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In fact fresh vanilla pods are even better, although a little fiddly to use; slice open and scrape out the tiny seeds.
If no vanilla is available, the cakes can be made without, but the flavour is sooo good with vanilla!
Other flavours and essences are good too.
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At Trader Joes, they sell imitation vanilla extract and I can't taste the difference. That's what I use in my cupcakes.
You can use whatever flavour you like to make a cake, vanilla just happens to be a particularly efficient flavouring
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