Great vanilla extract holds the power to elevate ordinary food from boring to bold.
For my signature gift cookies, for example, I invest in pricey Madagascar Bourbon vanilla extract. First the floral aroma arouses the senses, then unique flavors seal the deal with our taste buds.
After the holidays my pantry held a wide variety of liquor, while the vanilla extract bottles ran dry so I had an interesting idea: Put the alcohol to good use and make vanilla extract myself.
Before I headed to the kitchen I did a bit of research.
Derived from the Spanish word vaina, meaning pod, vanilla beans are the dried fruits of tropical orchid plants that are cultivated primarily in Madagascar and Tahiti. Vanilla beans steep in alcohol to create vanilla extract.
Madagascar beans, the most commonly used and widely available in American stores, boast strong aromas and pliable textures. Tahitian beans offer a fruity aroma and a more subdued vanilla punch. I have baked professionally with both varieties and recommend Madagascar beans for the superior vanilla flavor.
Quality beans matter when it comes to buying beans. Second only to saffron for spice costs, vanilla beans are sorted by quality. Grade A beans exhibit a more plump appearance due to higher moisture content while Grade B beans contain less water and are preferred for making vanilla extract. These beans look smaller, but offer the same vanilla flavor.
To buy beans, head to Amazon.com or beanilla.com for best selection and prices. Look for quantity discounts on grade "B" or extract vanilla beans. Most grocers carry Madagascar beans in two-count bottles, but the prices could be double what you'd pay online.
Most recipes I found call for vodka as this alcohol brings few flavors to compete with the vanilla. I stuck with 40 percent alcohol and skipped the top-shelf stuff. For variety and fun, I also decided to steep beans in scotch and Kentucky bourbon.
Mind you I didn't set out to infuse vanilla flavor into alcohol. Use less than three vanilla beans per ½ cup alcohol and the resulting liquid may appear extract dark, but the texture will be thin and lacking that signature aroma and flavor.
Keep in mind that this is not fast food. Allow the beans to slowly flavor the alcohol. Using clear glass containers lets you see the color deepen over time. Two months is the minimum and half-year offers optimum results.
So be patient and you will be rewarded. It feels good to craft something so incredibly versatile and delicious in your own kitchen.
When it comes to using your homemade vanilla extract, be adventurous. Sprinkle it on fresh fruit, stir it into hot chocolate and in your favorite recipes. Try homemade vanilla extract in vinaigrettes and savory entrees.
Don't discard the beans. For used vanilla beans, life after extract means flavoring granulated and powdered sugars. After six months of soaking, remove beans from the extract and dry at room temperature for two to three days. Place in canister and cover completely with sugar. A dusting of vanilla powdered sugar adds enticing aromas to your signature desserts.
What a great bonus for bakers!
•Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at email@example.com.