I rail against stores that display Christmas decorations before Halloween. And I’m not one of those people who buys wrapping paper on sale at the end of one holiday season to use the following year. So it somewhat out-of-character, but I have already made two homemade, food-related gifts for the coming holiday season.
The first gift is limoncello – and it’s already done. The liqueur wasn’t difficult to make – it just required buying supplies, care in preparing the lemon peels and simple syrup, and the persistence to gently shake daily during the two-40 day “resting” periods. If you cut the time slightly, you can still make gift bottles of limoncello in time for the upcoming Christmas, Chanukah, and other winter holidays. I made 10 bottles and have already given 2 away, so the only question is whether I’ll have enough left in December for gifts to family and friends who would enjoy it.
My second gift will be homemade vanilla extract, another simple-to-make-yet impressive present. Because it has a shorter “resting” time (about 60 days, instead of 80), you could start now and have it just about done by Christmas day. But again, you can skimp a little on the waiting time. Or you can go with my “better late than never” theory; one year we sent out our “Peace on Earth” holiday cards for St. Patrick’s Day.
I’m on this vanilla extract-making adventure with Kelly of KellyBakes. Vanilla beans are grown in many areas of the world, and beans from the various points of origin supposedly have a distinctive flavor. In order to test that proposition, we are going to make batches with 4 different types of beans. Our project finale will be a baking orgy with blind taste tests to see if we can distinguish among the various batches of extract.
We used vanilla beans from Beanilla Trading Company because we decided that that vendor provided the best balance of quality, reliability, and price. (We haven't been in contact with the company except to buy the beans and we did not ask for - or receive - any discount, compensation, or other benefit for mentioning the company's products.) We would have liked to include Mexican vanilla beans in our taste test, but they are not available through that vendor right now. So we chose beans from Indonesia, Madagascar, Tahiti, and Uganda.
During my research, I found descriptions of vanilla beans from various points of origin that made me smile. I do truly love the smell of fresh vanilla, but can’t get on board with the lofty prose that some use to describe the various types of beans – e.g. “ floral notes”, “rich, nutty finish.” Still, I eagerly look forward to tasting and blogging about our final results; if necessary, I’ll fall back on “indescribable” or let Kelly suggest appropriately enthusiastic adjectives if the proper words fail me when the time comes.
For the extract I’ll give away as gifts, I plan to use 4-ounce bottles; they’ll hold enough to impress, but not so much as to intimidate a recipient. Of course, I’ll keep some of each batch for my own use during the coming year.
This recipe makes a 16-ounce batch. You can double, triple, or even quadruple it, or do what we did - make several batches with different types of beans. You will find many recipes or variations for homemade vanilla extract – some calling for as few as 2-3 beans per 8 ounces of alcohol. We chose the proportion recommended by Beanilla (5 beans per 8 ounces), which is on the high side for extract typically used by American, non-commercial bakers. We are using vodka as the alcohol “base” because it is tasteless and we want to vanilla bean taste to shine through – some people like to use rum because it adds a slightly sweet taste and others use cognac or bourbon.
After the extract is done, you can bottle some of it and top off the original container with more alcohol, because the beans will continue to make more extract through many batches as long as they are re-covered in alcohol. I researched how long beans will make extract and found that some people claim to be using the same beans for years, just topping off the original container with more alcohol as they use extract from that bottle.
Homemade Vanilla Extract
- 10 vanilla beans
- 16 ounces of inexpensive or “bottom shelf” vodka
- Cutting board
- Small, sharp knife
- Measuring cup
- 16 –ounce bottle with tight fitting cap ( I got mine at TJMaxx and have seen them at other discount stores that sell home goods. You can also find them at kitchen and hardware stores.)
- Slit each vanilla bean along the side, leaving about 1inch uncut at the top and bottom, so that the tiny specks of vanilla are visible, but the bean holds together.
- Gently (and I do mean gently) use the tip of the knife to open up the middle of the bean slightly. If you got vanilla specks on the knife, wipe them off on the open edge of the bean – don’t waste that good stuff. The bean on the top of this picture is split and opened.
- Insert the split and opened beans into the bottle.
- Add the vodka and close the bottle.
- Store the full bottle in a cool, dry place for approximately two months.
I’ll post pictures of the gift bottles when the extracting process is done in late December and will be sure to let you in on the results of our taste tests. In the meantime, do share your ideas for homemade food and food-related gifts for the upcoming holiday season.