Now that I've been teaching a few smaller classes this term, I've had to rely on icebreakers to help my students to get know one another. For whatever reason, at the start of class, after everyone had settled down, my mind went completely blank. I couldn't think of anything interesting to have students share with one another, so I went with the first thing that popped into my mind: say your name and your favorite ice cream flavor.
I have a deep love for ice cream. It's been loyal to me when boyfriends haven't and a reliable stand-in for when friends weren't picking up their phone. Did I mention it goes great with Katherine Hiegel movies? Anyway, when it's my turn at an ice breaker, I always run through all the flavors of ice cream I've eaten, smiling at each one, remembering how great it felt to eat my feelings, convinced that I will choose something truly memorable to share like mocha coffee crisp or lemon mascarpone. But, just as I'm about to associate myself with something like complex Phish Food or fruity like black raspberry, my mind always drifts back to vanilla...
Yes, that's right. My favorite ice cream flavor in the entire universe is plain-jane old vanilla.
For as much as I can come across as energetic, fun, caps-lock abusing and spontaneous, the truth of the matter is, I'm a little dull in real life. I play a mean extravert game, but catch me on the weekend and I'm most likely hanging out by myself, tackling some baking project, sitting at a coffeeshop reading my kindle or doing a crossword puzzle. Thrilling, I know.
Sometimes, the best things are simple. They don't have eight different kinds of candy pieces or puns in their name. They leave us feeling comforted or even warm inside. That's vanilla for me. It's comfort in 12 oz when it finds its way to a red Starbucks cup filled with simple steamed skim milk on a chilly January day. It's a hidden drop of love in baked goods, brightening the most overpowering flavors like chocolate and orange. Sometimes it's hard to tell it's in there if you can't see the tiny ebony flecks of beans, but after a lingering bite, something hits your tongue and you know there's good vanilla in whatever it is you're eating.
One of the most heartbreaking things about loving vanilla so much is that it's so expensive. Though it's a common flavor, it doesn't come cheap! I'll admit that I've done some flavor slumming in my miserly college days, using both imitation extract [GASP!] and [dare I say it] vanilla flavor. [THE HORROR!] So, when Laura of Mother Would Know and I got to talking about making our own extract, I thought, 'Even if I screw this up, it won't be any worse than what I've used in the past!'
Luckily for me, I didn't have to worry about screwing anything up! For one, Laura is the most diligent researcher I've ever met. After a string of emails deciding on bean origins, bottle shapes, and vodka grades, I was pretty confident in what we were doing. Vanilla extract? More like vanilla elixir of the baking gods! Pssh.
If you haven't made vanilla bean extract before, it's super simple! The hardest part is picking beans. We ordered from Beanilla and had a wonderful experience! We decided on Bourbon, Madagascar, Ugandan and Indonesian beans so we can compare the color, flavor and intensity of each extract once they're done. [If you're free in January and want to be part of our taste-testing panel, give me a shout. There will be baking...and the only feelings we'll be eating are happy, vanilla-flavored ones ;] I had never really thought about the differences in vanilla beans prior to having 50 of them in front of me, intoxicating me with their floraly, slightly smoky scent [or, it could have just been the vodka]. The bourbon beans were windy at their tops and reminded me of miniature walking sticks for gnomes. The Madagascar were most pliant and supple. The Ugandan were sticky and left my hands with a faint tawny tint. The Indonesian beans were most surprising, as they were the longest, straightest and driest bean; they gave me the most difficulty while splitting them.
We went with a ratio of 5 beans per 8 oz of vodka. (Laura's also got a great post on filtering vodka--check it out!) I used a bottom of the barrel, dirt cheap 60 oz bottle of vodka (ya know, one with a terribly stereotypic Russian name like 'King Vlad'). Now, I may be an English major, but I can do basic math. I realized that I'd need 64 oz of vodka to make four bottles of extract with 10 beans in each. But, because I didn't want to buy another bottle of good old King Vlad, I just decreased the amount of liquid in each, making every bottle with 10 beans and 15 oz of alcohol. It'll result in a slightly stronger extract, but honestly, what could be bad about more vanilla per teaspoon? Nothing I tell you...NOTHING!
Er, um. Onto the recipe...
- You'll need
- 10 vanilla beans
- 16 oz bottom-shelf vodka
- cutting board
- small paring knife
- liquid measuring cup
- 17 oz long-neck or other tall bottle with tight fitting cap (available at hardware or kitchen stores)
- funnel to fit in the mouth of the bottle you've selected
- Measure 16 oz of vodka in measuring cup. Pour vodka into bottle using a funnel.
- On a cutting board, slit each vanilla bean, being careful not to slice the bean in half. (You want to be able to open the bean, not cut through the whole thing!). Gingerly open the bean slightly to expose the tiny seeds. Place bean in the vodka.
- Slice and open remaining beans. Place into bottle. Close bottle.
- Store in a cool, dry place for 2 months.
- Unearth elixir from storage after 2 months, and bake your vanilla-loving heart out!
Tune in in January when Laura & I will blog about our results, which will include so many delicious baked goods, we'll be having you dreaming vanilla bean dreams for days! :)
We were not paid to endorse, nor did we receive free beans from Beanilla. The views expressed here are solely my own.