You want something to taste of vanilla? Use vanilla extract. You want something to taste of vanilla and you’d like to be all pure about it, use a vanilla bean.
I have long plotted to make a vanilla cake that would hit the eater with vanilla the way a good chocolate cake just says chocolate. Not being much of a baking improviser, though, I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Maybe we should be just a tad concerned that two popular kinds of cake are called “white” and “yellow.” These are not flavors unless you have synesthesia. And I wasn’t sure how to turn either of them into a vanilla cake. Apparently vanilla is hitting new levels of popularity, however, because eventually I ran across a French vanilla cake mix.
I confess, I didn’t have much confidence in the vanillaness of the cake mix. This is when things started getting complicated. I wasn’t sure how well vanilla extract would hold up in baking conditions–the stuff has a high alcohol content after all, and doesn’t alcohol evaporate?–so I thought I’d go all foodie and add a vanilla bean. Acquiring a bean wasn’t difficult, as I’m in walking distance of a gourmet spice store (three beans, sold in a glass test tube that just cries out to be repurposed for something, only I can’t think of what). Using the bean, on the other hand, was a bit of a struggle.
Meet your basic vanilla bean. Yes, there are pictures of them on vanilla extract containers, but the bean itself is maybe not quite what you expect. It’s longer than I thought it would be, coming in at about 7″ long. We’re talking the seed pod of the vanilla orchid here–and by the way, how did anyone ever think, “Hey, what would happen if I slit open this pod and scraped the innards into my food?”–so what you’ve got is something that looks like a long dark brown (almost black) string bean, dried enough to get all wrinkly and look like leather. Optimally, your vanilla bean hasn’t dried out, though. So when you get it open, you’ve got this moist black paste sticking to your knife, your fingers, your cutting board: everything, in fact, except the bowl you’re trying to get it into. And those seeds are tiny: maybe about half the size of a grain of sand. The seeds all clump together and you wonder how you’re ever going to get them evenly distributed through the rest of the ingredients. It’s also a source of wonder: how can something that tiny, even if there are lots of them, flavor your dish?
You’re also not supposed to toss the pod. For what you’ve paid for it, you probably will want to find a use for it. Rumor has it that companies grind the pods up and add them to their “vanilla bean” flavored products, even though the pod has only a fraction of the flavor of the seeds (like you’re going to know the difference between a near-microscopic vanilla seed and a near-microscopic bit of ground-up vanilla bean pod?). The home cook, will probably take a simpler approach. I keep being told to put the pods in a jar and bury them in sugar to make vanilla sugar. Fine idea. Now if only I could think of something to do with all that vanilla sugar. Eating it by the spoonful seems a mite decadent.
And by the way, without long explanation (bad egg), the cake with the vanilla bean in it never made it to the oven. A later experiment with the French vanilla cake mix however, showed that it had little discernable vanilla flavor. I’m getting a tiny ego-boost from having guessed right, but must now try from-scratch recipes. Probably lots of them. Tons of vanilla cake. Oh, the horror…