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Vanilla ... Not So Simple After All

Contact Author Cathy Christensen November 2009 issue of Skin Inc. magazine

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vanilla bean in a dessert

Vanilla’s flavor and fragrance are so pervasive throughout American life, it is often assumed to be a common, easily grown ingredient. However, that assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. The vanilla bean is the second most expensive spice in the world, second only to saffron, and it is so pricy because it is so difficult and time-consuming to grow and ferment.

Vanilla actually is produced by an orchid (Vanilla planifolia) native only to Central America—the only orchid of approximately 20,000 varieties that bears anything edible. In order to produce the vanilla bean, the orchid needs to be pollinated by stingless Melipona bees, also only found in Central America, and the orchid flower only opens for less than a day. If not pollinated during that time, the flower will fall off and no vanilla beans will be produced.1

Because of this complicated process, hand pollination must be used to produce vanilla commercially. After being pollinated, the flowers develop thin green pods, or beans, that are picked before they are ripe and are then fermented by a process that can last as long as six months. The beans become a dark brown color and develop vanillin, a white crystalline substance on the outside of the pods that provides its flavor and aroma. At this point, they are aged to bring out their full flavor, which can take up to two years.1 This common flavor is not so common at all.

In the kitchen

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Vanilla is sold as extract and essence, beans, powdered and vanilla sugar, although the extract is the most popular way the flavor is used in pastries, confections and other desserts, as well as dressings and entrees. When buying whole beans, which are perfect for use in custards, milks, creams and syrups, look for those that are shiny, black, tender, plump and moist.1

Spa cuisine chefs use vanilla’s unique, delicate flavor to enhance many dishes, including the following:

Chai Cooler Smoothie—Kohler Waters Spa, Kohler, Wisconsin;

Honey Vanilla Cheesecake—Green Valley Spa, St. George, Utah;

Strawberry Vichyssoise, a light strawberry soup made with homemade vanilla extract, orange juice, strawberries and yogurt—One Eighty Wellness Spa, Auburn, Alabama;

Réglisse Panacotta, made with vanilla, citrus segments and olive oil—The Spa at Mandarin Oriental, Boston; and

Lobster Salad With Grilled Peaches and Champagne Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette—See the recipe from Chef Anthony Cole of The Spa at Chatham Bars Inn, Chatham, Massachusetts.

In the spa

The major benefit of vanilla in the spa is its incredible aromatherapeutic properties, which help strengthen the stress-reduction response, according to Rebecca James Gadberry, ingredient guru and author of the article “Consoling Stressed Skin” (Skin Inc. magazine, July 2009). “It has been found to physically reduce symptoms of stress, most likely due to its effects on the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems that underscore the stress response,” she writes in the article.2

Interestingly, in 2006, Chanel launched Sublimage Essential Regenerating Cream featuring the key ingredient of planifolia PFA, which is extracted from V. planifolia in Madagascar, and it was chosen because of the moisturizing and anti-aging benefits of its polyketones.3

Of course, vanilla’s spa benefits haven’t been overlooked in the following treatments, either:

The Vanilla Coffee Scrub is a body latte that stimulates while firming and hydrating—The Spa at Four Seasons Hotel Atlanta;

The Vanilla and Orange Body Scrub is a sugar scrub using pure vanilla extract, pure orange essential oil and fresh orange zest that refreshes and exfoliates—Waters Spa at Lake Morey Resort, Fairlee, Vermont;

Eurasia’s Velvet Reprieve is a body treatment that combines fresh vanilla, fresh coconut and herbal extracts to soften skin—Eurasia Spa, Scottsdale, Arizona;

The Pure Renewal Body Treatment begins with an exfoliating scrub of vanilla and gardenia blended with fresh coconut—Wellness Center at Stowe Mountain Lodge, Stowe, Vermont;

The Hawaii Clay and Vanilla Facial Ritual features indigenous Hawaiian vanilla to nurture, pamper, detoxify and purify—Moana Lani Spa, Moana Surfrider, A Westin Resort and Spa, Honolulu; and

The Pure Vanilla Pedicure is a hydrating, aromatherapeutic experience for clients—See the step-by-step how-to from The Spa at Tubac Golf Resort, Tubac, Arizona.

Professional skin care products also take advantage of vanilla for its moisturizing and sensory benefits:

LaLicious’ Brown Sugar and Vanilla Sugar Soufflé exfoliates, moisturizes and protects skin.

Bella Lucce’s Arabian Odyssey Collection features ingredients indigenous to the Middle East, including vanilla bean fibers and Turkish coffee.

Good Fortune’s Faucet Soaps are eco-friendly and available in a variety of scents, including Vanilla Lavender Cinnamon Patchouli.

Éminence Organic Skin Care’s Tropical Vanilla Sun Cream SPF 32 hydrates, protects and revitalizes skin.

Ordinary, yet exotic

Vanilla turns out to be one of those items that seems commonplace, but is, in fact, extraordinarily exotic. And isn’t that the mission of many spas around the country, to stand out as exotic locations in ordinary towns; to provide an escape from your clients’ worries and become the place they rely on for wellness and relaxation? Maybe your spa’s mission can relate to this unique bean, and most certainly, your clients’ spa goals can be met with the help of it, as well.








(All accessed Sept 1, 2009)



Quick Facts: Vanilla


  • Vanilla was used by the Aztecs for flavoring their royal drink xocolatl, a mixture of cocoa beans, vanilla and honey.4


  • Vanilla has been considered both an aphrodisiac and a fever-reducer.4


  • Four regions produce different types of vanilla: Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, Indonesian vanilla, Mexican vanilla and Tahitian vanilla.5


  • Thomas Jefferson introduced vanilla to the United States in the late 1700s after discovering it while serving as the ambassador to King Louis XVI of France.6


  • The United States consumes approximately 1,200 tons of vanilla beans per year.6


  • When baking, be sure to cream the vanilla with shortening or butter because the fat will encapsulate the vanilla, preventing it from evaporating during the baking process.6


  • To make your own vanilla extract, place one whole vanilla bean cut in half lengthwise into 3/4 cup of vodka. Cover tightly and let steep for six months before using.1


Recipe: Lobster Salad With Grilled Peaches and Champagne Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette

From Chef Anthony Cole of The Spa at Chatham Bars Inn, Chatham, Massachusetts

Lobster Salad With Grilled Peaches and Champagne Vanilla Bean Vinaigrette

Makes 8 servings, 680 calories, 28 grams of fat

Ingredients for lobster:

4 1-1⁄4 pound lobsters

Preparation for lobster:

1. Cook lobsters in boiling salted water for seven minutes.

2. Remove the lobsters and place them in an ice bath to cool. Once completely cool, remove the tail, claw and knuckle meat from the shell.

3. Cut the tail in half and clean.

4. Using a pair of scissors, remove one-third of the carapace shell lengthwise to form a base to hold the filling.

Ingredients for vinaigrette:

1⁄2 cup champagne vinegar

1 vanilla bean

1 cup olive oil blend

1⁄2 cup extra virgin olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation for vinaigrette:

5. Scrape the vanilla bean into the vinegar.

6. Puree the vinegar in a blender and emulsify with the oils.

7. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Ingredients for avocado mousse:

1 avocado

4 ounces buttermilk

1⁄4 cup cilantro

1 teaspoon lime juice

Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation for avocado mousse:

8. Scoop the avocado meat and puree everything together in the blender

Finishing ingredients:

8 slices of grilled peach

1 cup bacon lardoons

4 cups arugula

Finishing preparation:

9. Toss arugula with one cup of vinaigrette.

10. Arrange arugula on plates.

11. Spoon avocado mousse onto each plate.

12. Complete by arranging the lobster, peaches and bacon on each serving.

Treatment How-to: Pure Vanilla Pedicure

From The Spa at Tubac Golf Resort, Tubac, Arizona

Tubac Golf Resort & Spa logo

The Spa at Tubac Golf Resort is a hacienda-style spa surrounded by dramatic desert landscapes, winding brick pathways, grazing cattle, cascading fountains, and the majestic Santa Rita and Tumacacori Mountain ranges.

This Pure Vanilla Pedicure includes a gentle vanilla scrub to remove the dry skin, followed by the warm application of a smooth vanilla mask to rehydrate.The treatment is then completed with a topping of vanilla body frosting. The vanilla bean used in these services contains antioxidants that encourage good health.

Treatment duration: 60 minutes

Treatment cost: $70

Products needed:

Vanilla exfoliant

Vanilla mask

Vanilla body frosting

Vanilla bath ball

Foot-sanitizing soak

Callus remover

Supplies and equipment needed:

Pedicure chair


4–6 bath mats


Toe spacers

Disposable sandals

Step 1: Fill pedicure tub with warm water, marbles and foot-sanitizing soak. Welcome client, learn about any health concerns and invite her to sit down, get comfortable and play with the marbles in the water for relaxation and to provide a different focus. The only contraindication to the treatment is if the client has an allergy to vanilla.

Step 2: Place vanilla bath ball in the foot tub. Soak feet for 5–7 minutes.

Step 3: Take one foot out of the water, remove any existing polish and groom toenails. Apply cuticle softener to cuticles and callus remover to calloused areas on the bottom of the foot. Do not rinse. Repeat on opposite foot.

Step 4: On first foot, push back cuticles, buff the top of the nail and nip all dead skin. Place foot back in the water, and then repeat step 4 on opposite foot.

Step 5: Remove first foot from the water, pat dry and remove any calluses with a foot file.

Step 6: Exfoliate the foot and leg with the vanilla exfoliant, then place foot back in water and rinse leg thoroughly. Repeat steps 5 and 6 on the opposite foot.

Step 7: Take both feet from the water and pat dry. Apply vanilla mask to the feet, leaving it on for 5–7 minutes.

Step 8: Place both feet in the tub and rinse thoroughly, then pull feet out of tub and pat them dry.

Step 9: Massage the vanilla body frosting on the foot and leg for approximately 10 minutes.

Step 10: Remove all products from nail plate and apply polish.

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