adj.: Ordinary flavor, standard. When used of food, very often does not mean that the food is flavored with vanilla extract! For example, `vanilla wonton soup' means ordinary wonton soup, as opposed to hot-and-sour wonton soup.
The word vanilla has become synonymous with anything that's ordinary. But really, is that even fair? How can something so intensely aromatic and exotic be used to describe anything that is ordinary? Or plain? Or bland? Alright, vanilla ice cream certainly looks more boring than chocolate, I'll give you that. But ice cream color aside, vanilla beans actually have a very complex flavor and you will be hard pressed to find a pastry or cake that doesn't call for some form of this spice. Even those chocoholic Aztec emperors enhanced their cocoa with vanilla. It perfumes everything to which it is added and it imparts a subtly sweet flavor to savory dishes as well.
The vanilla "bean" (it's actually a pod) is the fruit of the climbing vanilla orchid (vanilla planifolia) which thrives in tropical climates. The reason it commands such a high price (don't buy imitation vanilla, you'll only get what you pay for) is that it is a highly labor-intensive crop. Because the kind of bee that pollinates this flower is rare, a method of hand-pollination was developed. Once the flowers blossom, they must be left on the vine for much longer before they are harvested and the lengthy process of curing, sweating and drying begins.
The three most popular types of vanilla beans are Bourbon (from Madagascar), Mexican, and Tahitian. The major distinction among the three types is intensity of flavor and thickness. Because I love the flavor and fragrance of vanilla (many of my lotions, hand gels, and body washes are of either warm vanilla sugar or lavender-vanilla scents), I bought myself several packets of Indonesian vanilla beans at the Ubud market in Bali not too long ago. When I arrived home, I split some up to make vanilla sugar and vanilla extract for future use.
As for the rest of the beans which I have stored in the refrigerator wrapped in many layers of paper towels and plastic, I plan to use their seeds in desserts such as custards or puddings, muffins, cookies and cake. Now if I can only find the time for all that! If you have any vanilla recipes you'd like to share, I would love to try them. :)
To make vanilla extract:
You will need 1 vanilla pod for every 3/4 cup of vodka.
Lay the bean flat on a chopping board. With a sharp knife, make a slit down the length of the vanilla pod leaving the ends intact, but exposing the seeds within. Steep the beans in good quality (don't use vodka you wouldn't drink yourself) vodka in an airtight bottle for 6 months. Shake often.
To make vanilla sugar:
You will need 1 vanilla pod for every 2 cups of sugar.
Make a slit along the vanilla pod in the same manner above. You could cut it in half if it's too long. Bury the pods in caster sugar inside a vacuum-sealed or airtight jar and shake well. And shake often. In about 2-3 weeks, you will have sugar infused with the heady and evocative aroma of vanilla.
Use it to flavor your pastries, coffee, hot chocolate, yogurt, tea, fruit, and anywhere you might use the plain stuff.
Variation: Use cinnamon sticks in place of the vanilla bean.