Tuesday, March 20, 2012

I Spilled Vanilla Extract on my Bucket List

I’ve come to the realization lately that my bucket list revolves entirely around food. Now, that probably doesn’t come as a shock to most, but while some people have far-off places they dream of visiting, a Great American novel they plan to write, or a tall mountain peak they want to climb, my list is comprised mostly of a pile of recipes both virtual and real that I fully intend to try someday. You know, when I have the time, or the wherewithal. Perhaps at first glance my goals seem a bit less lofty than scaling the side of Mt. Kilimanjaro, but my recipe pile is quite large, menacing even, and has been gathering for years. At times it seems, at least to me, no less daunting than clawing my way up the side of a mountain. I suppose the upside is I don’t have to venture out of my kitchen to begin whittling away at my bucket list.

One such item on my foodie bucket list is homemade vanilla extract. Whenever I’ve mentioned this to people I’ve seen everything from the odd, slightly-cocked-head-look-of-dismay, to a thought bubble that reads: “Why would you want to do that?” to the unmistakable light of excitement flashing in their eye. Some people are intrigued; many are utterly surprised that making your own vanilla extract is even an option. My favorite reaction is: “I had no idea you could make your own vanilla. How do you do it?” When I tell people how simple it is, just fresh vanilla beans and vodka (or light rum if you prefer) and a good bit of patience, I’m usually met with: “Vodka!? I had no idea there was alcohol in vanilla extract!” To which I reply, “Don’t you remember that episode of Family Ties from back in the day, the one where a pre-movie star Tom Hanks plays Uncle Ned the alcoholic?" He goes on a binge in the middle of the night in the Keaton family kitchen and all he could find to get his buzz on was vanilla extract!  It’s rare that they have any clue what I’m talking about.  That’s when the head cocks even further to the side and the look of dismay gives way to true bewilderment. I’m absolutely positive their thought bubble now reads: “What are you blathering on about, Dave?” It’s those precise moments in life that I realize my brain-full of useless 80s pop culture factoids would have been better served paying attention in school. Oh well, I may have been a lousy student, but I was really good at Trivial Pursuit!

The one thing that always kept me from scratching Homemade Vanilla Extract off my bucket list was the expense. Let’s face it - vanilla beans are a small fortune. I’ve found them occasionally on sale, but inevitably, whenever I need one for a recipe, I end up paying anywhere between $6 and $8 a bean! Yikes! The expense is worth it, as there’s simply no substitute for the incredible flavor they lend to recipes and I’m a sucker for those beautiful black flecks of vanilla "caviar" in my baked goods. The saving grace is that I always add the scraped bean to a big jar of vanilla sugar I’ve been working on for years. At least that way I feel like I’m getting one more use out of them, but I just couldn’t bring myself to make a $176 bottle of vanilla extract! One day I decided to take to the internet to see if I could find a better deal on vanilla beans. After a quick search on Google I turned up a company in Michigan called Beanilla. They have an amazing selection of vanilla beans and products from all over the world. I was truly impressed with their selection and even more, their prices. I ended up ordering twenty five of their house beans aptly named Beanilla Vanilla Beans (a blend of Tahitian vanilla and Bourbon) for $22.99. Even with shipping they ended up being just over a dollar a bean! Having already admitted to a head filled with 80s sitcom knowledge more than one adept at math equations, even I know that’s a bargain.

The beans arrived in a vacuum-sealed package and they were so fragrant I could smell them the minute I opened the bubble wrapped envelope that cradled them. The beans were plump and soft and gorgeous! I plucked out three of them to use immediately in a recipe and the other twenty two beans are now macerating in vodka on my kitchen counter. It takes a few months for the “brew” to fully develop (and like a fine wine, it gets better with age), but it’s only been seven days and already the concoction is deeply-brown and whenever I take the cap off to smell it, I’m hit with the heady, intoxicating and unmistakable aroma of fresh, exotic vanilla.

My pile of recipes is still there, looming as big as ever like my own personal Mt. Kilimanjaro. Maybe someday I’ll have the wherewithal to scale it. Maybe I won’t, but at the very least I’ve crossed one more thing off my proverbial bucket list.

Homemade Vanilla Extract

This hardly qualifies as a recipe, it's more of a method, really. The extract will last indefinitely. Store in a cool dark place (your pantry is perfect) and as you use it and the beans, just keep topping off with more vodka and adding new beans as necessary. It's best to allow the extract to develop for at least a month, but the longer it sits, the deeper the intensity. The beans will be plump and moist and to extract all of those little flecks of vanilla "caviar," all you have to do is snip off the end of a bean and squeeze it into your recipe. Once you use the beans, allow them to dry at room temperature and place in a jar of sugar.

At least 12 vanilla beans
Premium vodka, enough to cover the beans

Find a glass bottle or jar deep enough to allow the beans to sit upright. Place the vanilla beans in the jar and fill with enough vodka to cover the beans. That's it! Homemade vanilla extract.