Brilliant Daughter and I have been wracking our brains and combing magazines and websites for new ideas for holiday gift giving. Each year we try to find several homemade goodies to give as gifts to friends and family, and as a small token of appreciation to the people who venture out for our annual Christmas Eve tamale party. We've done herbed salts, barbecue rubs, truffles, limoncello, ornaments of various kinds, and homemade soaps, among other things.
We have a big project in the works, which has been two years in the making, so small items were the topic of our constant search. We finally settled on our first project: homemade vanilla. After reading various recipes and write-ups, I settled on one recipe and began the process. The recipe only requires 3 ingredients: good-quality vodka and rum and vanilla beans.
Apparently cheap vodka is distilled through charcoal, which is not such a good thing when making a vanilla extract. So I went with Svedka vodka, although Absolute, Skye, or other mid-priced vodka would do the trick. Bacardi white rum is combined with the vodka in a 5:1 ratio, or thereabouts. I used a handle of vodka, which measured out to 7.5 cups, to which I added 1.5 cups of rum.
Most recipes recommend 2-3 vanilla beans per ½ cup liquid. That would mean 36-54 beans would be required, which could get costly if you are buying them at your local grocery store in 3-5 piece jars. Fortunately, Brilliant Daughter and I have a secret source of vanilla beans, which cost a fraction of what you might find at supermarkets. We were able to get a pound of chef-grade vanilla beans for less than $25 recently, making this a much more cost-efficient project. I used 45 vanilla beans, cut in half crosswise and again lengthwise. I would estimate this to be a little less than 1/3 of a pound.
The traditional way people are making vanilla extract is to put the beans into a small jar and add liquid, sealing and curing for 1 month or more. I have chosen to make a large quantity in my infusion jar and then siphon into individual jars when it is done. I think this will make for a more even-flavored product, plus I get to watch it as it colors from clear to beige to brown to something heavenly. Not to mention I can dip in and taste it from time to time!
The total cost for this little project thus far is $19.99 for the vodka, $2.59 for the rum, and $8 for the vanilla beans, or about $1.64 per ½ cup. We still need to buy the 2 ounce jars, which should come in under $1/per. At less than $3 per bottle of pure vanilla extract, it makes me wonder if I will ever bother to buy commercially prepared vanilla extract again?
Addenda: I was completely remiss in not giving credit for this idea to Ashley Pickering. Ashley was one of my wonderful interns at Travelers' Tales and now works with Brilliant Daughter at Cengage Publishing. She has the best shoe collection of anyone I know and has gladly eaten anything I have ever put in front of her.