There are many great things about working with Caitlin PenzeyMoog (author of the January 2019 release On Spice: Advice, Wisdom, and History with a Grain of Saltiness from Skyhorse Publishing). She is a wonderful co-worker and the incredibly organized keeper of The A.V. Club editorial calendar. She is also, as you might know, from a family of spice merchants, which includes Penzeys Spices and The Spice House. And when she goes home for the weekend, if you’re lucky, she might pick you up something.
One such weekend a few years ago, I was short on vanilla, so when PenzeyMoog returned to the office she brought me Penzeys’ Pure Double-Strength Vanilla Extract. The effect it has had on my baking has been tremendous, and I was already indulging in higher-priced options like Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla extract from Williams-Sonoma. As an insecure baker, I am perfectly okay with spending some extra coin on next-level imported cinnamon, etc., in the hope that it will elevate my meager offerings—maybe everyone won’t notice how gummy my cake is if the seasonings are just right?
If you’re putting vanilla in something, it’s fair to assume that you like the taste of vanilla. This concentrate just ramps up that aromatic sweetness (with part of the bean still in the bottle) all the more. The secret, according to the Penzeys website, is that “twice as many beans are used to make each gallon of extract,” resulting in a “two-fold” vanilla extract. So you can get away with only using half of that the recipe calls for. But Penzeys advises, “For unbeatably rich vanilla flavor in baked goods and desserts, use the same amount the recipe calls for,” and I have always done that, with delicious results. I put it in my homemade hot chocolate. Pancakes. It’s the only one I use for baking from cookies to pies. (I always add a splosh to whatever fruit filling I’m making.) Lord help me, I even add it to my oatmeal.
Yes, it’s a little pricey. PenzeyMoog explains that there’s a big difference between true vanilla and vanillin: “The vanilla you’re paying a higher price for is more expensive because it is not vanillin, the cheaper, much less potent and flavorful vanilla alternative” that’s more common at the grocery store. A recent cyclone in Madagascar, where more than 75 percent of all pure vanilla comes from, has caused vanilla prices to increase as well. (Fortunately, Penzey Double-Strength Vanilla also happens to be on sale right now.)
December is the Olympics season of baking in our family. Ensure that Santa loves the cookies you leave out for him with this aromatic and potent little vanilla bottle.