Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Aromatherapy: Vanilla Goodies for the Holidays

Just a couple of days ago, I divulged that the holiday spirit was seemingly sparse around my household. But that's not entirely the case. I've actually been planning for Christmas over many weeks, creating some special homemade goodies to give as gifts with my friend and Fare to Remember cookbook co-author, Carolyn. We wanted to have a fun, unique, homemade gift that would be consistent with the Fare to Remember ideal: good eats, great friends, fun memories.

Our gift of choice this year? Homemade vanilla extract.

Making it is ridiculously easy. You need only basic ingredients (alcohol and fresh vanilla beans) and lots of time. So early in November, we started three different batches, simply splitting the vanilla beans open, scraping the flavorful and aromatic paste plus the pods straight into our 1.5 liter jugs of alcohol (so ghetto!), and setting the jugs in the pantry for the vanilla to go to town. The vanilla does all the work - it infuses the alcohol slowly but surely, and soon enough, we wound up with three big jugs of pure vanilla extract - perfect for baking (nothing artificial, as opposed to commercially available imitation vanilla or vanilla flavoring), or ideal for vanilla-flavored cocktails. Our three batches were done with various sorts of alcohol and different varieties of vanilla beans (vodka with Madagascar vanilla; rum with Tahitian vanilla; tequila with Mexican vanilla), giving each one a unique flavor profile. Much like coffee beans or wine grapes, a vanilla bean's flavor and aroma is unique to the area in which it's grown (yes - vanilla beans have terroir!). At the same time, we started a ten-pound batch of vanilla sugar by placing Indonesian vanilla beans in cane sugar to infuse it with flavor. The whole kit and caboodle became a gift set of vanilla goodness for some of our foodie friends.

But that's not all. It wouldn't be a Fare to Remember gift if there weren't a celebratory gathering involved. So we threw ourselves a vanilla bottling party, and invited friends to come and help package up their own presents. The caveat: each person had to bring a homemade holiday appetizer or dessert to share. Voila! A true Fare to Remember function.

The party's spread was nothing short of amazing - savory treats like crab cakes and salmon spread; sweet treats like gingerbread and pecan tart. The adult beverages were flowing, and Carolyn had her house festively decorated to the nines. Add the cued-up Christmas music in the background, and it was nothing short of merry and bright. (I contributed some deceptively addictive stuffed mushrooms to the table; recipe included here.)

As for the vanilla extract bottling line, we had a veritable Santa's workshop all set up. Bottles festooned with ribbon and labeled with their respective vanilla variety; tins for the vanilla sugar; packaging complete with a handy vanilla fact-filled pamphlet (did you know that vanilla is the world's second most expensive spice after saffron?), and satin bows for that finishing touch. Everybody went down the line and packaged up their own gift, and I think everyone really enjoyed it.

So thank you to Carolyn for teaming up with me on such a fun project, and thank you to all of our friends who came to celebrate the season with us. I see a tradition in the making… what do you think?

Here's a couple of tips for making your own vanilla extract:
  • Use one fresh, plump vanilla bean per every pint of alcohol
  • Let stand for a minimum of six weeks in order for the flavors to infuse. The longer the better.
  • I highly recommend beanilla.com for purchasing vanilla beans. Their prices are fantastic and the quality of their product is outstanding.
  • When baking with homemade vanilla extract, use about 1/2 of what is called for in the recipe (this stuff is strong!)


  1. I keep coming back and reading this post, and yet I have never commented. I would love to make gifts this next year for my friends and family. I love vanilla, but I would also like to do other infusions as well, does this work in making other extracts as well?

  2. Dawn Marie- I'm not really sure. I'm guessing there are a million ways to infuse alcohol, but the vanilla bean method is the only one that I have ever done personally. The other one that people do often - and lucky me, I'm the recipient from a couple of different friends - is limencello. So good - and I'm sure recipes are widely available online (or there's one in the Fare to Remember cookbook). But here in the Bay Area, restaurants/bars that make alcohol infusions are being cracked down on from the ABC - so I know there's a lot more that can be done; fruit and herb infusions, for example. Worth investigating.... let me know if you find anything, and I'll do the same!