Kitchen DIY: Making the most of real vanilla

Vanilla Bean

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice following saffron. Vanilla remains pricey (around $3.50 a pod) largely due to the fact that it is very labor-intensive and challenging to grow. Originally from Mexico, the vanilla orchards had a highly symbiotic relationship with its natural pollinator, the Mellipona bee. Man-made attempts to replicate what nature was doing best by artificially pollinating the plant were largely unsuccessful until the discovery that the vanilla plant could be hand pollinated, thus enabling the plant to be grown in areas outside of Mexico.

Vanilla received its name from the Spanish word “vaina,” which means sheath or pod. The vanilla seed pod or bean is long and dries to a dark, almost black brown. The pod is commonly sliced open lengthwise and from within the internal sticky casing, the seeds are scraped. I’m certain that everyone reading this cracks a smile everytime they open the bottle of vanilla essence and catch a whiff of the sweet smell of vanilla. The unique scent, quite simply, is euphoric and out of this world, so one can imagine the bliss that would come from the smell and flavor when scraped straight from the pod.


A never-opened bottle containing two vanilla pods sat in my pantry for nearly a year before I dared to experiment. I hesitated, because of the relative rarity and high-cost of the spice. I could not convince myself that the chocolate chip cookies or the kids’ cupcakes were worthy of the prized possession. Then my husband went on another one of his lengthy work trips and I decided to make a meal that would demonstrate how much I love him and how much I miss him when he is gone. I decided on vanilla bean custard ice cream for the dessert and thought, “what’s a vanilla bean custard without the actual pieces of the vanilla bean?”

I had recently made the the custard, again to celebrate an accomplishment. It was just the right balance of creamy and sweet and the bits of vanilla bean were quite the flavor burst. With rhubarb in my fridge from my first CSA share of the season, I decided to pair the ice cream with a strawberry rhubarb cobbler (see recipe below). When finished with the scraping and infusion of the vanilla into the custard base, I rinsed the pod and let dry completely. I placed the bean pod into my sugar jar for an ongoing delicious aroma of vanilla sugar. One can also use the remaining pieces of the pod to make their own vanilla essence.

Vanilla Bean Ice Cream (custard), by David Lebovitz
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup sugar
1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
2 cups heavy cream
5 large egg yolks (you may add more for a richer custard- I use 7)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1. Heat the milk, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the milk with a paring knife, then add the bean pod to the milk. Cover, remove from heat, and infuse for one hour.









2. To make the ice cream, set up an ice bath by placing a 2-quart bowl in a larger bowl partially filled with ice and water. Set a strainer over the top of the smaller bowl and pour the cream into the bowl.









3. In a separate bowl, stir together the egg yolks. Re-warm the milk then gradually pour some of the milk into the yolks, whisking constantly as you pour. Scrape the warmed yolks and milk back into the saucepan.

4. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly and scraping the bottom with a heat-resistant spatula, until the custard thickens enough to coat the spatula.

5. Strain the custard into the heavy cream. Stir over the ice until cool, add the vanilla extract, then refrigerate to chill thoroughly. Preferably overnight.

6. Remove the vanilla bean and freeze the custard in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups sliced fresh strawberries
3 cups diced rhubarb
2 cloves (More on cloves at:The Spice Odyssey: Cloves)
1 stick of cinnamon
Dash of nutmeg (More on nutmeg at: The Spice Odyssey)
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup butter (softened)
1 cup rolled oats
1.  Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

2. In a small saucepan, add 3 cloves, grate a ½ teaspoon cinnamon and ½ teaspoon nutmeg to a few tablespoons of water and bring to a boil. Turn off heat and set aside.

2.  In a large bowl, mix sugar, 3 tablespoons flour, strawberries, and rhubarb. Remove cloves and add water, cinnamon and nutmeg mixture. Place the mixture in a large (9X13) baking dish.









3.  Mix 1 1/2 cups flour, brown sugar, butter, and oats until crumbly. Crumble on top of the rhubarb and strawberry mixture.

4.  Bake 45 minutes in the preheated oven, or until crisp and lightly browned.






I’m curious which recipes do you find are worthy of vanilla?

Leigh Ann Ahmad was dragged kicking and screaming to the Cities by her husband; having been born and bred in Cleveland, Ohio, she just could not fathom how colder could be better. Now, five years and two kids later, she cannot imagine a better place to play and thrive. She’s a reformed carb-aholic, wannabe writer, social justice advocate, book-club geek, veggie grower and local foods connoisseur.