I am not a chef, a food writer, or even a particularly talented cook beyond a weeknight grain bowl. In fact, I’m someone who once went through a spectacularly ill-informed cookie-baking phase that ended when I bought almond extract, because it was cheaper than vanilla extract. This taught me an important lesson about vanilla, which is simply that you must use it.
So when I heard about the apparent chef-favorite, Heilala Vanilla — a New Zealand company run by a father-daughter team who started it as a project to regenerate farms after a cyclone wrecked the Tonga islands in 2002 — my antennae went up. Vanilla is expensive. If you bake, you’ll cycle through cheap sacks of flour and cartons of eggs, but you’ll keep a bottle of vanilla extract in your cabinet for weeks, maybe even months. It makes sense that this should be a more intentional purchase, on par with olive oil. And yet, besides the respected but old-timey Nielson-Massey vanillas, no brands seem to stand out.
After asking around, it seems like Heilala is, in fact, a vanilla to know. “If I saw this on someone’s kitchen counter I would be like, ‘Oh they know what’s up,’” says Catherine O’Donnell, a pastry cook at Gramercy Tavern, where they use Heilala beans to make in-house extract, as well as Heilala paste (also known as “vanilla caviar”). “It tastes so natural, super pungent — you’re getting that essential vanilla-bean flavor. It’s not watered down.” Over email, Jessica Koslow, the owner of Sqirl in Los Angeles, said, “I’d recommend Heilala for SURE. It tastes creamy almost!” And Natasha Pickowicz, the Café Altro Paradiso and Flora Bar executive pastry chef who just threw her third blockbuster Planned Parenthood bake sale, corroborates, saying she likes the paste for crème brûlée custards and gelato bases, but emphasized that she also buys Heilala because it’s a do-good company in a fraught industry. “It’s made responsibly, both on an environmentally sustainable level (the beans take forever to grow and cure) and on a humane level,” Pickowicz says.
Affirmed by trustworthy chefs, I asked my best friend, a naturally masterful baker, to come over and make chocolate-chip cookies — one batch with Heilala and the other with generic vanilla. The chefs were right: The Heilala cookies tasted much richer. The effect feels like when you put on tinted glasses, and everything becomes more enhanced, somehow more three-dimensional. And who would turn that down, especially in a dessert?
A few more baking essentials we like
This is a favorite of Emily and Melissa Elsen, sisters and co-owners of Gowanus bakery Four & Twenty Blackbirds: “You will never need to repair it (there is no metal rod through the middle that will break eventually) and it provides versatility in that the thicker center creates heavier pressure while the outer edges create lighter pressure. Work with it a little so you understand its power.”
The Elsens are also fans of this glass pie plate: “Pyrex is the leader in baking glass. Forget about metal pans — clear pie pans allow you see what’s happening on the bottom (i.e. if your crust is still pale).”
They also prefer a silicone brush, like the one above, which is easier to clean than a natural-fiber version.
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