Vanilla extract is an absolute staple for a baker. It is one of the few flavorings that works in just about everything (everything sweet, anyway) and, while cookies and cakes can be made without it, it really helps to round out the overall flavor of a baked good even when it is not the dominant flavor. As such, I put vanilla in lots of stuff. My two favorite kinds of vanilla to work with – aside from the beans themselves – are vanilla bean paste (mostly made by Nielsen-Massey, but also sold at TJs) and vanilla bean crush (made by Sonoma Syrup Co.). Both can be added to recipes that call for vanilla extract, but because they have vanilla bean specks in them, they can really do a lot to improve the overall look of a baked good.
I also keep a few kinds of regular old vanilla bean extract on hand, and I think I’m going to have to add one more. Traveler’s Lunchbox has a great post on how to make homemade vanilla extract. It is dead easy to make and all you really need is some inexpensive vanilla beans, purchased in bulk, a liter bottle and some 35-40% mild alcohol, like vodka or rum. Follow the TL instructions and in a few weeks you’ll have an amazing source of homemade vanilla – not to mention a neat homemade gift for any friends who are also bakers.