No, I am not one of Those People who have their whole Christmas list bought and wrapped by the month of August! Personally, I think anyone who says they're 'Done!' before the middle of November is lying. But that's another issue and I digress!
What I am talking about is making Christmas gifts that need a little time to age so they are not only perfect in taste, but also ready to be given for the holidays or even grabbed at the last minute for a fun hostess gift.
This wonderful gift is homemade vanilla. Not only is it one of the easiest things you can make, it's cheap to do so! The ingredients will be around $2.00 and the container can be as simple as a jam jar or as fancy as a brown medicine bottle purchased online. If you were to make this to give away as gifts for Christmas, I recommend you start thinking about it now. You will use less vanilla that way and it will taste better, too.
But first, a little history on vanilla. Vanilla is the second most expensive spice after saffron. This is because each bean comes from the vanilla orchid plant and is very difficult to produce in large quantities. There are three kinds of vanilla; Mexican, Tahitian and Madagascar which are the different regions the plant grows in. Vanilla and chocolate was used by the Aztec Indians and was discovered in the southern regions of Mexico in the early1500's by the conquorer Cortes. Both items were then introduced to the European countries and what a delight that must have been! Attempts to cultivate the vanilla plant outside of Mexico proved futile. Apparently, there was a little bee (the Melipona) found only in Mexico that pollinated the plants. The bees couldn't survive outside of Mexico so for over 300 years, this country dominated the production and controlled the cost of the vanilla bean. This lasted until hand-pollination was discovered and the bean was then grown in Madagascar (part of the Bourbon Islands) and the Tahitian Islands. Madagascar now produces and sells up to 97% of the vanilla beans sold. It is also the type of vanilla beans preferred by most fine chefs.
The cost of pure vanilla can be very expensive. A 4-ounce bottle is usually around $8.00. As a result of this high cost, 95% of vanilla 'flavored' items are artificial. But there is an answer to those of you who really crave that pure taste of real vanilla but just can't justify the cost. You can make it!
The ingredients for vanilla are alcohol and vanilla beans. That's it! Once the mixture has fermented you have vanilla that will be just as good as whatever you purchase. It just depends on how long you let it sit.
Purchasing vanilla online is the way I get my beans. There is a local vendor by the name of The Spice House that has all three beans. Their website is: www.thespicehouse.com. The cost for each bean can run around 87 cents if purchased in bulk. There are other sites you can find vanilla beans but this is where I found the best quality for the price. And I really do like to support the local sellers. The alcohol I use is vodka. You can find this anywhere and is especially inexpensive at the discount stores. The quality of the alcohol doesn't seem to be a big factor although I still wouldn't try to get the cheapest vanilla bean. Sometimes they come dry and brittle and not very tasty. You can also use bourbon. The company who is considered to make the finest vanilla is Nielsen-Massey and they usually use bourbon in their Madagascar vanilla. It lends a deeper taste to the vanilla and is very good.
Containers are up to you. I have used Mason jars (1/2 pint for my own personal use and the quart jars for making a bulk amount for gifts) to age the vanilla in but I have purchased brown bottles online to use for giving away. The experts recommend keeping the vanilla beans in the darker, glass containers as it keeps better. The website I use for those (and all the bottles and jars I use for my Make-It-Yourself stuff) is www.sks-bottle.com. They have a huge inventory and I feel for the price, they give you an excellent product. Again, you can find cheaper but I prefer the quality of this line and they are still very reasonable.
If you were to make this vanilla and use the brown bottles as containers, you would spend a total of around $3.29 for each bottle including the ingredients. What a nice, inexpensive gift this can make for your friends and family at Christmas! What I have done is include a recipe or two with the bottle, just as an added bonus.
I will give you a couple of recipes for making the vanilla extract as well as my mom's famous Vanilla Ice Cream. This is a recipe that was passed down from one generation to the next and is a huge family favorite. It's a little more 'icey' than creamy, but that's how we like it.
I made the vanilla ice cream using all three vanilla beans in three separate batches. My husband preferred the Madagascar. My three granddaughters preferred the Tahitian (my oldest, Ava, said it had a slight hint of honey; does she watch the Food Network, or what!). I like all of them. There was a slight difference between each one, but not a difference that mattered. I still gobbled it up!
So, even though it's a ga-zillion degrees out there and Christmas seems a million miles away, it'll be here before you know it! If you do this, you are going to find out how extremely easy it is to put together and will feel a little embarrassed when everyone raves on and on about how much they LOVE their gifts! But just do the same thing I do; be gracious and humble in thanking them but know inside you accomplished a very easy task and got great kudos to boot!
p.s. Thanks to Chef Barb Fenzel for her input on this segment! She not only gave me the One Bean recipe but she's the one who clued me in on the three different kinds of vanilla. And if you think about it, if using homemade vanilla is good enough for her, it's gotta be good enough for us! Barb; you rock! Thanks!
One Bean Vanilla Recipe
¾ cup vodka or bourbon
1 vanilla bean
In small saucepan, heat alcohol on low heat. Meanwhile, take the vanilla bean and split it down the center, making sure that the ends are entact so it doesn't fall apart. Use your fingers or a knife to spread it apart a little to expose the little seeds. Place bean in a small jar (a ½-pint jar works nicely) twisting it around so the alcohol will cover it up completely. Pour alcohol into jar and seal tightly. Place jar in a cool, dark place and let it sit for up to a month. Every few days, shake the jar to help it a bit. Heating the alcohol accelerates the process.
If you want it to be ready sooner (like a week) use up to 4 beans. You can keep adding alcohol to the jar and even more vanilla beans (prepared as recommended in recipe) to keep it going for as long as you like.
Bulk Vanilla Recipe:
10+ vanilla beans
1 quart alcohol
1 quart jar
Take each vanilla bean and split it down the center, making sure that the ends are entact so it doesn't fall apart. Use your fingers or a knife to spread it apart a little to expose the little seeds. Twist the beans around a bit and place in the bottom of the jar. Pour alcohol to top of jar making sure the beans are covered completely. Push the beans down with a knife or a wooden spoon handle if need be. Cover tightly with lid and place in cool, dark place for up to 2 months. Every few days, shake the jar to help it a bit. Once the vanilla is ready, pour into small bottles, labeling each one with the kind of vanilla you used (ex: 'Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla' or 'Mexican Vanilla'). You may want to add a little piece of vanilla bean in each jar just to keep the taste going. Include instructions on adding a little more vodka to the bottle and, after the bean melts, putting another one in. You will be helping them keep the vanilla going!
Vanilla Ice Cream
6 eggs, separated
2 cans sweetened condensed mile, Eagle Brand
1/2 cup sugar (or to taste; sometimes we don't add any sugar)
6 TBS vanilla (Yes, I said six! It's the secret to the recipe!)
1/2 gallon milk (whole or 2% is fine; 2% makes it a bit more 'icey')
Whip egg whites until fluffy and peaks form.
In separate bowl, place eggs, sugar, condensed milk and vanilla; mix until well incorporated. Fold in egg whites until just mixed.
Pour mixture into ice cream freezer tub. Add enough milk until it comes within 1 1/2-2 inches from top (ice cream will swell). Turn on machine and make it the way you usually do.