Dalai Mama Dishes

by Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

Dalai Mama Dishes

Catherine Newman cooks for the family

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Vanilla Extract

Posted December 08, 2008
Find more about holiday gift , dalai mama , vanilla
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Okay, please spare me your chocolatey vitriol about how, as far as you’re concerned, vanilla is not even a real flavor, etc. Believe me, I get enough of that at home.

It’s so easy, a nine-year-old can make it in his bathrobe!

Would it have been cheating to start with vanilla vodka? Because I considered it. But then Michael said, "Hey, I know! Why not just start with vanilla extract?" Oh.

Store pairs of matching paint chips (cut them in half if you like) in your purse and use them for an impromptu game of memory while you’re waiting at a diner. This only works for kids who can’t read yet-otherwise you need to cover the backs, and then the whole thing is more trouble than it’s worth.

Birdy’s handwriting still makes me a little breathless with love.

What with the flailing economy and all, this just isn't the year to give everybody ruby-encrusted martini shakers and a nice, tasteful bar of gold, like I'd planned.  And yet it is, more than ever, a time for giving, isn't it? For shoring ourselves up by saying, yes, here, there is abundance even now, if only in our hearts and loving intentions. So I'm offering you this good homemade gift idea, which does not require you to compensate for a lack of coin by devoting the rest of your life to, say, the tatting of a lace bed skirt. In other words, it's fairly cheap and also really easy, and it's something the kids can make all on their own for lucky teachers and grandparents. (If you happen to be a teacher or grandparent of anyone in my house, please practice feigning surprise thus: "Ooh, vanilla! How lovely!") Plus, homemade vanilla extract is significantly more festive than the equally thrifty idea I had of handing everyone a bag of grubby turnips with a red velvet bow tied around it. Merry Christmas!

If you already have vodka and a computer, you can make the extract a week from now without ever leaving your home! That's right-the supplies can be ordered online, and then you will need to wait a few days for them to arrive, sitting around in your bathrobe and tasting the vodka every now and then to make sure it hasn't gone off. And later the vanilla can be put up to steep in the dark somewhere, interrupted only by an occasional shaking and an occasional you sneaking in to splash a little into your eggnog, not that I'm officially suggesting that if you pour a teaspoon or two equally from each of the bottles, your children will never even miss it.

However, if you're in a rush, then the supplies can likely be found at stores nearby (plus, it's the winter, so you can shop happily braless beneath your down jacket and nobody will even know, unless you run into a friend who invites you back to her house for cocoa, which you'll sip awkwardly with your arms crossed in front of your chest). The problem with buying ingredients locally is that the vanilla may become prohibitively expensive to make, since a single pair of vanilla beans goes for something like $10 at Whole Foods. I bought mine online from the ebay seller "organic-vanilla," who sells 21 beans for $9.75 (free shipping), here. And I got my bottles from the ebay seller "candlechem," who sells 12 4-ounce glass bottles for $12.95 ($8.98 shipping), here.

Since it takes 2-3 vanilla beans to make one bottle of vanilla extract, you will be able to make 7 bottles for about $22 (I fudged the bottle count to do this, and also multiplied by the square root of my own shaky arithmetic skills), which is just around $3 a bottle. Not including the vodka, which you already had, and which it's just as well you used some of anyways. This is the moment when I must confess that I have always heard the expression "Bourbon Vanilla," and so used to make vanilla extract with Jack Daniels. Don't get me wrong-it's delicious. But it turns out that "bourbon" all along referred to a particular kind of vanilla, and not to my favorite sour mash whiskey! Aha! Now I make it with vodka.

The vanilla will, ideally, steep for a month-it gets stronger the longer it sits-but don't be put off at all by the timing: you could simply tie a little tag on each bottle with a date of first use; or you could do what the kids and I are doing, which is to use brown paint chips for labels, and tell the recipients to wait until the vanilla is the darkest shade on the chip before using it. Paint chips may just be the world's greatest freebies.

And if this whole vanilla thing isn't your cup of tea, you could always make Salted Caramel Popcorn. Make it anyways, in fact, because it is so insanely good that your kids will love you for ever and ever, and if they can ever stop killing themselves laughing about how the holiday ballet should really be called "The Buttcracker," they might even tell you this themselves. I  packaged the popcorn in plastic bags inside new, empty gallon-sized paint cans (I got mine for $3 each at the hardware store). I was thinking of sticking a mailing label right on the can and shipping it that way. Does anybody know if that will work?

Vanilla Extract
active time: 10 minutes; steeping time: 1 month

The vanilla pictured here has steeped for about three weeks; it is already very fragrant and, I imagine, quite delicious.

For each 4-ounce bottle of vanilla extract, you will need 2 or 3 vanilla beans (we used 2 ½ beans per bottle) and ½ cup of vodka. Give your kids a clean pair of scissors, and have them cut each vanilla bean in half lengthwise and then again crosswise, and stuff all the pieces into the bottle. Now they can use a funnel to pour the vodka in. This is easiest to do if you have first measured it into a small, spouted measuring cup, which is why I like to have Ben pour it straight from the ginormous vodka jug so that every single bottle fills up and spills over because it's like filling a thimble with a hose. Oh well.

If your children are very particular about which bottles they personally filled, then you can mark the lids with tape, like I had to. Otherwise, just be nice and regular and communal about the whole thing. Settle your vanilla in a nice darkish spot, and leave it for as long as you can, shaking it when you think to. When you're ready to give it away, attach labeled paint chips with clear packing tape, and tie on a festive ribbon. And wouldn't it be nice to give with it your favorite vanilla-flavored recipe? Oooh, that's a good idea.

Get a printable version of this recipe.

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Vanilla Extract

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About Catherine Newman

Catherine Newman is the author of the memoir, Waiting for Birdy: A Year of Frantic Tedium, Neurotic Angst, and the Wild Magic of Growing a Family, available online and in bookstores nationwide.

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