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Real Vanilla: Accept No Substitutes

Vanilla: Where would we be without it? This aromatic orchid pod from Mexico has been adding its fragrant flavor to food and drinks for hundreds of years.

“Vanilla is the ‘salt’ of the pastry world,” says pastry chef David Lebovitz in his blog. “I add a few drops of pure vanilla extract to whatever I’m baking.”

But before it became the backbone of great baking, vanilla was considered at various times a medicinal plant, an aphrodisiac and a beverage. The Aztecs used vanilla in drinking chocolate, and after the Spanish conquest of the New World the exotic spice quickly made a name for itself in Europe.

It may have been Thomas Jefferson who brought vanilla back across the Atlantic, after having sampled it during his tenure as United States ambassador to France. Jefferson’s handwritten recipe for ice cream calls for “a stick of vanilla,” presumably a vanilla bean.

Sad to say, many of the vanilla-flavored foods we enjoy today are not made with vanilla beans, but with synthetic vanillin.

Vanillin is a compound that’s present naturally in vanilla beans, but can also be created in a lab out of things like lignin — a wood-pulp byproduct.

Not surprisingly, we prefer to use real vanilla in our kitchen. It’s more expensive — vanilla orchids must be hand-pollenated to produce the aromatic pods and the plants can take years to mature — but the flavor is more intense and authentic.

Pure vanilla extract is made by reducing vanilla beans in alcohol and water — about 100 beans per gallon of liquid, according to Lebovitz. For even more concentrated flavor, vanilla extract twofold has twice as many beans.

To add the tiny, attractive vanilla seeds to your recipe along with authentic flavor, you can scrape them out of a pod or use some vanilla bean paste. This convenient preparation is thicker than extract, packed with vanilla bean seeds and a good choice when you don’t want to add extra liquid.

Thomas Jefferson’s 18th-century ice cream was doubtless flecked with vanilla seeds and rich with cream from his own dairy. According to the Timber Press book Vanilla Orchids: Natural History and Cultivation, by Kenneth Michael Cameron, Jefferson’s instructions call for making the ice cream in a “Sabotiere.” This was a double-bucketed icing device very much like more modern crank-operated ice cream freezers, except the contents of the inner bucket were stirred with an ice paddle.

We’ve adapted Jefferson’s recipe for modern kitchens. For a more authentic taste of ice cream history, source your cream and eggs from small local producers, use turbinado or Demerara sugar and get the best vanilla bean you can find.

Get the recipe: »» Thomas Jefferson’s Vanilla Ice Cream