Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Homemade Vanilla Extract & Mint Extract, too!!

2 different types of vanilla bean~lg bottle are Madagascars, sm bottle are Tahitians 

I always like to start out my little "forays" with a "why I got into THIS particular funk" story, & I suppose that this time will be no different.  So, here goes.
Recall that wonderful Pear Vanilla Jam recipe I was going to make?  The one that inspired me to go look up vanilla beans on eBay?  The one that I didn't actually end up making with the load of pears I currently had? 
Well, I DID end up ordering 10 Tahitian vanilla beans & 40 Madagascar Bourbon vanilla beans from eBay.  The Tahitian beans came from VanillaProducts, & although they weren't that plump or oily, they were only extract grade, & only cost $5.99  (includes shipping cost!!!)  The Madagascar beans came from Serris, France, from a seller named vanilladiscount.  They were BEAUTIFUL!!!  Plump, oily, lots of caviar.
(The caviar is the little tiny black seeds that can be scraped out of the interior of the bean.)
And they only cost $9.99, w/ free shipping!!  VERY inexpensive!  (I seem to just walk into these deals, I don't know.  I call it blessings)

you can see how pretty these madagascar beans are~click the pic to enlarge & then again for even more detail

So, ok, I have ordered the beans, & I have every intention of making that Pear Vanilla Bean jam.  (Which I am still going to make, by the way, my second load of pears just aren't quite ripe yet.)
But as with all things that I OCD on, I seem to "go long".  Get a little more than really necessary.  And you guessed it, I really did get WAAAYY too many vanilla beans for pear jam.  I mean, even if I used every last pear in the four boxes of pears that I have (which, by the way, came free from a very generous ward member's father!), I would only use up about 10 vanilla beans.  And that's going stark raving WILD with the vanilla.
So yah...maybe I OCD'ed.
Anyway, enough of that.  You already all know my sins of indulgence if you read this blog. 
So I seem to have this plethora of vanilla beans, & they smell SOOOO heavenly, they are just begging me to do SOMEthing with them.  And naturally that led to several long research sessions on different vanilla bean recipes.  And the most AWESOME of all of them was how to make your own vanilla extract.  OOHH how lovely that looked.  And since I do cook & bake quite a bit, the thought of having limitless supplies of  pure vanilla extract just seemed so COOL!

And I also saw that a few people were making mint extract as well, which sounded really good, too, since I like to make my own blend of hot chocolate.  That & I seem to have a never-ending root of mint that refuses to die, no matter how many times, how vigorously or how dedicated we are about pulling the stuff up every year.  And I already have 2 #10 cans full of dried mint.  Needless to say, I had a bit of mint available.

mint in a pint jar with vodka, 1st day

There was only one serious issue I had with this.  For most people it probably wouldn't mean much, but this recipe requires vodka, & lots of it.  Not a problem, you might say ~ so go get some vodka.  But see, I don't all.  I mean, I didn't even know where the liquor store was, or how much it would cost or even how to know what sort of proof or alcohol content it was or ANYthing.  I had literally NEVER bought any alcohol in my entire life!  And I really don't agree with alcohol.  I don't support it, I think the stuff is truly harmful, because it's used so poorly.  BUT ~ ok here's the rationalization story ~ I thought, you know, how hard can it be?  I'm an adult.  I can do this.  It's not like I am going to drink the stuff.  (just the scent is enough to give you a whiz, let me tell you, it's like getting a whiff of rubbing alcohol... the stuff is strong!!)
So I did it.  I bought 2 bottles (1.75L each) of Monarch Vodka (40% alcohol, 80 proof, double charcoal filtered) at $13.50 per bottle.  I have no idea what all of that means, but I suspect it's probably a very cheap vodka.  The whole point of using vodka, however, is that it apparently has no flavor to it, so the beauty of the vanilla beans can really shine.  I have read about folks using bourbon or rum, but since I don't drink, I don't know what those flavors are, & I wouldn't begin to know whether the flavors would be correct.  I DO know I like pure vanilla flavor though, so that's what I stuck with.  Vodka.  Cheap vodka.

mint 2nd day ~ already darkening into a deep green

All right already, get to the recipe, right?  I know, I know, but I like to indulge in background color, it's the only way to let you know (sort of, I guess) that my ducks are truly in a row.  Credibility, provenance...

I'm giving you quantities in pints & quarts, since I really had no clue as to what sort of volume vodka came in, nor how much that volume equated to quarts & pints, & I didn't want any leftovers.
This is what I came up with:
Two 1.75L bottles of vodka = 4 full quarts or 8 full pints

Home made Mint Extract
~1 pint jar with a ring & dome
~about 1 to 1 1/2 really big handfuls of mint (maybe 100 to 150 leaves?)
the mint should only fill half to 3/4 of the jar.  There needs to be room for the vodka to swish & swirl
~about 2 cups of vodka

Make sure the leaves you pick are nice large, mature leaves, with deep veining, & therefore lots of flavor & oil. 
Pick them off of the stems, carefully wash them & dry each leaf.  You don't want a lot of extra water in there.
Pick up a pinch of leaves (about 5 or 8 leaves) & bend & twist them & sort of crunch them up, without tearing them, then drop them into the pint jar.
 That bruising action helps to release the oils, & allows the vodka to soak into the leaves better.
Once you have finished crunching & bruising the leaves, pour vodka in to the pint jar, leaving about 1/4" headspace.
Dome & ring the jar, and give it a healthy shake, to get the vodka distributed nicely.
Set the jar on the countertop, & put a heavy dark towel over it, so that there is no light getting to it.  Some folks say to put it into a cupboard & shake it daily, but I would forget about it if I did that, so I put it on the counter, & shake it whenever I go past it, & then put it back under the towel.  Do whatever works for you.
In pic one, you can see that at the end of the day, the leaves are already starting to give off their goodness.
And in the second pic, after a little more than 24 hours, the extract is already ripening into a nice dark green.  I personally think the constant shaking helps that along quite a bit.  I opened the jar today, & sniffed it, and I can already smell the mint coming through the alcohol.

pint jar of madagascar beans after only 2 days

Homemade Vanilla Extract
~3 quart jars & 1 pint jar (assuming you used the other pint's worth of vodka for the mint extract)
~rings & domes
~32 - 41 vanilla beans
~All the rest of the vodka ( remember that one bottle of 1.75L vodka = 2 quarts)
for each quart jar, I used 11 vanilla beans
I also used 8 beans in the pint jar, just to see if that would make it go faster, & the answer to that is an emphatic YES!  (see pic above, much darker than my quarts) I first used 8 beans per quart jar, but
 have since added 3 more beans  per jar than shown in the pics to each quart of vodka, because I want this stuff ready to go by Christmas.

Now here's the easy part ~ get a sharp NON-SERRATED knife ( no sense in having the caviar stuck all in the knife, you want ALL the goodness in your extract) & a smooth cutting surface.  I personally did not want to use my regular cutting board, because the vanilla is so strong that the flavors would stay in the plastic for a long time.  For the same reason, I did not want to use my wooden bread board, so I ended up using a china plate.  That way, the very most amount of vanilla oils & caviar would make it into my extract.  My mother always did say "Waste not, want not."  ;-D
Lay the vanilla bean down on the plate, & give it a little tug.  It should be pliable enough that that action straightens it out.  Then slice the bean open roughly, leaving a little bit connected at the top, but sliced completely through at the bottom.  personally, I did not cut all the way through on the first cut, I instead used my fingers (touching only the very tips) to separate the bean; I think that the torn cells help the bean to accept more vodka, since they are not pressed closed from the sharp cut.  Which is why I say cut it roughly, so that the knife does not penetrate through both sides very often.  This may take a bit of skill, but again, I believe it helps make extract faster.
Once you have separated the sides, take your knife & use it to gently open up or spread apart the "lips" of the bean halves, trying to not disturb the caviar as much as possible.  This will allow as much vodka as possible to get into those cells & therefore "extract" the vanilla that much faster.  (Also why shaking the bottle every time you walk past it helps speed up the process as well.)  Any caviar that you get on the knife should be scraped back onto the bean. 
Drop the prepared bean into the jar, till you have as many in there as you want, (filling all of the jars first, so that you aren't losing any of that bean goodness to handwashing each time), pour the vodka in, leaving a 1/2" to 1/4" headspace, cap & ring. 
Now shake those babies.
Put them on your counter top, with a dark heavy towel over the top.  Light & heat are the enemy of good extraction, so you want to protect them against it. 
Every time you walk past them, give them a good shake.
After 2 days, open up the pint jars & smell ~ amazing, it's already starting to smell like the real deal!!

How much did this cost?  Let's tally it up.
Vodka ~ 2 bottles of 1.75L Monarch, @ $13.50 ea.= $28.80
Vanilla beans ~ 10 tahitian extract grade @ $5.99
+ 40 madagascar gourmet AAA @ $9.99= $15.98
mint (I'll PAY someone to take it!)=$0
jars, domes & rings ~ already had = $0
grand total = $44.78
Plus, I found some really adorable bottles to re-bottle this into from Sunburst Bottle Co., for about 40c a bottle.  ( I will post follow-up pics once I do that).  I plan on giving away 32 one ounce bottles as gifts. (If they like it. I may give them more in larger bottles, cross that bridge when I come to it.)
So add in the price of the decorator bottles, 32 @ .40c ea= $12.80
GRAND grand total = $58.35  for 32 gifts, that's only $1.82 per gift! 
And, it's a cool, homemade gift.  (I suppose it's sort of cheesy to put the dollar amount on here, since a number of the folks I would be gifting this to will read it, but, for those of you who don't know, my whole family appreciates quality that costs less.  Yes, we are sorta cheapskates.  I prefer to think of it as "thrifty, practical, & being a wise steward over that which I have."  ;-D)
PLUS. that still leaves me PLENTY of vanilla left, to use for myself, plus to keep a steady amount going in case I decide to make it a perpetual gift.

madagascar beans after a few hours

tahitian beans after a few hours
These pics show the extract on a window sill, with the sun shining in on them ~ that is for picture purposes ONLY!! ~ Remember to put them under a towel or in a dark cupboard.  And when you buy bottles to re-bottle the extract into, remember that the dark amber or cobalt ones are going to protect the flavor intensity far better than a clear one. 
Also, although you don't want high heat or light, the refridgerator is NOT a good place for you to put the extract.  This will retard the extraction, as it will be TOO cold.  Room temperature or basement storage room is good.

tahitian beans after a few days

One  ( or two...) last thoughts ~ how long will this stuff last?  Should I, if ever, remove the beans?  What if I use up my vanilla & want more, should I get all new beans?  Should I strain the extract before using it or gifting it?  I notice that commercial varieties have water & sugar added.  Should I do that too?  What if I do decide to remove the beans, what should I do with them?

~Do not worry about this ever going bad, it is preserved with the alcohol, & will never get spoiled.

~On removing the beans ~ those beans continue to add flavor & depth to the extract. I'd leave them in.
Now, a great trick to perpetual vanilla extract is this: each time you refill your little "kitchen bottle", top off the main "mother jar" with more vodka, & give it a healthy shake up.  By the time you need to refill your kitchen bottle again, the beans in the mother jar will have extracted more.  Also, every time you use up a vanilla bean in your kitchen, just put the used pod into the mother jar. 

~These beans can really go quite a while.  Even if you bought no more beans at all, the original beans can be used for extraction at least three more times.  So topping off your mother jar is not going to be a dilution issue.

~Here is where there are some diverse ideas ~ some folks out there don't like the idea of a bean slowly disintetraging in their extract, & for some recipes (such as icing) you may not want the flecks.  If this is the case, you can always measure the amount of extract needed through a small coffee filter, then add it to your recipe.  Again, however, want not waste not.  Many chefs & consumers of expensive foods pay quite a bit to have those little flecks in the food, as it proves that real vanilla or vanilla bean was used in the recipe.  Those flecks add flavor punch, & they lend a "gourmet" touch.  For me, I'm not getting rid of them.

~As to adding water & sugar ~ this is just the way that commercial producers of vanilla extract can insert cheaper fillers into the product, creating greater volume & less expensive product for the consumer, & yet still stick it to them with the price.  If you want to dilute your vanilla that way, go for it.  I don't know the quantities & I don't reccomend it.  If you are concerned about the vanilla being too strong or having too much of an alcoholic taste, ( if adding to something like a smoothie, where there would be no cooking involved), just measure out the amount you need into a porcelain or glass cup, & add a touch of sugar to it, & zap it in the microwave for a few seconds before adding it to your recipe.  That should cook off any alcohol.

~And finally, if you do decide to remove the beans, let them dry out & stick them upright in a pint jar, pour sugar over the top, & use that sugar to flavor your smoothies. ;-D

all 5 jars after a few hours

all five jars after a few days

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Shortbread Fantasies recipe (SSSOOOO Good!)

Shortbread plain

Ok, so I have a little admission ~ I LOVE shortbread!  It all started when ....  no, it actually all started when I was a little girl, & my mom made all these awesome homemade goodies ~ granola, pickles, bread, jam, fruit leather, you name it, she made it, and in GOURMET style. 
Amongst all those tasty delicacies, was melt in your mouth shortbread. 
Fast forward many (many....) years to last week. 

There we were, My son & I , standing in the cookie isle, while he tried to decide what sort of cookies he wanted for a scout trip.  As my eyes wandered about, I saw a package of Lorna Doone's.  And then I remembered with fondness (much, actually) the delicious taste of my mother's shortbread.

That sort of started something in the two little OCD brain cells I have left.  In fact, it sparked a long-held-off desire for that heavenly buttery goodness.  I've been eating so righteously for years...surely one little bitty bit of shortbread wouldn't kill me off, right?

I sort of denied the desire to have shortbread... thought. oh no, not a wise choice.  But then ~ my son ALSO decided he wanted to try it.  He said " Wait, what?  Shortbread is a cookie that tastes of butter & sugar?  Can there be anything better?  Can it include chocolate & carmel?"

Being a ~ love to cook for those who will appreciate it ~ type of cook, I immediately began mulling over just WHAT sort of shortbread to make.  (Yes, yes, I know.. but if my son was WANTING to eat it, why I could justify 1 pound of butter shorbread immediately ~ no qualms about it!)

Since I couldn't find my mother's recipe, I started searching the net, basically researching shortbread.  I found several tasty looking recipes, & lots of commentary on different recipes ~ thought I might make one recipe, then would find yet another, seemingly better one.

Finally, however, I decided to just make up my own.

Shortbread with caramel & chocolate on top

Since my husband likes things a little less sweet, I kept half of the pan plain, & on the other half I spread caramel, Ghiradeli's extra dark, semi-sweet, & butterscotch chips.  I reccomend serving these with vanilla icecream, as they are soooo good, but soooo powerfully rich!

Close-up of the shortbread, you can see the flaky nature of the cookie, you must cook them long enough, cut while warm, & then CHILL them before serving.

I served these up for dinner tonight, and literally, an entire 18"x12" pan was gone (GONE) in 7 1/2 minutes!  So I guess they turned out allright.  ;-D
Ok, so get to the recipe already, right?  ;-D

Carol's Best Shortbread Ever (humble, I know :-D)
Oven: 325*F
Bake Time: 20 - 30 minutes, depending on desired crispness
Yield:  18"x12" pan, when baked as bars, 72 thumbprints as cookies

Ingredients:  2 cups (4 sticks, or 1 pound) GRADE AA Butter ~ room temperature
3/4 Cup packed Brown sugar
1/4 cup powdered confectioner's sugar ( also called icing sugar)
1 tsp REAL Vanilla extract
1 tsp REAL almond extract
1 cup cornstarch
2 3/4 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 cup flour for board to knead

A few words about the ingredients ~ as all good chef's & cooks know ~ there is NO SUBSTITUTE for butter, & the higher the grade, the better the butter.  Shortbread simply should NOT be made with anything else.  The butter is a huge contributor to overall flavor, flakiness, & melting point.  Another NO SUBSTITUTE ingredient is the vanilla & almond extracts.  Also, yes, I know, the one whole CUP of cornstarch looks wrong, but it isn't.  Cornstarch is a type of flour, & in this case, it contributes to the lightness & texture of the shorbread. 

Process:  Put the four sticks of butter into a bowl with the packed brown sugar ( I only like to use the Dark Brown from C&H, it's real cane sugar) & powdered sugar.  Use a pastry cutter to mix up the butter & sugar.  Once you have mixed in the butter & sugars, scrape off the cutter ( & your hands! ;-D) & add the vanilla & almond extracts.  Fold in with spatula a bit.

In a separate bowl, measure in the 2 3/4 cups flour, salt, & cornstarch.  Whisk together, then add to the sugars, butter & extracts mixture.  Make sure you have that little 1/4 cup of flour in a measure cup waiting for you to use, because you will need it to flour the counter/board.  This is where it gets fun.  CAREFULLY stick your hands in the bowl, & start squishing away!  If you aren't careful here, you will poof flour all over.  Moosh & goosh till you have worked it into a dough. (There may be a bit of flour left on the sides or bottom ~ scrape this all out & work it in when you knead the dough.) 

Now is the time to sprinkle some of the flour onto the counter ~ then dump your dough onto the floured counter.  Knead the dough for a few minutes.  This is really quite fun, & it makes a beautiful workable dough. 

This is where you have to decide ~ what am I going to do with all of this lovely dough?  Should I pull off little balls, shove my thumb into them, dump some of that tasty spiced pear jam into the middle & bake them?  Or should I press the whole thing into an 18"x12"x1" cookie sheet, prick randomly with a fork, & go for the bars?

In this instance ( as you can see from the pics), I went for the bars, & then added some more tasty goodness after they finished baking.  By the way, the cookies should only have the lightest of browning on the bottom & edges.  Here's what to do for carmel:

1 can of sweetened condensed milk
A little bit ( maybe 1/4 cup) of whipping cream

Heat the milk up slowly, on low heat, add in the cream a little at a time, once it has darkened some ( it won't be the dark color of store-bought carmel, if you wait for it to get that dark, you will have rock hard carmel that is difficult to spread.) test it for taste, & spread it across the top of the shortbread.  One can spreads nicely over half the pan, so if you want to cover the whole shebang, you'll need to double the recipe.

Don't worry if the top of the shortbread pulls up in a few places, the chocolate will cover it.
Speaking of the chocolate, here's my easy cheesy way of doing it ~ sprinkle chips ( I used Ghiradeli's extra-dark, semi-sweet, & butterscotch chips) evenly over the top of the carmel.
Now pop the whole thing in the oven ( still at 325*F) & let it sit in there for about 5 or 6 minutes.
To test if the chips are melted enough, take an icing knife and spread the edge.  If it spreads, its done.
Take it out, spread it, & then cut the squares.
Make them smallish ~ these are DEVASTATING! ;-D
Now, if you can resist, only cut a few out for tasting ~ they will crumble.  Put them in the fridge to chill for a bit.  This GREATLY helps relieve the crumble issue.  But don't let them sit there too long, or they will be hard to get out (we are talking butter fats here ~ fats harden in cold temps...;-D... yes, I learned the hard way...)
 If you can possibly handle it, wait till the next day to eat these ~ they will make you sigh with sweet happiness.... oh, and you will likely need a glass of water nearby, cuz, again, VERY RICH!