In 1967 I saw my first vanilla bean. I was already 24 years old. This shouldn’t sound remarkable but it actually is because even finding a vanilla bean in San Francisco in 1967 took some effort.
I had a friend who had lived in Italy and traveled a great deal in Europe. He and I were in a coffee and spice store and he bought me a vanilla bean. I was enchanted by the aroma but completely puzzled about how to use it. He told me to put it in my container of coffee beans and the vanilla would perfume the coffee. So I did. It wasn’t until 1985
that I learned how to use vanilla beans in any other way. Once I knew how, I never stopped using them but I’ve expanded my vanilla repertoire considerably since then.
There’s a reason why I share this story. Before the Food Network became so popular, most people had no clue about how to use vanilla beans. Probably had never seen them either. Once they became a regular on the Network, everyone had to use vanilla beans in their baking and dessert making.
Now, lots of recipes use vanilla beans. But how many recipes use vanilla paste? Hardly any! In fact, it’s still a “best kept secret” even though it’s quite popular with chefs and other food professionals.
Because vanilla paste is bright, bold and a big time saver! Hopefully I’ve caught your attention, because I suspect that once you try it you will agree.
For starters, the name isn’t really accurate – especially if you call it vanilla bean paste. My mental image when I first heard of it was of the blobs of white paste we were given in grade school. The paste was in a big container and our teacher used a large spoon to plop it onto paper towels for us to use, usually when we were making greeting cards and wanted to paste on leaves, pictures or dried macaroni we had colored. We didn’t have Elmer’s glue — just this weird, thick stuff. What was even weirder, some of the kids liked eating it! (I know, I’m going off-topic.)
Vanilla paste came out in the 1990s, allegedly invented by some friends of mine who claim that another company stole the idea from them. I honestly don’t know whether this is true or not but I can say that the quality and usability of pastes varies from company to company.
Basically, vanilla paste is a blend of concentrated vanilla extract and vanilla bean powder. It isn’t as thick as paste; it’s more the consistency of liquid glue. Most pastes contain invert sugar or corn syrup that acts as a binder. Some companies use freshly ground vanilla bean powder and some use the powder left over from the extraction process. In that case the powder is more for cosmetic purposes than for flavor.
Our vanilla paste is made with a triple strength vanilla extract (making it even that more flavorful) and freshly ground vanilla bean powder. The binder is xanthum gum, a natural product. There is no sugar or corn syrup — just those three ingredients.
I used to layer vanilla flavors when I made my to live for Vanilla Madelaines. I used freshly ground vanilla bean powder and vanilla extract so that the extract flavor would provide the top notes and the ground beans were the bottom notes. The paste takes care of both in one.
Think rich stuffed French Toast with vanilla ricotta filling, pound cake slices covered with fresh strawberries and whipped cream, very vanilla sugar cookies, and even home-churned vanilla ice cream.
The flavor is bold and bright and all you have to do is to scoop out a teaspoon or less. No scraping beans; no mess to clean up.
Here are a few of my favorite recipes using vanilla paste:
Because vanilla paste is liquid, you won’t want it for dry mixes of any kind; that’s where freshly ground beans rule. The combination of the ground beans/liquid extract creates a brownish color, not ideal for light-colored frostings. For savory sauces and most savory dishes, I prefer extract as it’s easier to control the “splash” you’ll want and the extract blends more easily.
I recommend buying the vanilla paste in bulk in one-pound containers. It saves you money in the long run and it keeps extremely well in the refrigerator. In fact, it should be stored in the refrigerator after it has been opened. Because it’s concentrated you will use less paste than you would extract.
You think a pound is too much? No problem. You can decant some of the paste and give it as a gift to a friend who also enjoys baking.
If you try to find vanilla paste in a local store, you might have a hard time, but Trader Joe’s has been known to carry it from time to time.
But we recommend saving yourself some trouble by ordering online. We sell what we consider to be the best vanilla paste on the market. If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t sell it.