One alternative to fresh vanilla beans is to use vanilla bean paste instead. This is a viscous liquid that contains hundreds--no, thousands!--millions!--of vanilla seeds in a vanilla-flavored solution. It's sort of like if vanilla beans and vanilla extract had a baby. You can use it in recipes like an extract, but it produces a stronger flavor with a speckled appearance, like vanilla beans. It is more expensive than your typical extract, but in general it's cheaper than keeping beans on hand, so it's a good compromise between flavor and value. Vanilla bean paste is readily available online, and can often be found at kitchen and baking supply stores.
You may be asking yourself, "Self, in what recipe shall I use this vanilla bean paste product?" Might I suggest Vanilla Bean Lollipops? These classic pops are flavored simply with vanilla bean paste, but I love how the vanilla flavor shines, and the seeds look like constellations in the translucent hard candy. If vanilla on its own isn't exciting enough for you, try adding a complimentary flavor, like almond extract, orange extract, or rose water.
Get the recipe: Vanilla Bean Lollipops
Vanilla Bean Lollipops Photo ©2012 Elizabeth LaBau, licensed to About.com, Inc.