Co-owner Craig Nielsen
Co-owner Craig Nielsen demonstrates the vanilla-making process at Nielsen-Massey’s Waukegan factory Photos: Jeff Marini

"I call vanilla nature’s MSG,” says Beth Nielsen, the third-generation co-owner of Nielsen-Massey, a company in Waukegan that has supplied America’s pastry chefs and home cooks with high-quality vanilla extract for more than a century. “It’s a natural flavor enhancer.” Indeed, just as salt (or MSG, for that matter) brings out desirable flavors in savory dishes, vanilla extract—made from the seedpods of a tropical orchid—augments sweetness in baked goods, giving a softer, more rounded flavor rather than a straight-up sugary one.

To make the extract, workers at Nielsen-Massey use a cold extraction process, not unlike the way extra virgin olive oils are produced. The seedpods—most of which come from Madagascar—are left for three to five weeks in a mixture of alcohol, water, and sugar. Then the beans are pressed to produce the intensely concentrated amber liquid so prized by bakers. This heat-free method allows maximum conservation of the 250-plus flavor compounds found in the freshly harvested pods. “Ninety-five percent of producers add heat or pressure to speed the process up, but the end product loses complexity,” Nielsen says.

Labeled bottles ready to go; sifting seeds out of the vanilla beans
Labeled bottles ready to go (left); sifting seeds out of the vanilla beans.

That extra effort pays off: Nielsen-Massey is the preferred label of numerous professional bakers around the country, including Sandra Holl of Chicago’s Floriole, who has used the product for years. The potent flavor is superior to that of other brands, she says, “and knowing it comes from around the corner is like the icing on the cake.”

Floriole’s maple-pecan cookies
Floriole’s maple-pecan cookies

Sandra Holl’s Maple-Pecan Cookies

Yield:24 cookies
Active Time:45 minutes
Total Time:2 hours 20 minutes

2 Sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup Powdered sugar, plus more as needed
2 Tbsp. plus 2 tsp. Maple syrup
1 tsp. Vanilla extract
¼ tsp. Salt
  Zest of half an orange
1⅔ cups Flour
1½ cups Finely ground pecans

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, cream together butter and powdered sugar with a hand mixer or wooden spoon. Add maple syrup, vanilla, salt, and orange zest; mix until thoroughly combined.

2. Add flour and pecans; mix until incorporated. Cover and chill dough in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

3. Scoop rounded tablespoon portions of dough onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes.

4. Let cookies cool on wire racks for 15 minutes. Toss in powdered sugar until coated. Freeze for 30 minutes, and toss in powdered sugar again until cookies are thoroughly and thickly coated.