Vanilla any­thing but bland


Move over saf­fron. Vanilla is fast be­com­ing the most ex­pen­sive spice in the world. It’s no won­der it’s pricey. Vines take up to four years to ma­ture, the flow­ers re­quire fran­tic hand-pol­li­na­tion dur­ing its flow­ers’ one-day bloom and, once picked, the pods re­quire months of curing. If that wasn’t enough, a per­fect storm of crop fail­ure, cli­mate change, sky­rock­et­ing mar­ket de­mand and theft have forced prices to triple in the last year alone.

De­spite all this, vanilla is worth its spot in your kitchen at al­most any price.

But be­ware of im­posters. With the cost of real vanilla be­ing so high, many man­u­fac­tur­ers are keep­ing prices down by us­ing ar­ti­fi­cial flavour­ings, such as vanillin, which is ac­tu­ally a prod­uct of the pulp and pa­per in­dus­try.

Other signs the vanilla isn’t pure in­clude phrases such as “vanilla flavour” and the very con­fus­ing “pure vanilla flavour.” To be sure you’re get­ting real vanilla, read the in­gre­di­ent list. Avoid any­thing with vanillin, glyc­erin, and/or water.

Vanilla ex­tract: Pure vanilla ex­tract may or may not con­tain su­gar but will al­ways con­tain vanilla beans and al­co­hol. When you buy ex­tract, look for a la­bel that says “pure vanilla ex­tract” but does not con­tain the word “flavour.”

Whole beans: Whole vanilla beans are long, thin and leath­ery. They will come in a sealed glass tube to pre­serve fresh­ness. The beans should be sup­ple, not brit­tle. If they break when bent, use them for vanilla su­gar (page 91).

To get all the vanilla good­ness from a whole bean, split it length­wise with a knife and scrape out the tiny seeds – aptly called vanilla caviar – that give vanilla cus­tards and ice cream the dis­tinc­tive black flecks.

Be­guil­ing as the caviar is, the flavour is mainly in the pod, which is why many recipes call for steep­ing the split pod in cream or other liq­uids be­fore be­ing used in the recipe. Once the liq­uid has steeped, don’t toss the pods. They still carry flavour and can find new life in vanilla su­gar.

Vanilla bean paste: Once avail­able only in spe­cialty shops, vanilla bean paste is now mak­ing its way into su­per­mar­ket shelves. This dark brown paste usu­ally comes in a stubby dark bot­tle. It’s burst­ing with vanilla seeds and de­liv­ers won­der­ful vanilla flavour with­out scrap­ing out caviar or steep­ing the pod. You can use it in place of vanilla ex­tract or beans.

1 whole vanilla bean = 1 ta­ble­spoon (15 mL) vanilla ex­tract = 1 ta­ble­spoon (15 mL) vanilla bean paste


While “vanilla” might be used to dis­miss some­thing as dull or bland, there’s ac­tu­ally no such thing as plain old vanilla. De­pend­ing on where the bean is grown and how it’s pro­cessed, vanilla de­liv­ers dis­tinct flavour vari­a­tions, much like wine or cof­fee. While there are at least half a dozen dif­fer­ent vanil­las grown around the world, three are com­monly found in our su­per­mar­kets and spe­cialty shops. See which one suits your palate:

Tahi­tian: Light, fruity and flo­ral, the al­most cherry-like Tahi­tian vanilla goes well with fruit dishes. Sus­cep­ti­ble to heat dam­age, it’s best in cold or frozen dishes. Mada­gas­car / Mada­gas­car Bour­bon: Named for the Bour­bon Is­lands, not the whiskey, this vanilla is the most com­mon va­ri­ety on the shelves. It’s ex­tremely ver­sa­tile and has a woody un­der­tone. Use in ei­ther hot or cold dishes.

Mex­i­can: Vanilla orig­i­nated in Mex­ico and this va­ri­ety re­mains my favourite. While it’s straight­for­ward, clean and well-bal­anced, Mex­i­can vanilla has a tiny hint of spice and a depth not found in Tahi­tian or Mada­gas­car va­ri­eties. It works well in spiced dishes, ei­ther hot or cold.

Re­gard­less of what type of vanilla you buy, keep it in a cool, dry place, away from sun­light.


I can pass by Crème Caramel with­out so much as a se­cond glance. But Crème Brûlée? It reels me in ev­ery time. Is it the crunchy crys­tal­ized su­gar top­ping or the silk cus­tard? I’m not sure. Clearly more re­search is needed.

Makes 4 serv­ings

1 vanilla bean

1 1/2 cups (375 ml) whip­ping cream

6 large egg yolks

1/4 cup (60 mL) gran­u­lated su­gar, plus more for carameliz­ing

Pre­heat oven to 300°F (150°C).

1. Split the vanilla bean length­wise. With the tip of a knife, scrape the seeds (vanilla caviar) into a two-cup mea­sur­ing cup.

2. Add the cream, egg yolks, and su­gar to the vanilla caviar and whisk un­til well com­bined. Pour the cream mix­ture evenly into four ramekins*.

3. Place the ramekins into a shal­low roast­ing pan or casse­role dish. Pour hot water into pan un­til it comes half­way up the sides of the ramekins.

4. Bake un­til the cus­tard barely moves when ramekins are jig­gled, or a knife in­serted in cen­tre of cus­tard comes out clean, about 45 to 60 min­utes.

5. Re­move the ramekins from the water bath and let cool to room tem­per­a­ture. Cover and re­frig­er­ate for at least four hours or overnight

6. Just be­fore serv­ing, sprin­kle each ramekin with 1/2 ta­ble­spoon (8 ml) gran­u­lated su­gar, cov­er­ing the cus­tard com­pletely. Turn the ramekin up­side down and tap lightly to re­move ex­cess su­gar. Turn up­right. Caramelize the su­gar with a kitchen torch or by plac­ing the ramekin un­der the broiler for a minute. Let su­gar cool five min­utes be­fore serv­ing.

If you don’t have ramekins, use one-half cup (125 ml) ma­son jars.

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