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 that you can save at least fifty percent over store-bought brands. And homemade vanilla is sooo much better.
Until about a year ago, Tony and I weren’t even aware that vanilla extract was something we could make at home. We were delighted to learn that this is a surprisingly simple task, and after reading about it we wondered why we haven’t tried this sooner. 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, and 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, and this is 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, and 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 our extract.
Vanilla beans are expensive, so shop around for the best deal. We make our extract in two half-gallon batches so that we have extra to give away as gifts, and we purchased a half-pound of vanilla beans (approx. 50 beans) for just under $30 at a major online retailer (Amazon.com). The beans can be reused for up to one year by adding more vodka to the jar as it empties, 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 under five dollars a bottle.