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Vanilla Bean-Brownie Ripple Pound Cake
Credit: Greg Dupree

Whether you're the designated baker in your family, or your specialty is boxed mix brownies, you probably have a little bottle of vanilla extract in your kitchen. My advice: use it up, and never go back again. Your recipes—even boxed mix brownies—deserve vanilla bean paste.

A thick, syrupy mix of vanilla extract, vanilla beans, sugar, and water, vanilla bean paste is like vanilla extract with more ‘oomph.' And seeds. In my opinion, it is the best of both worlds. It adds an intensely creamy, floral aroma to baked goods and other dishes, plus tons of black vanilla seeds, without having to scrape a pod.

Watch: The Surprising Thing You Should Be Doing When You Make Cookies

Those seeds might seem like a small thing (and they are teeny tiny), but they improve the flavor and appearance of light-colored desserts like custards and puddings, whipped cream, vanilla ice cream, pound cakes, cookies—and our signature white cake, of course. When people see those dark specks, they'll know that the dessert in front of them is something special. And it required no more effort than opening a bottle and adding a teaspoon of vanilla. (I recommend substituting one teaspoon of vanilla bean paste for one teaspoon of vanilla extract. If you want bigger vanilla flavor, add an extra 1/2 up to one teaspoon paste.)

Nielsen-Massey Pure Vanilla Bean Paste
Credit: Amazon

I'm a fan of Nielsen-Massey's vanilla products, especially their Pure Vanilla Bean Paste. It has a heady vanilla aroma and flavor (when I smell it, I instinctively want to rub it on like perfume) without any bitterness from alcohol, which is typically used in extract. Amazon users agree—nearly 800 reviewers have given this product rave reviews.

At $27 for a four-ounce bottle, this vanilla bean paste isn't cheap, but it's worth the splurge. It also makes a wonderful gift for the bakers in your life.