VAIN foods sets out to prove that vanilla extract has purpose beyond baking.
Story by Lauren Rutherford
It all started with a little curiosity and a sample pack of vanilla beans.
Kate Banks’ mom gifted her the beans around Christmastime 2013. The next March, Banks and her chef friend, Charlie Hammond, met up to make vanilla extract with her Christmas gift. They lined up four rows of six brown Boston round bottles, dropped three halved and split-open beans in each and poured in some booze.
But it wasn’t just any booze. Banks and Hammond decided to experiment with different liquors—such as bourbon, orange liqueur and rum—instead of the vodka traditionally used to make vanilla extract. The result was something they couldn’t quite keep to themselves.
Their tasty discovery eventually resulted in VAIN Foods, a homegrown company specializing in vanilla extracted from different spirits.
The company’s name came out of a simple puzzle: Banks tried to see how many different words she could make using the letters that spell vanilla. She and Hammond wanted something short and edgy; VAIN was the answer. Today, VAIN sells a line of vanilla extracts—including varieties such as Ugandan vanilla extracted in cane rum and Indian vanilla extracted in ginger spirits—as well as a line of coffee drops.
That first time around, Banks and Hammond paired the type of bean and the spirits haphazardly. Now, each pair is intentionally coupled. For example, the woodsy notes of an Indonesian vanilla bean are bottled with the caramel hints found in rum. Banks says there isn’t any heat or manipulation involved: They just fill the bottles and let the beans do their thing.
“We’re really dedicated to doing things in smaller batches and by hand,” Banks says. “We feel like that makes a more meaningful product in today’s marketplace.”
Vanilla extract is usually associated only with baking, but Banks says we should think of more as a flavoring; the idea has been a big learning curve for most. She uses it in everything from morning oatmeal to evening cocktails and in batches of baked goods, naturally.
“That’s the really cool part: When people say, ‘I’ve been making this banana bread for 15 years and it’s gotta be your vanilla. It was so much better the last time I made it with your vanilla,’” she says.
Now nearing a year since launch, VAIN hopes to assemble some holiday specials. Coffee-themed gift baskets are on the list as are sample packs of vanilla—similar to the sample pack that started it all.
“It’s really fun to know there’s somebody on the other end,” Banks says.
For now, you can find VAIN vanilla online or in stores at Better Cheddar locations across KC, Pryde’s in Westport or The Sundry. Not sure how to use it? Check out these tasty recipes:
VAIN Ginger Apple Spritzer
- 4 ounces hard sparkling cider (or non-alcoholic, if you prefer)
- 4 ounces ginger beer
- 1 teaspoon VAIN Apple Brandy vanilla extract (or any VAIN extract)
Pour cider and ginger beer over a glass full of ice. Add the vanilla but don’t stir.
VAIN Vanilla Latte Ice Cream
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup sugar
- 2 tablespoons espresso powder
- 6 egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon VAIN Vanilla (preferably Tahitian extracted in Rum)
Note: Requires an ice cream maker.
In a medium-sized saucepan, bring the milk, cream, sugar and coffee to a boil.
In a medium-sized mixing bowl, whisk the egg yolks until creamy and slowly add in some of the hot milk to temper the yolks. Gradually add about half of the cream to the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Add the egg yolk, sugar and cream mixture to the saucepan with the cream and milk. Cook over low heat until the mixture thickens slightly. Do not overcook or boil as the custard will curdle.
Strain the custard through a fine mesh sieve into a cold bowl. Add vanilla extract and stir. Cover with plastic wrap, pressing it down on the surface to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate for at least 2 hours or until thoroughly chilled. Pour the custard into the bowl of an ice cream maker, and process according to the manufacturer’s instructions. Transfer the ice cream to a resealable container and freeze until ready to serve.