It’s been several years since I diversified from using vanilla essence in my baking. In fact, it is so few and far between that I have not missed it in my pantry. Vanilla essence is over-rated.
This may come as a shock to many bakers who can’t do without vanilla essence. It is the number one flavoring for cakes, ice cream, chocolates and even found in barbecue sauce and creamy dip. Rumour has it that one of the ingredients in Coca Cola’s top secret recipe, is vanilla.
Using vanilla in sweetmeats became popular after Hugh Moran an apothecary to Queen Elizabeth 1 introduced it to her in the early 17th century. The Queen became obsessed with it. Later the French began using it in their ice cream.
The U.S. is one of the most ice cream-craving-nation today with 96% of Americans admitting they love to eat ice cream. A 2014 National Geographic article claims that vanilla flavored ice cream beat chocolate as the number one favourite ice cream flavor in the U.S. However, a survey done among Americans by YouGov in 2018 lists vanilla in second place, after chocolate.
So how did I stray so far from this iconic rule of thumb of using vanilla essence for sweetmeats?
Vanilla is expensive
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron. Organic and pure vanilla essence could set you back about USD13.17 for just 2 fl oz.
The cheaper brands are not worth buying. They taste synthetic and are sugary sweet instead of the creamy rich toffee taste of real vanilla.
The reason real vanilla is so expensive is the painstaking effort to obtain them. The vanilla bloom only stays open for 24 hours. Many vanilla farmers don’t want to take the risk of relying only on the bees to pollinate within this short window of an opportunity. So they hand pollinate each flower.
If the pollination is successful a 6-to-10-inch pod will develop. The seeds inside these pods are then soaked in alcohol to obtain the vanilla extract.
Many companies prefer not to wait and instead add a sweetener like corn syrup to stabilize the extract. I don’t consider these brands “pure” or “natural” vanilla although they are allowed to market them as such because the U.S. FDA considers “pure” as meaning the extract is made entirely from vanilla beans and not any other source. Still, it is better than the synthetic version, if you cannot afford the real stuff.
The total worldwide production of vanilla extract is about 2000 metric tons which is only a very small fraction of the huge demand for it . Therefore the bulk of the supply on the market is synthetic vanilla, using a compound called vanillin which can be manufactured from petrochemical, or by-products from the wood pulp and paper industry or even from secretion from the anal glands of beavers
So unless you want to pay the high price for authentic vanilla, you would have to settle for the synthetic vanilla which is invariably the only kind used in many of the commercial ice creams and sweetmeats on the market.
A flavor should bring out the strong features of the sweetmeat
I find vanilla essence too compatible to sugar. In my cooking, I’m looking for contrasts not compatibility. Vanilla essence simply makes sugary treats more sweet.
Take vanilla ice cream. Here vanilla plays a different role. Usually, it is the subtle ingredient that enhances the feature ingredient, but in vanilla ice cream, it is the feature. As the feature, consider how all it does is enhance the sugar in the ice cream. It does not stand out like chocolate or mint or blueberry. In fact, its subtlety is precisely why it makes for an ideal flavoring.
My favorite alternative to vanilla essence
I have been using home-made orange liqueur to flavor my sweetmeats. It is so easy to make. Simply take 5 large oranges or 8 small ones and use a vegetable peeler to thinly slice the peels off the oranges. When doing this be mindful to peel only the outer layer so that the white pith does not come off with the peel. Then soak orange peels in 1 litre of vodka for a week. After one week dissolve about 600g of sugar in half a litre of boiling water. Add the sugary water to the vodka and orange peels. Let it sit for a further week. Then discard the peels and bottle the liqueur.
In order to extract the flavor of the orange, a high alcohol base is needed and hence the choice of vodka. However, I made my orange liqueur using my own home-made wine as the base for extraction instead of vodka.
I made my wine with nothing but fermented grape juice from grapes I bought from a vineyard in the Barossa Valley in South Australia. I collaborated with the owner of this vineyard to run a workshop called Making Wine The Natural Way.
As my wine had not been treated with sulphur or been heated, it is rich in probiotics. So when I used this as a base instead of vodka, I allowed the sugary water to cool down first before I poured it into the wine. In this way, I would not kill the good bacteria in my wine.
Only a slight adjustment and you have two different flavors
If I wanted a spicy orange liqueur, I would add cinnamon sticks and cardamom at the same time I add the orange peels. Keep the spices in the jar when you add the sugary water. After the second week of steeping, remove the peels and spices. Now you have a second alternative flavor to vanilla essence.
How I use my orange liqueur
Almost all cakes and patisseries will be fine with substituting orange liqueur for vanilla. You need to be a bit more careful with ice cream. Vanilla essence goes well with chocolate ice cream but orange liqueur might not.
When I make chocolate ice cream, I don’t use any substitute for vanilla. I just make it with chocolate, milk and a sweetener like sugar, honey, rice or maple syrup. If you are using honey, rice or maple syrup, these will flavor it as they each provide their own unique flavor. You will note the taste of honey is variable too depending on the flowers from which the bees have collected the pollen used to make that particular type of honey.
Orange liqueur is more versatile than vanilla essence
Orange liqueur can be used in salads instead of sugar or honey. It is much better in barbecue sauce than vanilla essence, especially when it is of the spicy version. If you would like to have some vanilla essence in your pantry rather than not at all, make it yourself at home so you can be assured it is authentic.
Why change a 200-year old trait?
I believe Hassan played by actor Manish Dayal in the movie The Hundred-Foot Journey explains this well in his banter with Madam Mallory played by Helen Mirren.
Madam Mallory: What is this flavor that is fighting against the chicken?
Hassan: I added some spices for flavour to the sauce and coriander for garnish and freshness.
Madame Mallory: But why change a recipe that is 200 years old?
Hassan: Because, Madam, maybe 200 years is long enough.