Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 16, 2014

Foodie with Family: Vanilla not as 'plain' as you thought

Local columnist

---- — Vanilla gets a bum rap for being boring.

Statements like “Plain as vanilla,” “That’s so vanilla!” “I didn’t like it. It was just too vanilla for me,” are pervasive in our society.

In my mind, vanilla is the polar opposite (as opposed to Polar Vortex) of boring. In all likelihood, this is probably partially due to the fact that the foods in which it appears are often white (much like the Polar Vortex.) It’s usually paired with other foods as a supporting actor; a role which it performs beautifully, but vanilla isn’t just a back-up singer. It may not have flashy visual appeal, but it has big flavor that stands perfectly well on its own.

The key to getting bold vanilla presence in food is to start with vanilla beans. Vanilla beans can be pretty costly if no one has clued you in on one of the best kept secrets of food frugality.

This is one case where bulk buying is seriously necessary. In my local grocery, it can run in the neighborhood of $12 for two beans. If I buy a half pound of them from, I pay something like $30. From eBay, that same half pound package is $15. One half pound of vanilla beans is approximately 30 beans. The two bean packages run at $6 a bean. The half-pound packages cost from $.50 to $1 per bean. It's a pretty huge savings and is more than enough to encourage me to indulge my adoration for vanilla.

Are you wondering at all what to do with thirty vanilla beans?

I promise that once they’re in your possession you’ll find many places to include them, but I’ll get you kick-started here with a handful of my favorites. A word of advice: store the vanilla beans in a tall jar with a tight fitting lid in a cool, dark un-refrigerated cabinet free from temperature fluctuations.

Mega Vanilla Syrup

1 c. refined sugar or raw sugar

1 c. water

2 vanilla beans, split in half

Combine all the ingredients in a heavy-bottomed skillet. Place the pan over medium-high heat and stir until sugar is completely dissolved. Bring to a boil, turn off the heat, add a lid, and let cool to room temperature completely. When the syrup is cool, pour into a clean jar with the vanilla beans and fix a lid tightly in place. Store in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Mega Vanilla Café Latte

1 shot espresso (or ¼ c. extra strong brewed coffee), add 2 for a high-octane drink

2/3 c. whichever milk you prefer (whole, 2%, skim, coconut, almond, soy, etc…)

1-3 T. Vanilla, according to how sweet you like your drinks

Optional garnish: whipped cream and grated nutmeg

Pour the milk in a blender and blend on high until frothy. Alternatively, you can put the milk in a measuring cup and use a hand frother to make it frothy. Pour into a microwave safe mug. Microwave on high for 1 1/2 minutes, or until hot all the way through. Pour in the espresso shot (or shots), give a quick stir, then garnish with whipped cream and freshly grated nutmeg.

Vanilla Soda


2 T. Mega Vanilla Syrup

8 oz. chilled plain seltzer water or soda water

Fill a tall glass with ice to within an inch of the top and pour the Mega Vanilla Syrup over it. Pour in about 1/3 of the seltzer or soda water, stir well, then pour in the remaining seltzer or soda water. Sip happily.

Bottomless Vanilla Sugar

3 ¾ c. granulated sugar (refined, raw, sucanat, or whichever sugar you prefer)

2 vanilla beans split down the center

Combine the sugar and vanilla beans in a clean quart jar, fix the lid tightly in place, and shake the jar vigorously for a minute or so. Stash the jar in a cool, dark cabinet for two weeks before using. Stir into coffee, tea, sprinkle on cereal, or use for baking as you would normal sugar.