Oh ‘Plain Vanilla,’ Those Haters Are Just Plain Dumb


I will never forget the smell of these drying in the sun at the vanilla plantation in Taha'a, French Polynesia.

Does anyone out there remember an episode of The Hills where that kooky Kristin Cavallari said that her sex life with Brody Jenner was, “Very vanilla?”  Hello?  Are you still there?  Great!  Sorry for that poor-excuse-for-television reference, but I beg to differ with Ms. Cavallari.  Obviously she hasn’t had good vanilla or she wouldn’t be using that euphemism.  Stop laughing.  You know you liked watching those idiots on MTV.  Now let’s drop it and talk about vanilla.

So I’m a vanilla girl.  I love it in everything from fragrances to desserts to balsamic vinegar.  Don’t get me wrong –  it’s not like I want to smell like a cookie.  Did you know vanilla is actually used in fragrances as a base note?  True story.  I couldn’t imagine wearing some of my heady white floral perfumes if they weren’t grounded by that fragrance note.  Did you know it is used in chocolate to help enhance the flavor?  I’ve added it to homemade hot chocolate and truffles for years.  Vanilla is a pod, and one of the very few edible parts of an orchid plant.  It is the second most expensive spice in the world after my other special friend, saffron.  For the most part, the flowers are artificially hand-pollinated due to the fussy melipone bee (the only natural pollinator) refusing to travel out of Mexico.  Hey, is this nerdy enough for you yet? 

Tahitian vanilla orchid

The most commonly used species is Vanilla planifolia which is the one found in Madagascar (Bourbon vanilla) and Mexico (Mexican vanilla).  These beans are commonly used in baked goods and are what I’d describe as traditional flavorful, boozy vanilla. Vanilla tahitiensis is a different species derived from you guessed it, Tahiti.  Tahitian vanilla is more fragrant than flavorful, and offers a delicate floral and mildly earthy aroma that is appropriate for custards, crème anglaise, fruit desserts, and fragrances.  It’s sophisticated and wonderful.  As a side note, Vanilla Pompona is another species (apparently West Indian vanilla) from the Caribbean.  While I have been in the West Indies, I have not yet tried this bean.  I ordered Madagascar, Mexican and Tahitian beans three or four years ago from an online store so that I could create my own vanilla extract and vanilla sugar at home.  The extract makes for delightful holiday gifts, and the sugar makes for wonderful baked goods. 

A couple of years ago, I was able to take my dream vacation at the time: a trip to Tahiti.  It was a tall ship cruise, which is much smaller than an ocean liner and I was able to visit six of the French Polynesian islands.  People have asked me what my favorite thing was about the trip: the beaches, the tiare flowers, the black pearls, snorkeling in the crystal clear lagoons, screwing around with the 20-something Swedish sailor, avoiding the 50-something creepy judge…don’t worry, we’ll eventually cover those other topics.  One island at a time, people.  Everything about the trip was great but my answer has always remained: Taha’a.  Ta-what’s that?  Well, it’s one of the more underdeveloped Polynesian islands which produces the greatest percentage of all the French Polynesian vanilla.  I was able to visit the vanilla plantation and actually see the Tahitian vanilla being processed; and also purchased some at a very reasonable price.  If you go to this destination you will find that many items are prohibitively expensive but at the time, these were priced more reasonably than in the U.S.

The weather was looking a little menacing the morning of the trip to the vanilla plantation.

I’ll let the visuals speak for themselves, and give you the basic information so you can make your own vanilla sugar and extract with whatever beans you choose.  No need to take a fancy vacay;  you can start by simply getting the beans online like I did.

Lady Sensory’s Vanilla Sugar:

Fill a food processor bowl about 2/3 – 3/4 full with white granulated sugar.  Slice 3 vanilla beans in half, lengthwise, and scrape the inner parts (beans) out and put in the bowl with the sugar.  Set remaining pods aside.  Pulse the sugar until the beans (tiny black bits) are well-distributed.  Take an airtight canister, large enough to hold the sugar, and place the remaining pods in the bottom.  Fill with the sugar/bean mixture to cover the bean pods and close container.  Give the bean/pod/sugar mixture a couple of weeks to settle in and get fragrant and then use to substitute for regular granulated sugar in baking.  You may want to reduce the extract amount in recipes because you already have some vanilla flavor in the sugar.

Lady Sensory’s Vanilla Extract:

Hiking around Taha'a after visiting the vanilla plantation.

Take one very large mason jar (Ball jar) and place 7-10 vanilla beans, halved lengthwise, in the bottom.  Fill to the top with vodka or rum.  Close the lid tightly and allow to steep in a cool dark place (not the fridge) for several months until color and flavor develops.  You will want to shake the jar gently every couple of weeks.  When ready, strain mixture through a cheesecloth to extract a more clear liquid (there will be tiny bits of vanilla bean you will want to remove).  Dispense into smaller airtight glass containers for yourself or for others (I use an eye dropper and put in small bottles).  Save the beans for another round of extract-making. Beans can be re-used to make more extract in the same manner.

Now perhaps you should whip up some crème brûlée with your new homemade extract and sugar.  Savor that dessert while contemplating what “very vanilla” means to you…because it sounds pretty damn good to me.

Jar of homemade vanilla extract (steeping for about 4-5 months).


16 thoughts on “Oh ‘Plain Vanilla,’ Those Haters Are Just Plain Dumb

  1. I used to loathe vanilla! When I was little I was such a chocolate freak. As I have matured, (right!) I really love vanilla. I have thought about making my own extract, but I just splurge for the pre-made pricey stuff. I agree, if it’s good quality, there is nothing simple or boring about it!

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