Wednesday, January 21, 2015

make your own vanilla extract

homemade vanilla extract, day 5

For years, I resisted making my own vanilla extract, trusting my extract needs to companies that did an exceptional job of it. I didn’t believe that I went through enough of it to justify the extra expense of vanilla beans. This went out the window a year ago when I realized I’d blown through a $20 8-ounce bottle of vanilla extract in one vanilla-fueled frenetic holiday baking season. Ouch. Taking a cue from The Wednesday Chef, I decided it was time to make my own and I haven’t looked back since. Here’s how you can do it too:

let's make vanilla extract!

1. Buy vanilla beans: David Lebovitz has a great explainer on vanilla beans and a bit about the industry worth reading before you get started, but if you’re eager to just get shopping, a simple Google search for “buy vanilla beans” will return more results than anyone will need. My recommendations are two-fold: If you can find a site with unfiltered outside reviews from customers (a clue is when not all will be glowing or 5-star), do so, and, Buy your beans by weight, not number because if the beans are smaller than average, you don’t want to feel shorted. A quarter-pound bag will yield enough for 2 to 4 16-ounce bottles of vanilla extract, depending on bean size. (My batch yielded 4 bottles, but the beans were on the small — but no less delicious — side.)

2. Get a bottle to store your extract: Get a couple extras, because this makes fantastic gifts. An old, well-sterilized vinegar or oil bottle will work here, or a small wine bottle, or even an old glass vanilla bottle. Or, you can buy new ones. An amber bottle will better protect the extract from light and heat, though I’ve used clear ones so that I can see how the steeping is coming along, and just store it in a dark cabinet. [I’ve gotten mine from Specialtybottle.com.]

Continued after the jump »

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

on butterscotch versus caramel

easy butterscotch sauce

You wouldn’t believe how often I am asked this, as if I’m some sort of know-it-all. Okay, fine, I am, but mostly thanks to Shuna Lydon, who I consider a butterscotch expert, as well as a booster for making it at home, as there’s absolutely no comparison with any butterscotch flavored confection you’d buy at a store.

Butterscotch and caramel are both cooked sugars, but regular caramel is made with melted granulated sugar and butterscotch with brown sugar. Butter and cream are usually added to make a caramel or butterscotch sauce, the pourable format most people with a pulse enjoy over vanilla ice cream. Both benefit from a pinch or two of sea salt, but butterscotch tastes especially lost without it. Vanilla extract is another magical ingredient in the butterscotch realm, one that lifts its excellent flavor into the exceptional. But I think the biggest confusion comes from “scotch” part of butterscotch, as there’s actually no Scotch in it and it has nothing to do with Scotland. “Scotch” is thought to originate from “scotched” or scorched (“to cut”) which made it easier to break the candy into pieces later. That said, a spoonful of scotch whiskey doesn’t taste bad in butterscotch sauce at all, it just doesn’t need any to taste good.

See also: Ridiculously Easy Butterscotch Sauce + A Deep, Dark Salted Caramel Sauce

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

la crème de la crème, literally

la creme de la creme, literally

Today, I was innocently going about making ice cream for a little project* and I noticed, as I often do, that the pull-seal under the round spout of the heavy cream container I was using had a film of thicker cream underneath it. I know that cream can sometimes separate a little but do you know what I’ve never done? I’ve never fully opened up the carton and looked within. Had I, I’d have discovered tablespoons of thick cream lining the carton at the top that gentle shaking hadn’t loosened, the kind of thing that in another time, one of our grandmothers might have spooned this off of the fresh milk delivered in glass bottles into their coffee (siiigh). A normal person might have said, “Huzzah! Look at all those calories I never ingested after all!” but not me; I was devastated. Think of how much richer our whipped and heavy cream confections could have been over the years if we knew this was lurking? La crème de la crème is a thing that literally exists, and most of us have been missing out on it.

So, for now on: When using heavy or whipping cream, open up the carton in full, and scrape any thicker cream that may have separated into whatever you were making. Not all brands** may have this, but if it’s there, as a rule, nothing used to describe “the best of the best” should ever be missed.

* A lie, by the way, ice cream is not innocent and the project isn’t tiny, so eat all the vegetables you can this week before I set it upon you, hopefully in a week’s time.

** I was using Organic Valley brand heavy cream.

Friday, October 5, 2012

how to make your own pumpkin puree

buck-fifty

Is it fall where you are? Are you dreaming only of thick scarves, rust-colored crackly leaves, hayrides and hot apple cider with a cinnamon stick? Are pumpkin dishes on your agenda? Wouldn’t it be great if you knew how to turn those adorable pumpkins at the market into the puree that most baking recipes call for? Well, look no further!

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees. Lightly oil a baking sheet. Halve a sugar pumpkin and scoop out the seeds. Place the pumpkin halves cut side down your baking sheet and roast the pumpkin until it is completely tender inside, about 45 to 50 minutes. Scrape the pumpkin flesh off the skin with a large spoon (metal is great here, because of the sharper edges) and puree in a blender or food processor until smooth. Let cool and use as needed.

1 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree holds about 1 3/4 cups of puree.

Don’t have a sugar pumpkin? Sweet potato, butternut squash and red kuri squash are all great substitutes for pumpkin puree in recipes. Sweet potatoes will roast faster and so will smaller squash, but the method is the same: halve, roast facedown, scrape the flesh off the skin and puree it until smooth.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

substituting vermouth for wine in recipes

cooking with vermouth!

You know all of those cooking shows and recipes (ahem, like ones on this very site — guilty!) that suggest cooking with wine is really fun because once you’ve opened a bottle for cooking, you get to drink the rest? Then there’s a series of “ah-ha-ha!”s and LOLs; it’s all very raucous. And look, people, I love a glass of wine with dinner from time to time but fact is, a lot of the time I open a bottle of wine for cooking, we forget to finish it, and this makes me very, very sad.

Enter dry vermouth. (The other variety of vermouth, usually red or pink, is called “sweet,” I like that, in part, for Manhattans, not that you asked.) Vermouth is a fortified white wine that is mildly aromatized with a variety of “botanicals,” such as herbs, spices, and fruits. Apparently, the word vermouth is derived from the German word for wormwood, wermut, as wormwood was the chief flavoring ingredient for vermouth until the herb was found to be poisonous, which I am sure was tremendously awkward. Nevertheless, the main reason I like to have vermouth around is its shelf life. When stored in the fridge (and you should, because this extends its shelf life), dry vermouth is good for anywhere between three and six months. (Sweet vermouth will keep for a year this way.) This means if you need just a splash here or there for a recipe, you don’t have to uncork a bottle of wine you may not finish before it quickly turns. Vermouth is also a lot less expensive than drinking wines. Gallo, the favorite in a Cook’s Illustrated taste test, costs only $5 for a 750ml bottle. The fancy-pants Dolin brand I picture above, almost considered too nice for everyday cooking, was $16.

A few usage notes: Vermouth’s flavor is of course a little different from a straight white table wine, due to the herbs and spices, so it may not be for everyone, but I find it to be lovely when cooking savory dishes. Due to the fortification, vermouth has a slightly higher percentage of alcohol than white wine (16 to 18 percent versus wine’s 12.5 to 14.5 percent), which means if you’re trying to partly “cook off” the alcohol it may need an extra minute of simmering time. But I find that it can be seamlessly interchanged with wine in just about any recipe, and deliciously so.