Last fall, Kelly (of KellyBakes) and I made homemade vanilla extract. We went in together on a bulk purchase of 4 different types of vanilla beans and then blogged about our extract-making. Our plan was bottle some of our vanilla bounty for holiday gifts and bake together (using part of the remainder) to see if we could discern a taste difference between the various types of vanilla beans. The vanillathon finally happened this past weekend, and while the results may not make a good New York Post headline, they will fascinate the bakers among us.
I did try a taste test on my own before our joint effort. For a group of expert taste testers, including Domenica Marchetti and Aviva Goldfarb, I made 2 batches (each) of Vanilla Cake and traditional madeleines from Dorie Greenspan’s Baking: From my home to yours. I used different vanilla extracts for each batch and asked the testers if they could differentiate between the batches. None of us could. I would have called that result disappointing, except that the baked goods were quite delicious and even if we could not discern one high quality extract from another, the vanilla flavors were uniformly excellent.
This weekend’s vanillathon began with a jaunt through the National Arboretum; after all, there is no better inspiration than Mother Nature at her azalea and apple blossom best. After a side trip to Spike Mendelsohn’s We the Pizza (for very good, but not superior pizza and excellent freshly made fruit sodas) to fortify ourselves for the hard work ahead, we set to baking.
We did have one more bit of playtime – a vanilla bean extract show and tell. Two of Kelly’s bottles were slightly cloudy, which she attributes to how hard she shook them during the extracting phase. I’m not so sure, but it is true that my shaking (not much) was gentle and my extracts were all clear. Anyway, all of them smelled divine.
Our plan was a 3-recipe marathon of vanilla pots de crème, scones, and white cake cupcakes with marshmallow buttercream frosting. The ingredients were intimidating, especially the quantities of butter, whipping cream, half & half, and buttermilk. Luckily, neither of us is a math whiz, so the numbers of ounces never registered for either of us.
The evening was long, but fun. We took pictures constantly and laughed often.
We did have a few bumps in the road. When the syrup for our marshmallow cream didn’t cooperate, the disappointment was compounded by the agony of cleaning up the gooey mess – twice!! (We were determined and could not simply abandon our plan after the first disastrous attempt.) But thanks to Kelly’s tip – boiling water and a bit of elbow grease where they syrup turned to rock-hard mess – we were not defeated and my pots and mixer are back in service.
We used Indonesian and Madagascar vanilla extracts in the pots de crème and the scones. The cupcakes all had Ugandan vanilla and we made the frosting entirely with Bourbon vanilla.
Our results? We both preferred the Indonesian over the Madagascar vanilla in the extract-steeped pots de crème (from Abby Dodge’s Baketogether) and in the currant scones. We thought the Indonesian had a more distinctive taste and the Madagascar was pleasant, but too mild. The vanilla extracts in the cake and frosting (Ugandan and Bourbon respectively) were nice – not as noteworthy as the Indonesian, but definitely delightful.
Comparing our results to the descriptions on the vanilla bean packages, we had to laugh. The Ugandan was supposed to be “bold” and was “recommended for the true vanilla enthusiast,” yet we didn’t notice it particularly in the cupcakes. Although we noticed the flavor of the Indonesian vanilla bean extract and considered the Madagascar rather bland, according to the packages, Madagascar is supposed to be “distinctly sweet and buttery” and is the most popular variety, “perfect for any recipe”, while the Indonesian is supposed to be “delicate.” We could taste and smell the touted “floral and raisin-like aroma” of the Indonesian, but we could not discern the “chocolate notes” in the Indonesian and Ugandan.
Side note – A cousin who makes homemade ice cream told me that he tries to use Tahitian, which he described as “not as floral” as Madagascar. Our Beanilla packages described the Indonesian as floral, but not the Madagascar beans. We couldn’t get Tahitian or Mexican beans when we ordered; I’d love to try them at some point soon.
Does using homemade vanilla extract make a difference in the final baked goods or cream desserts? Based on our experience, I’d vote for homemade vanilla; it takes little time and effort, you can make so much with just a few beans, and although I can’t swear I could always tell in a blind taste test, I really do believe homemade extract takes desserts up a notch.
For items where the extract flavor is not easily discernable (where chocolate or ginger is predominant for example), I’d be the first to say that you probably won’t be able to tell the difference between homemade vanilla and a decent store-bought extract. But where the vanilla flavor is prominent, the taste of the homemade extract shines in a way that I doubt one would find with a commercial extract.
I will try a blind commercial vs. homemade vanilla extract taste test some day. Sadly, the store-bought brands I have purchased do not list the beans they use, so it won’t be truly apples-to-apples comparison. In any event, both Kirkland and Cooks vanilla have a harsher smell than any of my homemade extracts.
The difference between various beans is like wine tasting to me – maybe the experts can reliably tell the difference, but I am not an expert. Kelly says she’s sold on Indonesian. I’d agree, except that I’m such a plebian that if I were simply enjoying a dessert, I doubt that I would notice (or care) which vanilla bean extract had been used.