Recipes for simple baked goods like cakes, muffins and cookies, don’t list too many ingredients. There’s usually flour, of course, plus eggs, sugar, leavening agents and then whatever is lending the flavor, like fruit or chocolate. So why is it that some people’s baked goods are just so much better than others? That’s the question Leanne Wray’s co-workers would pose when she’d bring in baked goods to share. She’d even leave the recipe on the table, so anyone who was interested could try it at home. But people would always come back asking why the results of the recipe didn’t taste like hers.
Her secret is simple: she uses super high-quality vanilla extract that she makes herself. Wray, of Honey Brook, PA, is somewhat of a vanilla fanatic. For years, she researched vanilla and experimented with hundreds of techniques and ingredients until, in 2019, she created her own ideal vanilla extract and founded her company, Vanilla Paradise, around that singular product.
It’s because of Wray’s vigilant trial and error that her artisan Vanilla Paradise extract is light years ahead of the flavored brown liquid that you find on most grocery store shelves. And this potent ingredient can make a huge difference in the flavor of baked goods. Even when something isn’t “vanilla” flavored, you’ll find that the rich, round, heady flavor of vanilla lends depth, aroma and complexity, and amplifies all of the other ingredients.
Vanilla Paradise is a relatively new company, and Wray is still hustling to get it off the ground. We had a great conversation about the origins of her vanilla exploration, and can’t wait to see how this homegrown business grows in the years to come!
PA Eats: How exactly did you become so curious about vanilla and making DIY vanilla extract?
Leanne Wray: In 2000, I went to culinary school at a technical school, where I learned to bake. One of my homework assignments in school was to really dissect an ingredient or recipe. At the time, I had to constantly keep asking my dad to buy vanilla, because I baked at home a lot. That made me so curious as to why vanilla was so expensive. So I chose vanilla for my research project. I kept going to the library to look up information. I was fascinated by the process! I learned that a vanilla bean has to be hand pollinated in order to extract the bourbon out of the vanilla. A lot goes into it. So I decided to make my own. I came up with the formula I have today after 20 years of trying many different alcohols and different vanilla beans. I age it for six months, and it always generates the same aroma and taste, and it’s really good quality.
I’m blessed today to be a stay-at-home mom, but going from a career to that was a huge adjustment. I’m used to having my own money — it’s a whole different world. I used to make vanilla to give away as gifts, but finally I thought, let’s try to manufacture it and sell it like a real product.
There are only two ingredients in real vanilla extract: vanilla and alcohol, right? How did you dial in which you wanted to use?
Sourcing the beans was just trial and error. I’ve tried beans from all over the place, and they do have different flavors. Some have a smoky taste or bitter taste. Japan was the worst. I tried beans from Mexico and Hawaii. I finally broke down and bought vanilla beans from Madagascar. Like, I physically called a farm in Madagascar. We came to a price and their beans have been consistent. Their beans have still been top quality, even through the weather changing. I feel bad that it’s so expensive, but you get what you pay for. In Madagascar, they’ve got the right soil, weather and sun exposure; it’s like the perfect, on the-equator atmosphere for the flowers that grow vanilla beans to thrive. The beans take about a year to grow, and about a year to dry after picking. It’s a very long process, and that’s the majority of the expense. I have to have the beans shipped specially, too, because it’s very time sensitive. The other things I love about the beans that I source from Madagascar, is that they can prove to me that they’re organic. Right now we’re actually looking into getting the vanilla tested to make sure that it’s 100% non-GMO, too.
There are so many different vodkas out there, but I really wanted to stick with a vodka made in Pennsylvania. I tried 7 or 8 different vodka brands, and none of them could really disclose if they were made with grains or corn. I finally found a local company, Stateside Vodka, that could help me. It’s more expensive, but it’s non-GMO and I really want to make a non-GMO product.
Can you tell us a bit more about how your process differs from the mass-produced big brands?
Big brands are usually very watered down. The first ingredient is water, which is sad, because they dilute it in order to knock the price down. It’s not a very good product and you see no vanilla beans in the ingredients. They actually strip the beans out so they can keep processing it over and over again. I leave my beans in, you can smell it and you can see it. Also, my vanilla is double fold, meaning it’s a concentrate because I use double the amount of beans per batch. It’s stronger, so if a recipe calls for one tablespoon of vanilla then you only have to use half a tablespoon of mine. That makes the bottle last longer!
My husband and I have bought all kinds of vanilla extract from all over the place. When we went to Hawaii for vacation, I bought seven different bottles and shipped them back, so I could experiment and play. I got one vanilla from Colorado and it didn’t even list vanilla in the ingredients. You have no idea what you’re eating, which for me, is scary.
What’s your production space like? Can you walk us through making a batch of Vanilla Paradise vanilla extract?
Our basement has been converted to a production space. Everything has to be super super clean. The PA Department of Agriculture comes in and inspects everything.
Okay, let’s say my beans come in the mail today. I’ll go downstairs and process them, which involves splitting each bean, harvesting the beans and putting them into my jars with vodka. When I’m processing downstairs the whole house smells like vanilla for like a day and a half — it smells so good! I make a gallon or two at a time which I steep for six months. I constantly rotate the jars during that time so that the vodka can penetrate everything.
I focus on quality. I don’t have the money to buy pallets of beans so I keep my eye on it and make sure each batch is exactly how I want it to be. I feel that when a lot of companies start getting too big then they start overlooking stuff, and I don’t like that. I want to stay small enough so I know that the quality is to my standards. I would like Vanilla Paradise to take off a little more, but I never want to be mass producing it.
How are you getting your products out to the market?
I’ve been trying to let my product speak for itself, and a lot of my sales are word of mouth. Before the pandemic I was actually doing pretty well. I sell through my website, and my Etsy shop has been good exposure; I have free shipping there. I’ve also been doing shout outs on Facebook for local companies, so we can support each other, and that’s been helping. There are some people who don’t even use it for baking! One of my customers is a lady in Hawaii who buys my vanilla for aromatherapy. Then, there’s a guy in Ohio who has a commercial painting company who puts my vanilla in his paint because he says that it helps break down the smell of paint since a lot of people don’t like that smell.
But the price point is tough, when you can easily go to any supermarket and buy a $7 bottle of vanilla. Vanilla Paradise is not for everybody. It’s for people who are conscientious of what’s going in, who care about quality.
You can find Vanilla Paradise vanilla extract on the shelves at Ponduce Farms in Elysburg, PA, and at Hillside Bulk Foods in Gap, PA. Wray is working to get into more local retail locations, so keep an eye out at your favorite specialty market! Follow along with Wray’s vanilla adventures on Facebook, and remember to support local!
- Photos: Vanilla Paradise