I bought a pretty bottle of liquid vanilla when I was in the French patisserie Macarons et Madeleines, looking for a pick-me-up pain aux raisins for elevenses. And then – zut alors! – as I am homeward bound with my treasures in van, the bottle rolled off the passenger seat, smashing onto a ceramic tile sample I had left on the car floor in wait for its return to Home Depot.
The vanilla lid broke, the extract began oozing out and, as I pulled over to rescue it, I got a ticket for pausing in a bus lane during OC Transpo-only hours. No amount of truth telling convinced the officer.
Though I am convinced she did look longingly at my pain aux raisins before commenting on the smell, which was quite boozy.
It is possible I got off lightly…
For the purposes of the photograph, I have tucked the vanilla bean back under the raffia and turned the bottle so you cannot see the cracked lid. Nor can you see – I hope – that a third of the liquid is gone. The stain remains, reminding me of just how much I paid for that extract, but also – and more importantly — of my mum’s freshly baked vanilla cream cookies, of childhood milkshakes, of my nana’s vanilla pudding, of creme brulée from Café Henry Burger. These memories waft up from the carpet and they make me smile. The aroma is still strong. It’s even overwhelmed scent of hockey bags, basketball shoes, and wet dog.
A few years ago, Cook’s Magazine did a blind tasting of vanilla extract and they came up with the shocking conclusion that, in baking, there is no noticeable difference between goods baked with pure vanilla and those baked with the synthetic stuff, a byproduct, I learned, of paper production or a derivative of coal tar. I gather they had quite a readership reaction to that find. So they looked again, this time using pure and artificial vanilla in pudding for one test, in warm milk for another, and this time there was no question: pure vanilla won the day handily. Their conclusion? Use the best quality artificial in baking and save the good stuff for confections made with little or no heat (like puddings, pastry cream, frosting and, I would suggest, milkshakes.)
I conducted my own little test. I prepared two cups of warm milk. Into one I poured a teaspoon of a supermarket brand of pure vanilla (ClubHouse), and in the other, the vanilla from Macarons et Madeleines, aged eight months, made with beans from the Madagascar region infused in vodka. No contest. Just like those pain aux raisins maitre-patissier Stephan Ethier crafts — with his vanilla of superior product — this stuff rocked. Spill some today.
Macarons et Madeleines, 46 Lorne Ave., 613-422-6215.
First published in Ottawa Magazine, April 29/13