compensation for this post.


  1. I learn so much reading your blog! I had no idea the Vanilla bean pod came from a mature orchid plant. The vanilla sugar and cake sounds scrumptious!!!!

  2. I had forgotten all of this. Thanks for the process information. Appreciate it even more now. There is nothing like this vanilla. I get mine at Williams- Sonoma.
    I can't wait to try this recipe! Looks wonderful.
    Happy Thursday.

  3. I should not have read this post before lunch...


  4. How interesting and surprising that it takes so much time to grow vanilla beans before cultivating them. I won't feel so bad spending the extra when I buy my premium vanilla extract. Thanks.

  5. Such an interesting post. The taste of a good vanilla is so evident in a good cake...can't wait to try this recipe!! Hope you have a wonderful weekend ~

  6. Thanks! And yes, the cake is incredibly good!

  7. Man.....I was just educated about something I knew nothing about! Thanks and vanilla is always my fav and that recipe sounds wonderful.....

    1. Hi Sherry, I'm so glad you posted a comment. I have always loved vanilla, but until I started researching this post, I didn't know much about it either. It was interesting to learn how labor intensive it is to grow! N.G.

  8. Thank you very much for these valuable information. Fresh vanilla is a little bit rare to find in Egypt. However, we mostly rely on powdered vanilla in baking. Like you blog. Thanks again.

    1. Hi, thank you for stopping by! I had no idea. I imagine that the climate in Egypt is not a natural place for vanilla, but it is interesting that there are not greenhouses that grow it there. N.G.

  9. As I previously mentioned, fresh vanilla is a little bit rare to find in Egypt. However, when I was in Japan, I found the fresh vanilla beans. The single one costs around 15 $!!!.

    1. Wow, how interesting, that is high. In the U.S. and on the internet, one can find vanilla beans for around a dollar a bean, and less for large bulk quantities.

  10. I'm making this cake right now, but I didn't do my homework and I'm confused!

    In the ingredients, 3/4 cup of lemon juice is required. However, the cake recipe calls for only 1/4 cup and then only 2T (1/8 c) for the glaze. What happens to the remaining juice?

    Naturally, I'm happy to use it in cocktails; just curious. :-)

  11. Ok, I mentioned that I didn't do my homework...I just saw where the 1/2 c of lemon juice goes! All is well with the world (except it's snowing in late March, but whatever!).

    1. Hi, I'm sorry I didn't see that comment as soon as you posted or I would have e-mailed you back fast! I hope your cake turned out well. I was thinking, the last time I made it, that I might cut back on the lemon juice in the syrup to 1/4 cup. It might have been the Meyer lemon I used, but it was quite tart. Refreshing for Spring and Summer, but a little too tart for a winter cake.


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