"Plain as vanilla?" Not any longer. What was once synonymous with boring is suddenly soaring.
The seemingly conflicting trends toward lighter, healthier foods on the one hand, and the return to homey, comfort foods on the other, have harmonized to make this once invisible flavoring a shining star in its own right.
Not only have manufacturers of low-fat goods discovered that the addition of vanilla can help compensate for the loss of fat, but commercial food makers in general are finding that consumers welcome the nostalgic simplicity of vanilla at a time when multiple combinations like raspberry-kiwi-pineapple abound.
The vanilla boom is not restricted to packaged goods. Greater numbers of restaurant chefs and home cooks are now experimenting with whole vanilla beans to create foods with pure vanilla flavor and the whole bean has become more readily available in grocery stores.
Vanilla's image is getting a make-over, too, with new packaging to make consumers aware of the source of pure, natural vanilla flavor: the bean of the vanilla orchid plant. For instance, the container of Haagen-Dazs ice cream sports an orchid and vanilla beans,
"For a long time, people overlooked how complex and delicate vanilla is," says Terry Olson, director of ice cream for Haagen-Dazs. Vanilla ice cream has always been one of the company's best sellers, he adds, but it's now growing at a faster pace than all other flavors.
Mr. Olson thinks vanilla desserts are "the perfect comfort food," and sees the flavor's revival as part of the "return of classic flavors -- things you can count on time after time."
The popularity of vanilla is borne out by the increase in vanilla-bean imports -- up almost 37 percent in 1993 over 1990 levels, according to the statistics of the Flavoring and Extracts Manufacturers Association, in Washington. Most vanilla beans are used to make extracts, a key ingredient in many frozen desserts and other packaged goods.
Consumers' ever-growing demand for tasty low-fat and nonfat treats is a boon to the vanilla market. Extract added to frozen desserts "boosts the flavor and replaces flavor lost from fat reduction," says Mark Mitchell, product manager of McCormick & Company. It also helps to mask "off-notes," the funny aftertaste of some diet foods.
Vanilla coffees, frozen desserts, cakes and frostings, are becoming instant best sellers, according to Quaker Foresight a food-industry newsletter. And you'll find vanilla in department stores and drugstores, too, in a myriad of new vanilla-scented products like perfumes, air fresheners, and carpet deodorizers.
A quick perusal through a supermarket dairy aisle will confirm that food makers are using a new visual approach to reintroduce and reinforce the image of vanilla. Dannon has sold a vanilla yogurt for 40 years, but for the first time recently launched a media campaign to showcase it. The old blue and white container has been scrapped for one that displays vanilla beans and the orchid flower, to say "This is vanilla, but it's not plain, it's very, very good," explains Becky Ryan, spokeswoman for Dannon.
Even vanilla's name is getting a make-over. New products from cake mixes to diet drinks are being labeled "French Vanilla." The term French vanilla traditionally refers to the combination of vanilla and eggs in a custard or ice cream. Although these new packaged products sometimes do contain eggs, they mostly have artificial vanilla flavoring and artificial yellow coloring. Marketers are capitalizing on consumers' association of French foods with elegance. For example, cake mix companies can now offer consumers not only classic vanilla mixes, but also French vanilla mixes, thus doubling the number of vanilla flavored products.
Gives flavors a boost
Vanilla is also being added to enhance previously lackluster sellers, such as hazelnut coffee. Since vanilla was added to round out the flavor a few years ago, hazelnut coffee has rapidly become the best-selling flavored coffee in the United States. "We can hardly keep the stuff in stock," says Tom Thompson of the Coffee Mill, whose Baltimore shop sells hazelnut coffee, vanilla beans, decaffeinated vanilla tea and a number of gourmet products such as sweet white vanilla powder.
The desire for stronger and purer vanilla flavor has increased the availability of vanilla beans for the home cook. Beans from Madagascar -- known as Bourbon vanilla beans -- are now available at most grocery stores from the gourmet to the everyday, including many Super Fresh and Giant stores, Sutton Place Gourmet, Eddie's and Fells Point Coffee in the Broadway Market.
Whole vanilla beans should be kept in an airtight container away from light and heat until ready for use. Whole beans can be used instead of extract in any cooked recipe: just split the bean lengthwise and add the seeds as you would the extract. One-half bean is approximately equal to 1 teaspoon of extract.
The Tahitian Vanilla Creme Brulee, which is made with a rare and floral vanilla bean grown only in Tahiti, is one of the big hits on the menu at New York's Bouley Restaurant. "People are now more conscious of natural vanilla bean," says Bill Yosses, the Bouley pastry chef.
Mr. Yosses thinks that the brulee's popularity is due in part to the search for a lighter dessert than ones made with chocolate. His recipe, not "light" by dietary standards, is flavored delicately with Tahitian beans, which have less vanilla flavor than the Bourbon varieties.
The Tahitian bean has "a flowery note and compounds not found in other vanilla," according to Manuata Martin of Pacific Island Imports.
All varieties of vanilla act as flavor enhancers and can give a lift to even savory dishes.
"Lobster and vanilla is a classical combination," says James Lockwood, pasta chef at Spago, in West Hollywood, whose Vanilla Lobster Sauce Pasta follows.
Even after the seeds of the vanilla bean have been removed and the shell has been cooked in teas, custards and sauces, there's still flavor left. The remaining shell can be used to make vanilla sugar, which adds a touch of vanilla to anything cooked with sugar, or to make homemade vanilla extract.
An innovative way to use vanilla is to infuse oils with it. Patricia Rain, author of "Vanilla Cook Book," (Celestial Arts, 1986) adds a split vanilla bean to extra-light olive oil and uses it for sauteeing seafood and in vinaigrettes. Her Vanilla Glaze for Meats and Poultry from her cookbook follows.
The 'power' of vanilla
Besides enhancing the taste of foods, vanilla is thought to have other "powers." Ms. Rain, for one, believes as the Aztecs did, that vanilla is sensual and even works as an aphrodisiac.
Science has shown that the familiar aroma of vanilla is relaxing. A recent study of aroma therapy by New York's Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center demonstrated that patients who were treated to a vanilla-like scent experienced 63 percent less stress than those who did not receive the aroma therapy.
Since vanilla can be used many ways -- for food and for mood -- the quintessential vanilla experience might just be the soothing, typically Mexican Coffee and Vanilla Liqueur below, served over ice and milk.
2 cups granulated sugar
1 or more vanilla bean shells
After using beans in baking, dry shells off and set them out to dry. Place shells in a canister of sugar and store for two weeks. When you have used that sugar, simply replenish the container, and add more vanilla bean shells as they become available.
6 or more vanilla bean shells
1 cup vodka
Place the shells in a jar of vodka and store for at least six weeks, shaking often. The more shells you add the stronger the strength of the extract. (Recipe provided by Chef Robert Axel of the Baltimore International Culinary College.)
Vanilla Creme Brulee
1 pint milk
1 pint heavy cream
9 egg yolks
6 ounces sugar
2 Tahitian vanilla beans, seeds and shells (see note)
Muscovado or Brownulated (pourable) sugar
Cut open vanilla beans and scrape out seeds. Add shell and seeds to milk and cream; bring to boil. Remove from heat. Allow mixture to steep covered for about 20 minutes.
Whisk sugar and yolks together until the mixture whitens and pour the warmed cream mixture over yolks, whisking continually. Strain (shells may be used again in other recipes) and pour custard into creme brulee molds and bake in water bath for 1 hour at 300 degrees or until custard sets and no ripples form when mold is shaken.
Remove the molds to cool in refrigerator. Glaze with Muscovado or Brownulated pourable brown sugar evenly and place under hot broiler for 30 seconds or until sugar is caramelized. Allow to cool and serve.
Note: Tahitian vanilla beans are available from Pacific Island Imports. The company sells and ships vials containing 3 Tahitian vanilla beans for $5 each, plus shipping costs. (310) 821-8712.
Per serving: calories, 596; protein, 9 g; fat, 41 g; sodium, 72 mg; carbohydrates, 46 g.
Spago's Vanilla Lobster Sauce Pasta
2 lobster bodies (tails reserved for another use)
1/4 cup chopped shallots
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
2 teaspoons chopped ginger
1/2 small jalapeno pepper, chopped
1/4 cup chopped carrots
1/4 cup chopped celery
1/2 vanilla bean, split
1 cup white wine
1 cup chicken stock
1/4 cup coconut milk
1/4 cup heavy cream
sea salt to taste
white pepper to taste
2 tablespoons butter, cut up
1 pound fresh pasta
Combine the lobster, shallots, garlic, ginger, jalapenos, carrots, celery, and vanilla bean in a large sauce pan and saute for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the mixture is reduced by half. Add chicken stock and reduce by a third. Add coconut milk and heavy cream and cook for 10 to 15 minutes until it is thickened. Then thoroughly break up the lobster shell -- to release the lobster taste into the sauce -- with the back of a heavy spoon, or an immersible blender.
Strain well through a colander lined with cheesecloth or a fine chinois.
Return to saucepan and season with salt and white pepper. Whisk in the butter to emulsify and reduce again over high heat.
Cook pasta slightly less than al dente and add to the saucepan. Serve with sauteed shrimp or grilled salmon.
Per serving: calories, 616; protein, 23 g; fat, 13 g; sodium, 799 mg; carbohydrates, 90 g.
Vanilla Glaze for Meats and Poultry
Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Madeira
1 cup water or stock
2 vanilla beans, chopped
2 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons water
In a medium-heavy saucepan, bring red wine vinegar and sugar to a boil. Continue cooking for about 10 to 15 minutes or until sugar has caramelized. Watch carefully as sugar burns easily. When caramelized, add Madeira and stir until mixture has dissolved.
Add stock or water and vanilla beans, and simmer on stove until the mixture has reduced by one half. Remove from heat and let stand for at least one hour.
When ready to use, remove vanilla beans and then reheat mixture, bringing it to a simmer. Mix cornstarch and water and add to sauce. Simmer 3 minutes or until thick. Glaze meat before cooking and add as needed.
Per 1/2 cup: calories, 163; protein, .5 g; fat, 0 g; sodium, 1.55 mg; carbohydrates, 31 g.
Coffee and Vanilla Flavored Liqueur
Makes 2 quarts
2 cups water
2 ounces freeze-dried coffee
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups vanilla sugar
1 quart vodka
1 vanilla bean
Bring water to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in instant coffee, vanilla extract, and sugar until dissolved. Add vodka and mix well.
Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and add half each to two 1 quart bottles. Carefully, pour over the vodka mixture and close well with cork or lid. Store the liqueur at least two weeks before serving.
Per ounce: calories, 117; protein, 0 g; fat, 0 g; sodium, 3 mg; carbohydrates, 16 g.