Vanilla beans are expensive (they’re the seed pod to a kind of orchid!) and so I’ve been abstemious about using my cache of Mexican vanilla, until I realized that my frugality had in fact turned into hoarding. After my friends came back from south of the border this year, bearing two more varieties of vanilla in very cool bottles, I went to place them on my spice shelf only to discover that I still had two and half more bottles left ! What was I saving them for anyway? An emergency call from Ron Ben-Israel? Not wanting to be featured on an episode of some new series on TLC about people who can't cook because their kitchen is filled with all the foods they're saving for "a nice dinner", I resolved to use only the good vanilla from now on.
Admittedly, the folks at Cook’s Illustrated say that in anything cooked above 300 degrees F., many of the 250 different chemical compounds that give pure vanilla its complex flavor and aroma begin to bake off. So in a cake (internal temp about 210 degrees F.) real vanilla might make a difference, but not in a cookie, which gets much hotter. You can really tell the difference in puddings, pastry cream and frosting. You can see the account of their tests and the results here.
Coincidentally, butter, sugar and corn syrup in the appropriate proportions turn into hard caramel at 300 degrees, so you’d think there wouldn’t be much difference between my Mexican vanilla and the cheap stuff when it comes to caramel corn. But I’ve been told by various Stage Rat taste testers that they can tell if I’m being stingy, and recently a junior high girl had a bite of caramel corn made with real extracto de vainilla and her eyes went wide and she gasped, “Wow! What did you do different?!” Then she took a bigger handful.
And that’s good enough for me, no matter what Christopher Kimball may say. So I’ve been using my high quality pure vanilla in everything lately, from caramel corn to pumpkin scones to frosting on cinnamon rolls, and yes, even ordinary chocolate chip cookies. And even if the difference is negligible in some baked goods, the enjoyment I get from opening the bottle and smelling that sweet, spicy, slightly boozy aroma makes it worthwhile. As I measure out a generous teaspoon of flavorful extravagance, I feel like a real chef, and for a guy who got his culinary education between his mother’s kitchen, the public library and PBS, that feeling is no small thing.