It may seem early to be thinking about the holidays but, for foodies like us, it's never too soon to start making plans.
Some specialty items may require advance planning, and with just a little over two months left until the holiday baking season begins, now is the perfect time to start a batch of Homemade Vanilla Extract.
I'm the baker in our home, and over the years I have learned that there are certain ingredients for which there are no substitutes: real, unsalted butter is one of them, and pure vanilla extract is another.
These items may cost more than their impostors, but they are worth the investment. Vanilla extract has a long shelf life and, if you make it yourself, you'll find you can save at least 50 percent longer than store-bought brands. And homemade vanilla tastes so much better.
Until about a year ago, Tony and I weren't even aware vanilla extract was something we could make at home. We were delighted to learn it's a surprisingly simple task. All we needed was vodka (not even a top-shelf brand), fresh vanilla beans and time.
The vanilla plant is indigenous to Mexico, but throughout the centuries it has been exported around the world. The difference in climate and land of each location influences the flavor of the vanilla. Mexican vanilla beans are rich and smooth, with subtle tones of smoke and spice, while the Tahitian variety produces a lovely, floral aroma and notes of chocolate and cherries.
My personal favorite, however, is the Madagascar Bourbon vanilla bean with its rich and creamy flavor, and buttery-sweet, heavenly fragrance. It's the bean we've chosen for our extract.
The use of bourbon in its name isn't a reference to the alcohol content, but rather an island off the east coast of Madagascar where the beans are cultivated, now known as La Réunion, and formerly as Bourbon Island.
Vanilla has such a comforting, warm aroma. Whenever I'm around it I feel nostalgic, remembering all the wonderful baking I did as a child with my mother and sisters. The very first time I baked with Giovanni I made him smell the vanilla before we used it, and this simple practice has now become a ritual for him.
You can use any type of alcohol, including rum, brandy and bourbon, but our choice is plain vodka, as its neutral properties won't affect the flavor of the extract.
Vanilla beans are expensive, so shop around for the best deal. We make our extract in two half-gallon batches so we have extra to give away as gifts, and we purchased a half-pound of vanilla beans (approximately 50 beans) for just under $30 at a major online retailer. The beans can be reused for up to one year by adding more vodka, and then they can be used again to make vanilla sugar.
One of our favorite vanilla-flavored recipes is freshly made, real whipped cream, which is another super-simple recipe and the perfect way to showcase your homemade vanilla extract.
We purchased a case of four-ounce amber bottles online and a pack of labels from a local office store, and created personalized bottles at home using online software provided by the label manufacturer. Add a little ribbon, and suddenly you have a lovely, thoughtful gift for all the bakers in your life. And all for less than $5 a bottle.
Home with the Lost Italian is a weekly column written by Sarah Nasello featuring recipes by her husband, Tony Nasello. The couple owns Sarello's restaurant in Moorhead and lives in Fargo with their 8-year-old son, Giovanni. Readers can reach them at firstname.lastname@example.org. All previous recipes can be found at http://thelostitalian.areavoices.com
Homemade Vanilla Extract
Vodka (or any liquor with 35 percent or higher alcohol)
To make vanilla extract, plan to use 4 to 5 vanilla beans per cup (8 ounces) of alcohol, or 25 to 30 beans for a half-gallon. The more beans you use, the better your extract will be.
Slice the beans lengthwise, leaving the top inch intact. Place the beans in a jar or bottle and cover completely with vodka. Label with the name and date and store in a cool, dark place for two to four months. Shake the jar from time to time, and strain the extract through cheesecloth before using. Store at room temperature indefinitely.
The vanilla beans can be reused for up to one year; simply add more vodka and make sure that the beans are always completely submerged.
After a year, remove the beans and allow them to air-dry for a couple days. Then, place them in an airtight container with two to three cups of sugar for a couple weeks, and enjoy using vanilla sugar in your baking.
Real Whipped Cream
Makes approximately 2 cups
1 cup cold heavy whipping cream
1 tablespoon sugar (adjust to taste)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Chill your mixing bowl in the freezer for 10 minutes before using, if possible. Use the whisk attachment of your mixer to whip the ingredients together on high speed until medium peaks form, about two to three minutes (peaks should appear firm but still somewhat gentle). Be careful not to over-whip, or your cream will become clumpy.
Best when served immediately. Fresh whipped cream can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 hours. Just be sure to whip it again before serving.