Glorious Vanilla!

“Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. C.S. Lewis

Ever wondered exactly how vanilla is made?  Or what’s the difference between pure vanilla extract and imitation vanilla? Or where vanilla beans come from?  Or would you get a vanilla tree at some point if you planted a vanilla bean?  Or is there really bourbon in boubon vanilla? Or why vanilla beans are so darn expensive? Or why it smells so good but tastes so awful if you taste it on its own?

Well, maybe you haven’t, but I sure have.  Vanilla beans grow on a viney orchid called Vanilla Planifolia. In my research I discovered that while there are over 11o varieties of orchids, only this one produces an edible fruit. Interestingly, the plant itself can cause skin irritation if handled. Most vanilla is grown in Mexico, Madagascar, Turkey, French Polynesia, Tahiti – you get the idea.

Vanilla that’s grown in Madagascar is called Bourbon vanilla and it doesn’t actually have any bourbon in it. Vanilla grown in Tahiti is called Tahitian vanilla and it doesn’t actually have any Tahitian in it (gotcha!) but it does have a fruity flavor.  Apparently Bourbon vanilla is considered to be the most flavorful.  The beans or fruit grow in clusters on the plant – they remind me of green beans.

This picture came from http://www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/4955784145/

All vanilla comes from the same type of plant – the differences in flavor come from the various growing conditions. Because (unlike green beans), each plant produces a limited amount of fruit, and because processing is time consuming and complicated, vanilla beans are expensive.

And, you while you can’t grow a vanilla tree, you could technically grow a vanilla orchid if you get some non-processed seeds and you have the right growing conditions. But orchids are notoriously difficult not only to grow but to keep alive, and I really don’t think they’d flourish in a state where we can still get snow in May.

Imitation vanilla is grown on imitation orchids made of plastic.  Okay, that’s a lie. But imitation vanilla is made by soaking wood in alcohol to extract a vanilla-like flavoring and then it is chemically treated to make it taste like vanilla. YUM! But, it’s very interesting because America’s Test Kitchen did a taste test comparing imitation vanilla to pure vanilla extract, and the imitation won!  Personally, I think it’s because most recipes call for a small amount of vanilla and the imitation vanilla has a stronger flavor than pure vanilla extract. 

I never did discover why it smells so good but tastes so awful on its own, yet adds such a heavenly flavor to baked goods. I did know that vanilla is used frequently in aromatherapy – but I didn’t know if was used to treat things like depression and sleeplessness. Anyone remember the movie Michael with John Travolta?  People would sniff him and say he smelled like cookies – I imagine it was the vanilla they were smelling. By the way, if you haven’t seen this movie you should, it’s delightful.

You may wonder “why this sudden interest in vanilla”?  Well, I’m here to tell you, this isn’t a sudden interest – I’ve always loved vanilla.  And I’m going to share a little secret with you.  When you’re making cookies, and the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of vanilla, add 1 TABLESPOON instead.  That’s right. Triple it.  Heck, quadruple it if you want.  You will not believe the difference it makes in your baking.

Here’s an example.  I’ve talked about my Uncle Dave quite a bit. He’s very very important to me.  So, I like to make him good things to eat – my way of showing love.  One day I asked him what type of cookies I could make him.  I was pretty sure he’d ask for one of my most sought after recipes, but instead, he asked me to make oatmeal RAISIN cookies. Generally I look forward to sampling my baking, but this was going to be pure horror and drudgery.  I told my husband that I had to make oatmeal raisin cookies – and that traitor responded by telling me that he loved them too!  So, I did no research, didn’t try to tweak any recipes, nothing.  I just used the recipe on the oatmeal box.  After all, I was ruining the cookies anyway by putting raisins in them. But, I did triple the vanilla as this is my normal procedure.  To my great surprise, Jim and Dave both tried the cookies (at separate times), and both exclaimed, “These are the best oatmeal raisin cookies I’ve ever had!”.  The only explanation is the vanilla!  Please trust me on this, you won’t be sorry.  Oh, there is one more tip.  Never ever overbeat the mixture after you add the dry igredients because it will cause the gluten in the flour to break and make your cookies tough (gross).

But I digress (bet that’s a big surprise). I have decided to make my own vanilla.  This has a four-fold purpose.  One – I like trying to make things from scratch, then I know exactly what’s in them. Two – vanilla is very expensive and maybe I can save some money. Three – I really like trying new things. Four – if it turns out, I will have some awesome Christmas gifts for my family and friends.

I bought some vanilla beans from Amazon and I have to say I am always impressed with the level of service and the products I receive from them. The cost for 1/2 pound of  beans was right around $27.00 and I got 66 beans..  Then I had to figure out some way to bottle the vanilla once I get it made – so of course I went back to one of my favorite companies – Specialty Bottle.  You can find their link on my home page – check them out – they are wonderful!  I found some darling little 4 ounce bottles for 67¢ apiece! You can’t beat that with a stick.  Vanilla extract is made with ethyl alcohol which draws out the flavoring.  I thought of using Everclear but apparently that would be overkill, so I decided to use Vodka, which seems by general consensus to be the best choice. It needs to be about 80 proof because you need 35% to 40% alcohol. I need to warn you, this is going to be a rather lengthy process, but I believe it’s true that anything worth having is worth waiting for.  I’m going to let this steep for 5 or 6 months.

Let’s talk about cost.  Premium vanilla extracts can be found for between $9 and $13 per 4 ounce bottle on line, not including shipping, and can be much more expensive if purchased at the local grocery store.  I’m going to use 5 vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of  alcohol, and I paid about 41¢ per bean. The bottles were about 86¢ apiece including shipping.  I bought a 1.75 liter of Smirnoff vodka for $23.84, which gives me about 7-3/4 cups. This works out to $4.51 per 8 ounce bottle of vanilla.  Granted, this doesn’t include the cost of the ink and  labels, but let’s assume that’s about 10¢ per label.  Call it $4.65. We’re still at least $4 per bottle less than buying it already made, and I can be sure there are no additives (lots of companies add sugar to their vanilla extract).  I think I’m on the right track!

And it’s a simple process that has the added advantage of making your hands smell delicious.

You need all these ingredients!

First, I took 3/4 cup of the vodka out of the bottle, leaving about 7 cups in the bottle.  Then I counted out 35 vanilla beans.

35 beans total for 7 cups of vodka. I split each bean and scraped out the seeds.  The scraped pods and the seeds go into the vodka bottle.

Smells so wonderful!

And here it is.  Now, the next step is to shake it every day for the first week or so.  Then shake it once a week or so.  This is not a quick process – it won’t be ready for 4 to 6 months – but that’ll be just in time for Christmas!

Homemade Vanilla:

Ingredients:

  • 80 proof vodka.  You can also use rum or bourbon, but vodka doesn’t add additional flavor.
  • 5 vanilla beans for every 8 ounces of vodka, split and scraped.

Directions:

Mix vanilla beans and seeds into vodka.  Store in a dark place and shake every day for about 1 week. Then shake once a week for the next few weeks.  Let steep for at least 4 months. 

After you pour off your vanilla, you can make another batch by adding in more vodka.  The second batch will take longer.  You can also dry the beans out and make vanilla sugar by adding 1 bean to 2 cups of sugar and letting it steep for a couple of weeks.  The sugar will become infused with vanilla and is a lovely addition to your baked goods, coffee, and other treats (like cinnamon toast!).

Raspberry Almond Coffee Cake



Wrinkles only go where the smiles have been. Jimmy Buffet (take off on a quote by Mark Twain)

Smile, kiddos, it’s good for your soul.  Have you ever noticed how people react to a big grin? It makes them feel loved, I think (I know it makes me feel loved!).

 I have well over 100 cookbooks, and probably about the same amount of those 5′ x 7′ booklets that are always calling my name when I’m checking out at the grocery store (100 Fabulous Casseroles or Slow Cooker Recipes 0r Springtime Cookies), and full access to the Internet with it’s millions of recipes.  But yet, I still find myself buying a cooking magazine on occasion (and certainly any new Ina Garten cookbooks!).  I recently bought the new Better Homes and Gardens recipe magazine, and in it was a recipe for a raspberry coffee cake.  And having a surplus of raspberries, I decided to try the recipe.  And, it was pretty good, but something was missing. So, I made a new version, but this time I used almond extract in lieu of vanilla, and almonds in lieu of pecans.  Yummy!

Somehow I deleted my picture of the ingredients.  I think it’s because I was taking pictures when I made this coffee the first time, the way the recipe was written, and then I chucked those photos!  But, I think it’s going to be okay.

First, gather together your ingredients. You’ll need fresh raspberries, lemon juice, sugar, cornstarch, flour, baking powder (make sure it’s not out of date), cold butter and softened butter (leave a stick in the fridge), eggs, sour cream, almond extract, powdered sugar, milk and Marcona almonds (you can use regular but the Marcoa’s add so much to it).

  

Put the raspberries and the lemon juice, along with some water, into a saucepan.  Bring to a boil and simmer for about 5 minutes.

Now add the lemon juice, give it a stir, and then add some sugar and cornstarch.  Bring it back to a boil.

Keep stirring – it’ll start to thicken up.  Cook it for about 2 minutes and then take it off the heat and set it aside.

Mix together some flour, sugar, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the butter – cut it into 4 or 5 pieces.  Using two knives or a pastry cutter (this is my first choice), cut the butter into the flour mixture.

Keep cutting in the butter…

Until it looks like big crumbs.

Now add the egg, the sour cream, and the almond extract. Stir just until combined.  This dough is sticky and a pain in the patootie to work with (a fact lightly brushed over in the original recipe I might add).

Take about half the dough and beat it into submission spread it in a greased pan. The original recipe calls for a 9 x 13″ pan, but I halved the recipe since there are only two of us here.  This is some work, because again, the Dough. Is. Sticky.

Now take your lucious raspberry concoction and spread it on the sticky dough.  This is the easy part. Really.

Now drop the other half of your dough in little piles all over the raspberry sauce.  This part isn’t too hard either.

Now, spread the dough over the the raspberry sauce.  This is a pain and I just have to wonder – do the magazines that publish these recipes actually try them first so that they can tell you if it’s hard to do?  Somehow I doubt it – the recipe made it sound like you just spread it out no problem. Instead, what happens is that the top layer of dough and the sauce mixes all together and looks a little gross.  But not to worry – it comes out all right in the end!

Now mix up some softened butter, chopped almonds, sugar and flour.

Sprinkle this all over the top (mmm, crumble).

Cover the whole thing and pop it in the oven.

While the cake is baking, mix some milk, powdered sugar and almond extract together to make a glaze.

Drizzle this over the cake when it comes out of the oven. Let it cool completely and then cut yourself a big slice (goes great with milk!).

Pretty!

Here’s your recipe.  Two things – remember that I cut my recipe in half.  This recipe is for a 9 x 13″ pan. And again, try using Marcona almonds – the flavor adds much to this treat!

Raspberry Almond Coffee Cake

Ingredients:

Raspberry Sauce:

  • 3-1/2 cups fresh raspberries
  • 1 cup water
  • 3 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup cornstarch
  • 1 -1/4 cup sugar

Batter:

  • 3 cups flour
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 sticks of cold butter
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract

Crumble Topping:

  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 1/3 cup chopped Marcona almonds

Glaze:

  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 2 or 3 teaspoons milk
  • 1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Directions:

  1. Place the raspberries and the water in a large saucepan.  Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer for about 5 minutes
  2. Add the corn starch, 1-1/4 cups of sugar and the lemon juice.
  3. Bring to a boil and reduce heat to a strong simmer.  Cook and stir until thick, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
  4. Grease a 9 x 13″ pan and preheat the oven to 350°.
  5. Mix 3 cups flour, baking soda, baking powder and 1 cup sugar together in a large bowl. 
  6. Cube 2 stick of cold butter and add to flour/sugar mixture, and cut in until it resembles coarse crumbs.
  7. Add eggs, sour cream and 1 teaspoon almond extract, and mix just until combined.
  8. Pat half of this mixture into the prepared pan.  The dough will be sticky and difficult to work with.  Using a silicone spatula is very helpful.
  9. Spread the raspberry sauce over the top of the dough.
  10. Dollop the remaining dough over the raspberry sauce, and using a spatula, spread it around.  It will mix with the raspberry sauce, this is okay.
  11. Mix together the chopped almonds, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup flour and 1/4 cup softened butter.  Sprinkle evenly over the top of the cake.
  12. Bake for  40 to 45 minutes until golden brown.
  13. While the cake is baking, mix together the powdered sugar, milk, and 1/2 teaspoon of almond extract.
  14. When the cake is done, place it on a wire rack to cool and immediately drizzle the glaze evenly over the cake.
  15. Enjoy!

 


Popover for a Popover

Give us today our daily bread. Matthew 6:11 NIV

The title of this post reminded me of a joke my husband’s family likes to tell (okay, I like to tell it too – we’re all weird together).  So one guy says to the other guy, “I got a weak back”. The other guy replies, “When’d that happen?”. The first guy says, “About a week back”.  Really it’s funny! Try it!

While my soup was cooking I realized I had no crusty bread to dip in it. I had some soft marbled rye, but, well, yuck. Not a good combination.  Kind of like putting raisins in cookies. So anyway, I thought, “Popovers!”.  I just got a new popover pan (no more using muffin tins for this kid) that I was hot to use. I don’t know how many of you have made popovers, but they are super easy if you remember just a few key points.

  • Milk, cream or half and half and eggs at room temperature.
  • Preheat the pan (either the popover pan or the muffin tin you are using).
  • If your pan is not non-stick, butter it well before you preheat it.
  • NO PEEKING while cooking for the first 30 minutes
  • As soon as they’re done, take them out of the oven and put a little slit in each one (releases the steam which keeps them from collapsing).

There are literally dozens and dozens of recipes on the Internet.  They all have the same basic ingredients.  Some call for baking powder, which I don’t like to add, but experiment! Have fun!  I put some herbs de provence in mine because I like that flavor combination  and I thought it would work well with soup.  There’s only 2 of us here, so I only make 6 at a time. They are best eaten right away but are still edible the next day.  Just make sure they’re completely cool before you store them.

If you get a hankering like I did and don’t have the ingredients at room temp, never fear.  Put the eggs in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes, and heat the milk or cream to room temp in the microwave (that’s what I did!).

See? Very simple ingredients. Okay, preheat your oven to 425°. Once it’s hot, stick your pan in the oven to pre-heat.

Whisk everything together.

Divide the batter amongst your 6 vessels. Usually you want them about half full or so. Now put ’em in the oven and bake those babies!  NO PEEKING. Seriously. No. Peeking. Of course if your oven door is nice and clean (mine isn’t ) you can peek through there.

Yum.

There you go!  Make sure and stab each one to let the steam out. Then cut it open and slather with butter. Or better yet, honey butter!  Remember, you can put in whatever herbs you want, or leave them plain.

 Popovers – Makes 6

Ingredients:

  • 1 tablespoons butter, melted, plus extra if your pan is not non-stick.
  • 2 eggs, room temperature
  • 1 cup half and half
  • 1/2 cup flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • Herbs of your choice, or none at all – I use about 1 teaspoon

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425°.
  2. When the oven is hot, put your muffin pan or popover pan in the oven to preheat. If it is not a non-stick pan, butter the cups first.
  3. Mix all ingredients together.
  4. Take the pan out of the oven and pour in the popover mix – dividing evenly among the cups.
  5. Bake for 30 minutes.
  6. When you take them out of the oven, pierce each to release the steam

 

 

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Quiche

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Romans 12:12.

Quiche (keesh): An unsweetened custard pie, usually having a savory filling. Keesh is so good!  You get some protein, some veggies, some grains (okay, I KNOW a pie crust isn’t really a grain, but, I  would also like to believe that if you drink a diet Coke with a Hershey bar, the diet pop cancels out the calories in the candy bar!).

Now I’m going to tell you a funny story.  This is why being specific on grocery lists is so very important. My sweet husband will almost always make a run to the grocery store for me. Never mind that I can accomplish in 20 minutes what takes him (seriously) 2 hours. He is really good about doing this for me with a minimum of Fred Flintstoning (you know – “Rackafrikacrubadooyicktookey” – which could be translated as “&^!??!@#*#).  Last week I asked him to go to the meat market for me and get some things, including a couple nice thick slices of ham, about a pound or so. I repeated that they should be thicker because some is for soup and some is for keesh.  He apparently only heard the “thicker” and not the “1 pound”.  I just took it out of the freezer for the quiche – and here is what I found:

I thought this was pretty cute!  I definitely have enough ham to last for a while. These babies are about 11″ x 7″ and almost an inch thick! And it smells delish!

I found this recipe on All Recipes from a gentleman named Clark Hamblen.  I’ve made some changes, but the basic recipe is all Clark.  There are a LOT of ingredients in this one – had to take more than one picture, as you can see.

One thing I want to point out here – see the piecrust in the first picture? Although I make almost everything from scratch, these pie crusts are a big exception. They are awesome.  It’s Pappy’s Pie Crust.  They have been in business for years, and it’s probably because they are as good as homemade (made with lard so they are super flaky). You have to roll them out, but it’s so easy and quick.  Don’t forget to save the scraps to makc cinnamon sugar strips.

Take out one of the pie crusts if you’re using Pappy’s.  It needs to thaw for about 20 minutes. Dice an onion – about a medium to small dice – and cook with some olive oil until translucent.

While the onions are cooking, dice up some mushrooms.

A finer dice for these – I used baby portobellos, but you can use your favorite kind.

 

Throw the mushrooms in with the onions and cook for a few more minutes. While the mushrooms are cooking, dice the ham.  Add it to the pan and let it cook for a few more minutes (sorry, I lost my diced ham picture!).

While the ham and mushrooms and onions are cooking, roll out the crust. I like to lay a piece of freezer paper shiny side down.  If you wipe the counter first with a slightly damp sponge, the freezer paper will stick to the counter.  Sprinkle a little flour on the paper and on the crust.

Roll it out so it’s large enough to cover a deep dish pie plate.  Then gently fold in half, then fold in half again. 

Place the crust in the pie plate with the point in the middle.

Unfold and….

…and unfold one more time! You can also do this by gently wrapping the pie crust around the rolling pin, but I always find that I have a harder time centering it and sometimes the crust will tear. It’s really just personal preference! Go ahead and turn the excess under (unless it’s a lot or really thick, in which case just trim some off before turning it under) and crimp the edges so it looks pretty.

Drain the spinach (sorry, forgot to take pics).  I do stuff like spinach and sauerkraut the same way. I put them in a fine mesh strainer, and take a couple paper towels, and push on the spinach.  This will force liquid out of the strainer and you’ll also sop some up with the paper towel  Ring the paper towel out a couple times.  Get the spinach as dry as you can.  Now mix the spinach with the ham/mushroom/onion mixture; and add in the cheese (monterey jack, cheddar and parmesan), the sour cream, and pepper to taste.  I don’t add salt because ham is pretty salty, but you sure can if you like.

Put your spinach mixture into the pie crust. Mix the eggs and cream, and pour it over the top.  Bake this on the middle rack but make sure to put it on a jelly roll pan or cookie sheet in case it boils over.  Mine didn’t, but better safe than sorry.

Voila!  Scrumpdillyishus!  One thing – I did make two of these, because they are very yummy and they freeze well.  I love it when I have ready made meals in my freezer. Also, we are having heat wave and I just have to say, it’s wonderful. But, not so good for baking.  Luckily, I have a really nice counter top convection oven.  I may have mentioned that I have a tiny tiny kitchen. I would love a double oven but that would probably mean giving up my refrigerator. Tempting, but, no. Anyway, I would recommend getting a counter top oven.  I can bake cookies, cupcakes, keeshes, pizzas, pies, Au gratins, etc, just on a slightly smaller scale. And it doesn’t heat up the kitchen!  Just my two cents.

Clark’s Quiche (slightly modified)

Ingredients for two:

  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium sized onion, diced
  • 8 ounces of mushrooms, finely diced
  • 3 cups of diced ham
  • 8 ounces of sour cream
  • 10 ounces of spinach, thawed and well-drained
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese
  • 1 cup shredded monterey jack cheese
  • 1 cup grated or shredded parmesan
  • Freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 8 eggs
  • 1-1/2 cups heavy whipping cream
  • 2 deep dish pie crusts

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375°.
  2. In a large saucepan over medium heat, saute the onions in the olive oil until they’re translucent.
  3. Add the mushrooms and cook for a few more minutes.
  4. Add the ham and cook until heated through.  Remove from heat.
  5. Drain excess liquid from the ham and onion mixture (don’t get too crazy, just put the lid and get some of the liquid out).
  6. In a large bowl, mix the spinach, ham/onion/mushroom mixture, sour cream, monterey jack, cheddar, parmesan, and pepper.
  7. Place mixture into the prepared pie crust.
  8. In a medium mixing bowl, beat eggs and whipping cream together until well combined.
  9. Pour over spinach mixture.
  10. Place the pie plate on a cookie sheet, and bake on the middle rack for 40 minutes.
  11. Let it rest for 15 minutes before serving. You can also serve it cold if you like.  This reheats well in the microwave and also freezes well.

Baker’s Grease

Not a very appealing sounding treat, huh!  Okay, it’s not a treat.  But it will help you make your baking treats come out of the pan a bit more easily.  Have you ever gone to the trouble to grease and flour a pan, only to have your cake, or brownies, or bundt cake, or (holy cats this is making me hungry!), okay you get the idea – stuff sticks.  Anyway, I use bakers grease and I no longer have to mess around with the grease and flour.

I wish I could remember exactly where I got this recipe.  About 9 months ago one of my best friends (hi Ebbe!) got married, and I made the cakes and cupcakes for her wedding.  I watched a lot of You Tube videos and there was a very nice lady showing some great cake making tips -she kept her grease in a big gallon ice cream bucket, but she was baking a lot of cakes!  Anyway, it was  great tip, and if I ever see the video again I’ll let you know her name.

Here’s the recipe:

A jar of Baker’s Grease

Brush it on! Make sure there aren’t any shiny spots, and you’re ready to rock and roll!

 

Baker’s Grease

  • 1 part oil (use canola or vegetable since it’s tasteless)
  • 1 part shortening (I know, yuck! but this is the only thing I use if for – oh except for homemade marshmallow fondant but that’s different)
  • 1 part flour

Mix well (I use my electric mixer) and keep it in a jar in the fridge.  To use it, just take a pastry brush and brush a thin coat all over the inside of your pan, covering all areas. Then put your batter and bake!  No more sticking, no more mess.  It will keep indefinitely in the refrigerator.