The wrinkled exterior of a vanilla pod disguises its delicate and exotic appeal. Split one open to add fragrant flavour to everything from the sugar bowl to sticky puddings

Vanilla is perhaps the most-used and best-loved flavouring in the dessert kitchen, as it intensifies the flavours with which it is combines. It also adds a comforting and very distinct, though delicate, perfume.

Vanilla comes from a variety of wild orchid found in the tropics. The pod itself is laid out on tables and dried in the sun till charcoal-black and slightly shrivelled.

A pod should be stored in a cool place or the fridge. It can be used whole or split in half to remove the seeds and, wonderfully, can be washed and reused. Try burying one in a jar of caster sugar – the sugar will become deliciously fragrant.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Gardens, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627, www.petershamnurseries.com

Crème Chantilly

Very old-fashioned and not seen around very much now, crème Chantilly is a lightly sweetened cream laced with vanilla. Lovely with meringues if they are to be served on their own, or with apple or blackberry pie, which are two tarts perfect for making right now.

Serves 4

250ml/8fl oz double cream
1/2 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise
2 tsp icing sugar

Put the cream into a bowl and whisk until you have soft peaks – the cream should just be able to stand up on its own. You will find the cream is much easier to whip if it is not too cold.

Now scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod using a sharp knife and gently fold into the cream. Sift the icing sugar above the cream so that all the lumps are removed and stir together.

Cover, and put in the fridge until you are ready to use – although it should not be made too long in advance, as it will begin to take on the flavours of the other food in your fridge if left to sit for hours.

Orange, vanilla and rosewater cake

This cake is perfect for those who prefer not to eat wheat. It's slightly soft and gooey and keeps well for a few days.

Serves 8

2 oranges, whole
300g/10oz caster sugar
6 whole eggs
300g/10oz whole blanched almonds, warmed through and finely chopped
11/2 tbsp rosewater
1 vanilla pod, sliced in half lengthwise

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4. Put the oranges in a pan, cover with water and boil until really soft (about an hour, depending on the size of the oranges). Remove from the water, allow to cool to room temperature, slice in half and remove any pips. Chop into little pieces, put in a food processor with the sugar, eggs and almonds, and purée until smooth (or combine by hand with a metal spoon). Pour into a bowl and stir in the rose water. Using a knife, scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod, add to the mix and gently stir. Line a 10-inch cake tin with parchment paper, then pour in the mix.

Place on the middle shelf of your heated oven and cook for 11/2 hours. The cake will be cooked when a skewer inserted into the thickest part of the cake comes out clean. Remove from the oven, place on a wire rack and allow to cool. My favourite way of eating this lovely delicate-flavoured cake is with a spoonful of Greek yoghurt.

Baked rice pudding

One of the cosiest puddings, this is great with sliced fresh fruit. But at this time of year, when soft fruits become scarcer, it can be replaced by a big dollop of jam, preferably raspberry. Vanilla is essential here, as it works with the sugar to create a soft cream.

Serves 6

4 tbsp short-grain rice, washed and drained
3 tbsp caster sugar
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthwise
3 cups full-fat milk
A few grindings of freshly grated nutmeg

Heat the oven to 160C/325F/Gas3 and butter a 750ml/11/4 pints pie dish. Put the rice, sugar and vanilla pod in the bottom, then pour over the milk. Stir once or twice to incorporate the ingredients. Place on the middle shelf of the oven and bake for 11/2 hours until thick and creamy with a golden skin. Remove from the oven and grate over the nutmeg if you like. For variation, add a few sultanas to the mix, or a tablespoon or so of sweet sherry.

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