It’s the middle of June and swelteringly hot here in the Bay Area, but I’m urging you to think about the holidays. This isn’t a sneak preview of Christmas in July, but rather, a gentle nudge to start preparations for a holiday gift that will practically make itself over the next six months, and that your friends and family will love.
For the past five years or so, I’ve given homemade gifts at the holidays and have effectively reached the point of no return. Giving people artisan soaps or fancy chocolates or a jerky sampler just won’t cut it when you’ve set the bar with fresh-baked beer bread, handmade truffles, and homemade membrillo from foraged quinces.
For some reason, I’d recently been inspired to purchase 50 Madagascar vanilla beans on amazon.com. I bake, but not all the time, so I was a little regretful as soon as speedy Amazon Prime delivered the large box of plump beans to my doorstep. As I reeled from the heady aroma, I figured there had to be a way to use the beans up before I died, or before they shriveled into the sad and overpriced approximations of vanilla beans one sometimes finds in the supermarket baking aisle. Hopefully the latter would come first.
Of course, the answer became clear: I would make vanilla extract. Because if the prospect of using 50 vanilla beans seemed challenging, using a couple wine bottles’ worth of vanilla extract would be a walk in the park. I remembered that after purchasing the beans, Amazon had suggested I buy a case of small, dark brown bottles. At the time I brushed off the suggestion, but it turns out Amazon knows me better than I know myself as I'm now inspired to make vanilla extract for every last man, woman, and child on my gift list. Consider yourself warned, friends!
Vanilla extract is surprisingly easy to make. You slit open a bunch of vanilla beans, scrape out the good stuff (all those flecks you see in vanilla bean ice cream), and dump all of it into a clean bottle. Fill the bottle up with an unflavored vodka or rum, seal it, and leave it to get murky and flavorful for however many weeks or months you can wait. Thanks to the extremely high percentage of alcohol, vanilla extract won’t go bad so long as you don’t introduce a bunch of weird bacteria into it. Even then, it’d probably be fine but there’s no reason to stick your fingers or anything else in there.
I plan to take Amazon up on its suggestion, and purchase a case of mini brown bottles. Come December, I’ll strain the vanilla extract and decant it into mini bottles. I’ll go to Paper Source and buy overpriced labels, and then use my favorite font (I’m not telling) to personalize cute tags with a recipe suggestion. I’ll report back with photos of the final product, but for now I’m happy to say that a lot of my Christmas shopping is done.
homemade vanilla extract
source: I consulted about 13 different sites after googling 'homemade vanilla extract'.
15-20 good-quality vanilla beans
750 ml unflavored vodka or rum
large bottle with a stopper
Split the vanilla beans lengthwise, and scrape out the seeds. Drop the seeds and beans into the bottle.
Using a funnel, fill the bottle with vodka or rum. Seal and invert a few times to distribute the vanilla mixture. Leave the bottle for at least a month or two, inverting it from time to time.
The longer you leave the mixture sealed, the stronger and more flavorful it will become. I’m shooting for about six months.
Strain and decant into individual bottles for the perfect holiday gift!