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Vanilla is a flavoring, in its pure form known as vanillin, derived from orchids in the genus Vanilla.
There are three main commercial presentations of natural vanilla:
- Whole beans
- Extract (alcoholic solution; per FDA requirements, at least 35% vol. of alcohol)
Vanilla flavor in creams, cakes and other foodstuff may be achieved by adding some vanilla essence or by cooking vanilla beans in the liquid preparation. A stronger aroma may be attained if the beans are split in two; in this case, the innards of the beans (the seeds), consisting of flavorful tiny black grains, are mixed into the preparation. Natural vanilla gives a brownish to yellowish colour to preparations, depending on concentration.
Good quality vanilla has a strong aromatic flavour, but foodstuffs with small amounts of low quality vanilla or artificial vanilla-like flavorings are far more common, since true vanilla is much more expensive.
One major use of vanilla is in flavoring ice cream: the most common flavour of ice cream is vanilla, and thus most people consider it to be the "default" flavor. By analogy, the term "plain vanilla" or just "vanilla" is used as a synonym for "plain".
The term "French vanilla" is often used to designate preparations that actually have a strong vanilla aroma, and possibly contain vanilla grains, but originates from the French style of making ice cream custard base with vanilla beans, cream, and egg yolks.
"Bourbon vanilla" is the term used for vanilla coming from Indian Ocean islands such as Madagascar, Comoros, and Réunion, which was the name of the Bourbon island when artificial pollination was discovered. Some people regard the vanilla produced on Réunion Island as the best quality.
Some connoisseurs still regard the Totonac vanilla as the best. It is sometimes marketed in gourmet food stores as "Mexican vanilla", although Mexico also produces low-quality vanilla that sometimes shares this label.
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