Next-Level Vanilla

Vanilla extract is an obvious baking staple, and most people have at least one bottle in their pantry. But did you know: not all vanilla extracts are created equal? After a lifetime of using McCormick Pure Vanilla Extract, I was about to make a recipe that called for Vanilla Bean Extract ‘Crush’—from Sonoma Syrup Company, but also available via Amazon and other online retailers. It’s $22.99 (!) which definitely got my attention, so I decided to order some and see what was so special about this stuff. Answer: this vanilla bean extract is peppered with flecks of actual vanilla, which makes the flavor absolutely divine AND lends a bit of visual interest to whatever you’re making. I was immediately converted; I use it for cakes, cookies and even homemade ice cream.

And I guess Vanilla Bean Crush was kind of a gateway drug, because eventually I found myself experimenting with other artisan vanillas. Another favorite: Heilala Bourbon Vanilla Extract 2X, which brings its exotic taste all the way from New Zealand. As the name suggests, it’s twice as concentrated as most vanilla extracts, with a flavor that’s bold without being too bourbon-ish. They also make a Vanilla Bean Paste, which is thick and rich and gives you the gorgeous seeded texture of Vanilla Bean Crush and an equally intense—although slightly different—flavor. My suggestion is to play around with a few different varieties, and see which you like best. Even if they’re pricey, my feeling is that NO vanilla extract will ever go to waste.


My friend Betsy is a accomplished baker who (lucky for us all) also happens to be incredibly unselfish. I have been known to chase her down the aisle of the supermarket for her latest recipe discoveries, and she is always happy to share. Not only does Betsy never leave out an ingredient—she actually tells me what she has changed or added to make the dish in question even better.

In fact, it was Betsy who suggested using vanilla bean paste instead of regular vanilla for her Peach Tea Cake recipe. This foolproof cake, which she adapted from Rustic Fruit Desserts, is always a hit! Although any stone fruit will work, I prefer to use ripe peaches at the peak of their season. The rich vanilla bean paste flavor layers beautifully over the deep peach flavors and gives the cake a gorgeous flecked appearance as well.

PEACH TEA CAKE12 tbsp (1 ½ sticks) butter
1 cup sugar
3 eggs
1 tbsp Vanilla Bean Paste
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 cups ripe peaches, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Cream together the butter and white sugar with electric mixer on medium high speed for 3–5 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. Add vanilla bean paste. Add the flour mixture and stir just until a smooth dough forms. Place dough on sheet of plastic wrap and cover with another sheet of plastic wrap. Flatten into a 1-inch-thick disk and freeze for 30 minutes.

Butter an 11-inch tart pan with removable bottom. Divide dough into two equal portions and pat one portion evenly into the bottom of the buttered tart pan. Spoon the fruit all over the dough. Break the remainder of the dough into tablespoon-sized pieces and distribute evenly over the entire top. Sprinkle with turbinado sugar. Bake for 40 minutes, or until lightly golden and firm. Cool for 30 minutes before serving. Note: If wrapped well, the dough will keep for up to 3 months in the freezer. You can also freeze a whole unbaked cake with fruit for up to a month. Serves 12-14