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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Simple Flavors - Vanilla

Have you ever seen those taste tests to determine what brand makes the best vanilla?  Or who has the best butter?  I always find studies like this interesting, especially the ones in Cook's Illustrated.  On most occasions, they seem to determine that either the least expensive or, at most, the mid-priced brand, is the best.

The comparison of vanilla was most instructive.  The result?  In many cases, even imitation vanilla is more than adequate.  Huh?  Fake vanilla?  No thank you!  While it might be true, and certainly money-saving, I'd rather spring for the real thing.  Even so, I don't want to pay more than I have to.  So, what's the best vanilla out there?  That's entirely up to you.  In most cases, it's the brand you grew up with.  If it makes your chocolate chip cookie dough taste just like mom's, it's right. 

A few years ago, I became quite the vanilla snob.  I only bought it at Williams-Sonoma and made three trips in one year, just for big bottles of the dark, fragrant extract.  "So what?" you say.  Well, I live in Eugene, Oregon and this particular Williams-Sonoma was in San Francisco.  That's commitment.  To be fair, I didn't go to San Francisco just to buy vanilla, but it's as good a reason as any.

Now, I've gone back to my old brand, Schilling...  Or is it McCormick?  Or, is it Schilling-McCormick?  All I know is that it smells and tastes like vanilla should...  to me.  It's the same kind my mom's always used, and I like the brown bottle and red lid.  I do wish that they'd still sell it in a glass bottle, but I'll live.  Each time my mother would make chocolate chip cookies, I'd be right there to smell that vanilla bottle.  Oh to be so easily entertained again!

Vanilla beans are also great fun to use, and they'll make you feel like a "real" chef.  Slicing the long, brown pod lengthwise and scraping out the millions of teeny tiny seeds with the back of your knife is very satisfying, and it makes whatever you are making look fabulous.  The used pod can be stored with your sugar, adding just a little extra flavor to you favorite pure cane sweetener!

So, what's my point in writing about vanilla?  Well, it's pretty dreamy flavor, if you ask me.  And, it's simple.  Unadorned.  And, that simplicity can be terribly refreshing.  Have you ever tasted a scoop of really, really good vanilla ice cream?  Try it sometime, and make it Ben and Jerry's.  There is no readily available commercial ice cream that beats it for creaminess and real vanilla flavor.  Of course, you can add hot fudge and peanuts, bananas and caramel, or you can put it on top of a fudgy homemade brownie, but the point is that it can be such a delightful thing just on its own.  While constantly looking for new and better, let's not forget the old and better than we remembered. 



And, it's not just ice cream that benefits from good old vanilla.  I made a fabulous custard sauce over the holidays that was flavored with nothing but a vanilla bean and a pinch of salt.  It was heavenly.  And how about whipped cream?  Can you have whipped cream without vanilla?  What would be the point?

Vanilla is the Queen of flavors so, whatever brand you choose to use, buy a big bottle!

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