My question is specific about ice-creams but more details are welcome.

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    If you make your own vanilla ice cream, especially with extract, its just a few tsp of extract you add in at the end... you can make a batch with and without vanilla extract, and then compare, and you should notice the difference. Or Häagen-Dazs's vanilla bean is fairly assertively vanilla (at least as far as commercial American ice creams go) – derobert Jul 15 '14 at 17:06
  • Since "more details are welcome", I would love to see any insight as to how "vanilla" became synonymous with "plain" or "ordinary". – Drew Dormann Jul 15 '14 at 19:02
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    @DrewDormann Well, okay, I addressed it briefly in a cooking context, but if you want to know about etymology, english.stackexchange.com is probably a much better place. – Cascabel Jul 15 '14 at 21:20
  • I recall a commercial starring Annie Potts where she remarked “It’s the flavor you can find in the dark.” – JDługosz Aug 4 '16 at 14:27

It's a flavor. It's on the subtle side, particularly in the quantities it's often used in, and maybe if you've eaten a ton of vanilla ice cream you don't notice it anymore. (Or maybe you just haven't had very good vanilla ice cream.)

The flavor is either from the vanilla bean if it's fancy vanilla ice cream, or more likely from artificially produced vanillin (the main component of vanilla's flavor). The aroma is pretty distinctive; the best way to demonstrate to yourself what it is is to find a bottle of vanilla extract. Artificial vanilla flavor is much, much cheaper, and in a lot of contexts is hard to tell apart from real vanilla, so it's very common.

Same goes for other desserts; vanilla or vanilla extract is a pretty common ingredient. Sometimes it's the whole flavor, like in vanilla ice cream or pudding, and sometimes it's one of many, like in a lot of cookies. It pairs well with a ton of other flavors, including fruits and spices, and it blends well into the background, rather than covering up other flavors, hence its wide use in desserts. That's also why vanilla ice cream is so handy: you can eat it with just about any other dessert.

This is presumably why it's taken on connotations of "plain". It goes with so many things, and even if it doesn't really positively pair with something, it probably won't taste bad with it, and might just get covered up. So in practice, that means you can treat it as the "plain" flavor of ice cream, especially since so many not-plain flavors of ice cream start with a vanilla ice cream base. It provides a good background flavor that works well as a plain but not boring starting point.

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    I think the subtlety is a product of cultural tastes and habits, not anything intrinsic to vanilla. The French aren't afraid of vanilla, and it's certainly not "subtle" when an American palate tastes real French vanilla ice cream, or crème brûlée. – Phil Frost Jul 15 '14 at 16:45
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    @PhilFrost Okay, I amended a little, but it is most definitely a subtle flavor, in that it's easy to cover up with other flavors. Yes, if you get something made with good vanilla, the flavor is completely obvious. But if you take that "real French vanilla ice cream" and add in a bit of chocolate or fruit, it'll quickly get hard to discern. It doesn't even entirely cover up milk flavors when used in ice cream and pudding. – Cascabel Jul 15 '14 at 16:48

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