When Mickey Mouse cakes slathered with grainy sugar icing and dotted with Cadbury’s Gems qualified as art, Viola, a vanilla essence brand, was an essential baking ingredient. At that time, it was simply called 'vanilla' by unsuspecting mothers and aunts who enjoyed making cakes from scratch. But now Viola has lost its shine, for it is completely synthetic, and bakers pay attention to the fine print. The bright blue labelling on the tiny Viola bottle refers to the contents as "food flavour"—which means it’s synthetic, and artificial essence will not make the cut in 2020.
“Always pick extract over essence,” says Bani Nanda, chef and founder of Miam Patisserie in Delhi who makes her own extract using vanilla pods from Uganda. The best vanilla pods, according to Nanda, are from countries such as Madagascar, Tanzania and Uganda. Haitian vanilla is well known too. In India, vanilla is grown in Kerala but the pods are thinner and drier compared to African vanilla. Nanda acquires plump Ugandan vanilla pods from the INA market in Delhi, slits them open and scrapes out the tiny seeds along with the pulp to use in her baking. “Nothing beats these pods,” she says.
Recently, Miam Patisserie introduced madeleines with orange and lemon zest speckled with vanilla seeds. “Crisp-er seeds indicate better quality,” says the baker.
For a hobby baker, who may not be able to source pods, Nanda suggests using pure vanilla extract from brands such as Sprig and Urban Platter.
Rhea Mitra-Dalal, a blogger and chef who runs a catering venture in Mumbai named Katy’s Kitchen that specialises in Parsi food, loves to make artful Bundt cakes with refreshing citrus flavours. She grew up seeing her mother use Viola while her late mother-in-law introduced her to the famous Bush vanilla essence but her curiosity led her to homemade vanilla extract and a brand named Nielsen Massey. “There is nothing artificial about it. It epitomises good vanilla and it’s damn expensive,” she says. Nielsen Massey is not available in India and Dalal’s friends or family bring it for her from abroad. She generously uses it for home baking.
But, despite her quest for the best possible vanilla extract, she uses an essence from Bush for commercial baking. Katy’s Kitchen belonged to her late mother in law and their Lagan-Nu-Custard, the prized Parsi pudding, was always made with Bush’s vanilla essence. When she tried to swap it with pure vanilla extract, her clients called back complaining about the change in taste: “They thought the milk had split.” Dalal realised superior quality is not necessarily better when customers are used to a certain flavour.
Dalal shares a simple recipe to make pure extract at home using vodka and vanilla pods: You’ll need just three things—inexpensive vodka, vanilla pods and a slim glass bottle. Fill the bottle with vodka, take a sharp knife and slit open the pods, but don’t cut them in half. Place the pods in the bottle and ensure they are fully submerged in vodka. Close the lid, put it in a dark corner of a cupboard and let it infuse for six months. The vodka will turn brown over time and acquire a strong vanilla flavour. “The longer you keep it, the better it will get,” she says. Another method to extract vanilla, she says, is to slit open the pods place them in a sugar canister. It can be left for a week or longer and over time the sugar will acquire the flavour and aroma of the pods. The vanilla-infused sugar can be used for baking and morning coffee too.
Those who avoid sugar and alcohol, Bani Nanda of Miam Patisserie suggests infusing regular milk, almond or oats milk with slit vanilla pods. They can be left to infuse for a few hours and then used in cookies, cakes, puddings and even hot chocolate.