Vanilla extract in stores in India, is one of the many many baking ingredients unheard of. Except in very rare specialty stores. I have been using synthetic vanilla essence since the time I have been baking. I have used a couple of bottles of pure vanilla extract a few years ago, when I was not yet obsessed with baking and did not even know that there is something called as pure vanilla extract. Oh boy! I did not realize that what sis-in-law has sent from the US was pure vanilla extract! I used it freely in my cakes, but not without realizing that it was indeed imparting a very different taste to the one and only sponge I used to bake rarely. And then I realized that vanilla extract is indeed special.
Vanilla is supposed to the most expensive among spices, next only to saffron. The reason being extensive labor needed to cultivate the pods. Dark, shiny, plump and moist are the kind of beans which are of good quality - as opposed to the thin, shriveled and dry ones. They are sometimes coated with a white substance, they are vanilla crystals. Vanilla is available as pure extract, pods and vanilla powder. The bean is split into two and the tiny seeds are scraped out and added to cake batter, ice creams, custards etc. The beans can be dunked into milk, custard etc to infuse the flavor. Then the beans can be rinsed, dried and buried in sugar to gradually infuse the flavor into sugar, giving you vanilla sugar. The best beans come from Tahiti, Madagascar and Mexico. Tahitian beans are supposed to be the most aromatic ones and larger in size too, hence less of it needed in a recipe. Source - Rose Levy's Cake Bible & Wikipedia.
And it was a discovery to see home-made vanilla extract on Deeba's and then on Shaheen's blog. Fabulous! Sounds so very easy! Split vanilla beans and dunk them in vodka for 6-8 weeks and your extract is ready for use! Yes, I made my Vanilla Extract at home!