Make Your Own Vanilla Extract

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There are few ingredients that are as delicious smelling and widely used in baking than vanilla. A good vanilla extract will enhance your baking and really make it sing. When it comes to vanilla extract you have the option of using pure vanilla or imitation vanilla. Pure vanilla is made by extracting flavor from real vanilla beans using 35%+ alcohol. Pure vanilla should be dark and rich just like the beans it was extracted from. Imitation and “clear” vanilla extracts are made from artificial ingredients.

If you’re making a recipe where it’s very vanilla forward meaning, the vanilla flavor is meant to stand out, then it’s highly recommended that you use pure vanilla. Examples of vanilla forward desserts are pastry creams, custards, sugar cookies, and vanilla cakes. If you’re baking something where the vanilla won’t stand out and isn’t meant to be the “star” then go ahead and use imitation vanilla if you wish. You can save your pure vanilla extracts, vanilla pastes, and vanilla beans for when it will really count. I prefer to use strictly pure vanilla in all of my baking however, that is simply personal preference.

When making your own vanilla extract you can use either premium or Grade B vanilla beans. The premium beans will be the most plump and flavor rich and because of that they will cost you significantly more money. Grade B beans are less expensive so they tend to be smaller, drier, and contain imperfections however, they will still work in a homemade extract. I like to use Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans but feel free to use Indonesian, Tahitian, or Mexican Vanilla Beans as well. Depending upon which bean you choose the extract will have a slightly different flavor.

Vanilla extract will take about 8 weeks before it’s ready to use however, the longer you leave it the stronger and more pronounced the vanilla flavor will be. Make sure to store it in a cool, dry, dark place and give it a shake a few times a week. Once it’s ready you can use it in your baking just like any store-bought version.

Ingredients

  • 8 oz glass bottle or jar
  • 7 vanilla beans, split
  • 1 cup of 70 Proof/35% alcohol Vodka (you can also use Bourbon, Rum, or Brandy)

Instructions

Run a knife down the length of each bean slicing it open. Place the vanilla beans into the jar. Pour the alcohol over the beans making sure they are fully submerged. Place in a cool, dry, dark space (such as the back of a cabinet) and give it a shake every few days. Wait at least 8 weeks and then the extract will be ready to use. Enjoy!

**Tip** – A great place to buy vanilla beans and vanilla products is Beanilla.com . They usually have the best prices, offer free shipping, and the quality of their products is top-notch.

“How-To” Baking – Chocolate Ganache

Making chocolate ganache is a very simple task that you’ll be glad you mastered as it’s an incredibly versatile accompaniment to many desserts and baked goods. While warm, it’s a fantastic pourable glaze however, once it cools and thickens, you can also use it as a frosting, fudge filling, or even to make truffles! My “go to” recipe for ganache is from the “Williams-Sonoma Mastering” cookbook series. Get it here:

 Williams-Sonoma Mastering: Cakes, Frostings & Fillings

Ingredients

  • 8 oz (20 g) semisweet or bittersweet chocolate
  • 2 tbs unsalted butter
  • 2/3 cup (5 fl oz/160 ml) heavy cream, plus more to adjust consistency
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Instructions

If using chocolate bars, chop the chocolate with a serrated knife.

Heat the butter and cream over medium low heat. Heat until the butter has melted and tiny bubbles have formed along the edges of the pan, about 2 minutes. Do NOT allow the mixture to boil or it could scorch which will make the ganache taste burnt.

Remove the pan from the heat and add in the chocolate. Let the chocolate sit in the hot cream mixture to soften, about 30 seconds to a minute.

Using a whisk, mix the ganache until the chocolate is melted and smooth.

Let the ganache cool to the desired texture and it’s ready to be used as follows:

  • To use as a smooth pourable fudge sauce, use right away
  • To use as a pourable cake glaze, allow to cool for 10-15 minutes
  • To use as a thick fudge filling, allow to cool for 1-2 hours
  • To use as a frosting for cakes/cupcakes, allow to cool completely

**Tip** – If your finished ganache looks broken or curdled, heat it again over a double boiler and let it melt down. Chill for 30 minutes in the fridge and whisk it to bring it back to the desired consistency.

Chocolate Bundt Cake with a Ganache Drizzle

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Make It Homemade!

There is just nothing better than making something homemade! Aside from your dish being absolutely delicious you also have the added benefit of using the freshest ingredients and you know EXACTLY what is going into the food you eat.  If you ever take the time to read through the list of 457,000 ingredients that are used for a simple, basic store bought chocolate chip cookie you will appreciate REALLY quickly just how much better it is to make something from scratch.

Now I get it, cooking from scratch can be a big time commitment and it’s not always easy to get in the kitchen and whip up something homemade however, the more you do it the more you’ll realize that it’s not as overwhelming and complicated as you think.  I recommend starting with something super simple such as cookie dough.  There is nothing easier to pull together than a delicious, warm, home baked cookie.  Plus, cookie dough is a GREAT make-ahead recipe because it’s freezes (and keeps in the fridge) really well!  Here is where a vacuum sealer really comes in handy because it will help to extend the life of your cookie dough whether it’s in the fridge or freezer.  That being said, if you don’t have a vacuum sealer just roll up your cookie dough tightly in plastic wrap, put in a labeled Ziploc bag, and it should keep in the freezer for up to 3-4 months.  I like to write down the cooking instructions right on the Ziploc so that I am not scrambling around looking for the recipe down the road when I want to bake them off.  Spend an afternoon making a few different batches of cookie dough and you’ll always have a fresh, warm, homemade treat on hand.

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Cookie doughs are just the tip of the iceberg, you can make virtually anything from scratch and yield results that are as good, if not WAY better, than the processed store bought version.  Some of my favorite things to make are homemade vanilla extract, vanilla sugar, baking mixes, lemonade, ice cream, BBQ sauce, jams and jellies, dressings, and spice rubs.  Some of these things take just minutes to pull together using ingredients that you likely have on hand and they are better than anything you can buy in the store.

I’ve made my own vanilla extract countless times and it’s absolutely delicious.  Split a few vanilla beans, cover with either vodka or bourbon, seal and store in a dark place, and within 8-12 weeks you have homemade vanilla extract.  The longer you let it sit, the more concentrated the flavor will become.  You can see below the difference in color after just a few weeks and let me tell you, it’s absolutely incredible extract!

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Another fun thing to make from scratch, especially with the kids, is ice cream.  Making ice cream bases is so simple and once it’s chilled and ready you just pour it into the ice cream maker and let it do all of the work.  My kids and I made this delicious batch of vanilla chocolate chip ice cream and the flavor was so clean and natural.  Plus, I knew exactly what was in it so there were no weird chemicals or ingredients I couldn’t pronounce.  Just eggs, sugar, cream, vanilla, and chocolate chips!

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Love jams but you’re not quite sure how to can your own?  Try your hand at freezer jams, they are super simple and don’t require a ton of prep.  Or just make your favorite jam, pour it into a mason jar, and store it in the fridge.  There is no need to can it if you’re planning on using it right away.  I happen to LOVE cranberries and I usually end up overbuying bags of them at the holidays so instead of letting them go to waste I make a super easy cranberry jam.  Because I like to have plenty on hand, I’ll double the recipe so I can preserve and can a few batches for down the road.

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One of my most favorite things to make is lemonade, especially on a hot summer afternoon.  I promise you, once you have fresh squeezed lemonade you will absolutely NEVER want to drink the powdered or store bought version again.  This lemonade has such a light, fresh, perfectly balanced flavor that it’s easy to drink ALL day long!  This lemonade takes me no more than 15 or so minutes to pull together and it’s absolutely head and shoulders above any other lemonade I’ve ever had.  Just a few simple, fresh ingredients and you have yourself the perfect glass of cold, refreshing lemonade.

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As you can see, there really is no limit to what you can cook up in your own kitchen, it just takes a little planning and a dose of patience and before you know you can create a pantry, fridge, and freezer full of your own from scratch food!  Don’t be afraid to try your hand at different recipes, the worst thing that happens is that it doesn’t turn out great but then you learn from that, go back and tweak what you did, and try again.  Learning to cook and bake is a process but if you are willing to put in the time to learn you’ll be so pleased with the results.  There is simply nothing like homemade goodness!!!