One simple kitchen project that can be a thoughtful gift for the bakers and cooks in your life is homemade vanilla extract.
First, gifting little bottles or Mason jars with ribbon on them is just darn cute. Second, pure vanilla extract (not the chemically imitation stuff) is expensive. Third, it's actually super easy for even the non-chefs among us to put together.
Here's how you do it.
Purchase vanilla beans whole in the bulk food aisle of a grocery store, like Staff of Life or Whole Foods, or order them online. Vanilla Saffron Imports, a San Francisco-based company, has several varieties of beans available on its website. Although the beans can be pricey, there are good deals to be found and tricks, such as ordering "chef quality beans." These beans aren't as pretty and plump, but do the job when drowned in liquor.
You also need the booze. Probably a lot of booze.
There are a few lines of thinking when it comes to which alcohol to steep the beans in. Vodka gives the most pure extract. Bourbon can be very flavorful (so much so you may just want to pour the vanilla extract over some ice cubes and sip it). Rum also works for vanilla extracting.
A half-gallon jug of liquor will make about nine 8-ounce Mason jars of vanilla extract. If you don't need that much or are going for a cute factor, try this method: buy mini bottles of liquor, sip a little off the top and drop the beans in.
Some say brown bottles are better for the beans to age in because it keeps light out. Others prefer the sunlight.
Regardless of what vessel you put the beans and liquor in, here are the basic steps to follow:
- Split the vanilla bean lengthwise but leave the top connected. Scissors work fine for this.
- Put the beans in the bottle or jar. You may need to bend them. The general consensus seems to be about four or five beans per 8-ounce jar or bottle.
- Cover the beans with your alcohol of choice.
- Seal, shake and store the bottles or jars.
The extract is ready to use in eight weeks. A label or tag attached to the jar or bottle can explain this to the lucky recipient of this homemade holiday gift. Also, remember to note that the beans can be reused. Just top off with more liquor and let them steep again.
Some people strain the extract using a coffee filter before use but if you don't mind teensy tiny particles of bean, you should be fine just scooping spoonfuls out of the jar when baking.
The beans will lose some essence after about a year, but there are ways to re-purpose the pods, such as making vanilla sugar or salt.
If you're looking for handmade gifts but aren't the crafty type, find a local vendor on Etsy to purchase homemade or vintage wares from.