Thursday, April 29, 2010

Homemade Vanilla

Finally! After I regained the ability to breathe through both nostrils we headed off to the grand opening of a local downtown farmer's market and then something possessed me to finally go take a look at my neglected garden which explains the delay. More on that another day.

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So why make homemade vanilla? Well, I grew up baking with Dominican vanilla which typically is imitation vanilla if it's the clear pastry kind. I never had to buy vanilla in the states because every trip to the US, my grandmother or someone else would come with several large plastic jugs of vanilla ready to distribute. Seriously my parents have been in the states since 1980 and even in North Carolina my mom would dutifully bring me my jugs of vanilla. What's the big deal about Dominican vanilla? Well much like those people who've tasted Mexican vanilla it's just much more intense. When it's real vanilla it's quite floral and heady and even when it's the imitation stuff it knocks the socks off anything you can find here in the states. But I didn't want to keep using the imitation stuff and I figured at some point the federal agents would no longer allow people to bring back large jugs of fluid no matter how they'd been labeled. I purchased a couple of real vanilla extracts both in brick and mortar stores as well as online but blegh. The extracts had a very harsh chemical after taste and I was less than impressed with the difference in taste between the preferred bourbon vanilla beans and the tahitian notes I'd been accustomed to.

So in 2007 I began to do a little vanilla research. In Marielle-speak that means I stayed up wayyyy too late for 2-3 weeks reading up everything google could spew on my screen about making vanilla. With too much information and not any closer to a decision I stumbled across this egullet thread, the paragon for foodies gone extreme. All kidding aside, I appreciate a super-researcher of any variety so the information helped me come up with a plan. I ordered tahitian beans from Vanilla Products USA, who at the time was only selling on ebay. Yes, I bought vanilla beans from ebay. I think that was one of those rare instances that had Mr. Maricucu raising an eyebrow. Undeterred I had him buy me a bottle of vodka and put together my first batch. After a few weeks, the liquor was definitely vanilla infused but still heady of vodka. Four months into the batch, the extract was stronger but I was having doubts about this experiment panning out and ready to dial up abuela to see about setting up an import scenario as a fail safe. But then I did something amazing. I forgot about the vanilla for another couple of months. One day I was going to make a pound cake and remembered the vanilla in my pantry. Pulled it out and eureka!, dark extract heady of vanilla and not Smirnoff's. I poured a scant amount into a little cup of milk and tasted. Oh yeah, I had made vanilla extract! My first pound cake with the new vanilla had Mr. Maricucu asking me what I had changed in the recipe, it was delicious. My parents visited shortly after and I made them a batch of pound cake as well. My dad quickly declared that it tasted like "back in DR" and my mom began to brew her own extract as well.

Making homemade extract is really one of those super simple, great return on minimal investment tasks. Just grab a bottle of liquor - I stick with something middle of the road like Smirnoff's. No reason really, I just figured for making extract I didn't have to pull out the Grey Goose. All you need is a flavorless liquor to infuse with the vanilla beans. But just like I wouldn't swing to buying the high end stuff, I didn't want to tempt fate by doing this with Everclear. I figured even with the small amounts of vanilla in recipes you don't want to go for something that's known to be a gutbuster. It can't mean anything for good flavor but I'm a non drinker so what do I know. Pick what you like and let's get to work! A good ratio is 12 vanilla beans for every 750ml bottle of vodka.

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Once you've done the walk of shame or pride (depending on your circumstances) out of the liquor store you'll need to get vanilla beans. What you're looking for is a plump, oily bean that bowls you over with aroma. When we were first married Mr. Maricucu and I were attempting to make a homemade vanilla bean custard ice cream. Being a couple of DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids) we just shopped for it like we did all our groceries. Pay what the tag says. So we paid about $8 for one bean that was so dried out it crunched under the knife as we attempted to split it. This time around I had been around at least half the block so I ended up ordering via Vanilla Products USA. What arrived were two vacuum sealed packs of very oily vanilla beans that left an aroma filled residue on my hands when I handled them. I think I did a little happy dance in the kitchen that day. The beans I used in this last batch were leftovers from the first beans I bought in 2007. Yup, 3 year old vanilla beans but I had resealed them using the foodsaver back then and kept them in a dark place. If you don't have a vacuum sealer feel free to double bag your extra vanilla beans. I kept some in their bean format to use for ice cream that summer until my vanilla was ready. Definitely try some fresh vanilla bean in an ice cream, creme brulee or just good old fashioned cake. Amazing stuff.

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First pour off about an ounce of vodka from your bottle to account for displacement by the vanilla beans. I pour mine into one of the older bottles I had brewing but who am I to tell you what to do with your own surplus?

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Then grab a bean and cut it down the center lengthwise. This will expose the tiny flecks of vanilla bean inside the pod and will help infuse your vodka that much better.

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Next, chop the two bean halves into 1-2" long pieces. Why? Well the first time I made vanilla I only split the beans and indeed it makes for an elegant presentation. But then I quickly realized that as my vanilla level dropped, the bean was left standing out of the vodka and not infusing the stuff at the bottom. So I fished those out (that was a pain!) and chopped them down.

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Next, dump your vanilla bean pieces into the bottle of vodka until you've chopped all twelve.

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Label your bottle - I go for the no frills masking tape in my kitchen drawer but you can get a little fancy schmancy if you're the paper crafts type. I'm not and am afraid to go there considering my penchant for collecting craft supplies. You'll see that with just one shake of the bottle the vodka has already begun to change color to a lightish tan. Just place your bottle of proto-vanilla into the pantry and give it a shake whenever you remember it's there.

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After at least six months (but you can go longer), you'll have this:

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Here it is held up to the sunlight so you can appreciate the dark amber hue.

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This is nothing like the stuff you'll find at the grocery store and dare I say it gives that snobby brand beginning with a N&M a run for their money. You'll definitely spend less than buying the N&M brand and yours will be amazing. Most extracts have that chemical aftertaste or worse are doctored up with glycerin to make them sweet. If you want to taste your vanilla to gauge its progress, add a few drops to a small cup of milk - never taste it straight lest you think I've led you astray.

And here's my lineup from that day. From left to right: My current bottle of vanilla, a bottle that had I finished up and topped off with more vodka (added another two chopped beans but mostly it's repurposing the previous batch's beans), then the two new bottles that are brewing. Yes you can top off old bottles, I would just recommend always having two bottles, the one you're using and the one you've topped off to allow it a bit more time to brew.

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4 comments:

Denise said...

Glad you are feeling better! But I think I need a rest. I know it's simple but you lost me at the repurposing....LOL I'm sure If I gave it a chance and did it once I'd love it. I NEVER have alcohol in my house but may be worth the trip. :) Love your posts- always will.

Anonymous said...

You should know...the stuff on the bottom shelf at ABC works just fine too! ;)

Marielle said...

Denise, I'll bring you over the dark side. Just come on over and I'll hand you a jar of the good stuff. ;) Although really, it's much more simple than I just overexplained.

Anonymous, that's good to know! I see you're a local. When I first moved here I kept asking Mr. Maricucu why there were so many packing stores (abc stores)? Little did I know that's what they called the liquor stores here.

Denise said...

6 years later and I'm finally doing this! No real excuse. LOL I've had the supplies for a while.