Good Question: Best Natural Vanilla Recipes?

Vanilla! It's a star, not just a background player, and Joe wants to know how to show it off to the best effect.

I recently came back from a trip to Mexico. While there, I visited a number of grocery stores to stock up on hard to find goodies like chiles and coffee. I also grabbed a large quantity of natural vanilla extract. I'd like to cook something with the vanilla other than ice cream that showcases it as an ingredient rather than just a background note like in most cookies. Any ideas?

- Joe

Joe, we love this question because we love vanilla too. Even though vanilla beans will give you the clearest, richest flavor, they're not right for everything, and a good high quality vanilla extract will give you great results.

We would lean towards very simple, milk-based desserts like pudding and panna cotta that will showcase the delicate flavor of vanilla. Panna cotta is a simple, deliciously soft pudding that is thickened with gelatin instead of eggs. This recipe from Epicurious - Vanilla Panna Cotta With Mixed-Berry Compote (pictured above) - looks right on the spot. Use frozen organic berries or substitute a more seasonal fruit.

We love panna cotta with red wine syrup, too, or a little warmed honey steeped with rosemary. When strawberries come into season you can make this: Panna Cotta With Strawberries And Balsamic Vinegar - or use frozen. Also see our post on blancmange - a similar dessert.

Also try our simple and easy Homemade Vanilla Pudding, where vanilla can shine as the star flavor. We love to layer this with baked phyllo dough for easy napoleons, or with fruit for beautiful parfaits.

Here are some more vanilla links - really, we love vanilla!

Vanilla!
Recipe: Phyllo Napoleons with Blackberry Sauce and Vanilla Cream
Recipe: Spiced Cream and Plum Verrines
Tip: Making Vanilla Sugar
Sources: Vanilla Beans in Bulk
Technique: Homemade Vanilla Extract
Recipe: Thomas Jefferson's Vanilla Ice Cream

More ideas for Joe?

(Images: Chef's Catalog, Mark Thomas for Bon Appetit)