Not all desserts are created equal. There's gooey pecan pie, sinful chocolate brownies, calorie laden cheesecake, artery clogging ice cream...and then there is this vanilla bean pudding. It's innocent, almost angelic. Calorie-wise it's indistinguishable from your after dinner latte. I think of it as a warm dose of calcium in a cup. With a kick.
Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (right after saffron). Vanilla orchid flowers grow on vines in just a few tropical regions in the world, and are a very labor-intensive crop. One flower produces one vanilla seed pod. Because of this you don't very often get a true vanilla flavor in commercial foods; it's just too expensive. These days, synthetic vanillin, or artificial vanilla flavoring, is made from a byproduct of paper making. Just to give you an idea of what you are missing when you eat something flavored with artificial vanillin, it represents just one of 171 of the identified flavor components in natural vanilla beans. If that wasn't bad enough, recently, the USDA has approved the use of "non-plant vanilla flavors extracted from beavers to be labeled as natural flavoring". (source) Enough said.
But in your own kitchen you're the boss, and you can experience premium vanilla flavor with real vanilla beans. If you really get into cooking with vanilla beans you can buy them in bulk here or here, or here. The recipe I tweaked (by adding the bourbon!) is from Smitten Kitchen---
Kentucky Bourbon Vanilla Bean Pudding
(5 or 6 small servings)
2 2/3 cups whole milk, divided
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
Seeds from 1 vanilla bean
1 large egg
2 tbsp Kentucky Bourbon
1 tsp real vanilla extract
Bring 2 cups of the milk to a boil in a medium saucepan. While it is heating, combine sugar, cornstarch, salt and vanilla bean seeds in the bottom of a medium heatproof bowl. (To remove the seeds from the vanilla bean, split it lengthwise with the point of a knife, and scrape out the seeds with the side of the knife.)
Gradually whisk in the remaining 2/3 cup whole milk, a little at a time so lumps do not form, then whisk in the egg. Once the milk is boiling, very gradually add it to the cornstarch mixture in the bowl, whisking the whole time.
I like to eat this pudding warm, but you can chill it in the fridge to set it up. Whether you eat it warm or cold, you'll get the nice follow up warmth of the bourbon in every bite.