Ninety-nine percent of my issue is coming up with clever ideas. Knowing that I can’t possibly be the only one with this problem, I have developed an assortment of do-it-yourself gifts that are uncomplicated, economical and practical.
During this busy time of year, the small effort behind a gift that can readily be put to use is always much appreciated and creates value beyond what is measured in dollars and cents.
Homemade vanilla extract requires just two ingredients — vanilla beans and alcohol — and makes a useful holiday or hostess gift. For a bigger bang, pair it with a recipe for your favorite cookies or quick bread calling for vanilla. Include the actual baked good if you’re feeling especially industrious.
Good extract takes baked goods to another level, and the sweet aroma is hard to resist. Seeing those little black flecks in your dessert signals quality and something a little special. There really is no substitute for vanilla.
When I first contemplated this DIY project, I hesitated at the high cost of fancy vanilla beans. After doing a little research, I learned that cheaper, Grade B vanilla beans — the ones that look shriveled and dry — are perfectly fine for making extract. Their aroma may be slightly less pronounced than that of Grade A beans, but their lower moisture content means a less diluted final product.
Top-shelf liquor isn’t necessary either, but choose something that you’d like to drink. Though many vanilla extract recipes call for vodka — which is certainly acceptable — I think bourbon offers a more complex flavor. Rum and brandy are good options, too.
Madagascar vanilla beans are ideal for a traditional extract. Doing it yourself, however, creates options. Tahitian beans offer undertones of chocolate and cherry, while Mexican beans are smooth and smoky. For a bolder flavor, Ugandan beans could be used.
Many online sources exist for buying vanilla beans in bulk at a cost that makes for reasonably priced gifts. I have purchased through a site called Beanilla.
Pretty jars can be found at craft stores or online. You can even remove labels from and thoroughly wash empty condiment jars. (For stubborn labels, peel off as much of the paper label as possible, then spread a layer of peanut butter over the sticky adhesive. After sitting for 30 minutes or so, the oil in the peanut butter will dissolve the adhesive, and the goop should rub right off.)
This recipe can be made in any quantity. Simply use the ratio of 5 beans per 8 ounces of alcohol. Though it takes a bit of patience as you wait for the alcohol to extract the flavor from the beans, the process is incredibly easy and the delicious results are well worth the wait.
• 5 vanilla beans (I prefer Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla Beans; see sourcing information below)
• 1 cup (8 ounces) bourbon, vodka, rum or brandy
• 1 (12-ounce or bigger) bottle or jar for soaking
• Glass bottles for packaging (3½- to 4-ounce bottles are a nice size for gift giving)
n Slice halfway through the long side of the beans. (You want a slit all the way down one side of the bean without cutting the bean in half.) Place the beans in a jar or bottle.
• Pour in the alcohol, making sure the beans are covered. If your jar is not tall and narrow enough for the whole beans to be fully submerged in the alcohol, cut the beans in halves or quarters.
• Place the lid tightly on the jar and shake well.
• Store the jar in a cool, dark place, and shake once or twice a week. The flavor will be fully developed in about 8 weeks, although you can begin using the extract after a month.
• The beans can be removed after the waiting period, but this is not essential. If left in, the flavor of the extract will continue to develop.
• If you wish to give the extract as a gift before the waiting period is over, simply make it in the gift jars, noting on the tag that the vanilla will be ready and completely delicious on or after such-and-such date.
Notes: If the beans are left in the jar, you can top off the bottle with additional alcohol as you use the extract. Eventually all the flavor will be extracted from the original vanilla beans, so you’ll want to periodically replace the old beans with fresh ones.
The little flecks of seeds are a nice touch, but the extract may be strained through a coffee filter if a clear extract is preferred.
When the vanilla beans are removed, they can be dried out and placed in a sugar canister to lightly flavor the sugar.
Pricing details: As a comparison, a 4-ounce bottle of name-brand (Nielsen-Massey) pure Madagascar vanilla extract retails for $10.95. Eight ounces of the same vanilla costs $19.95. Recently, I purchased a package of 25 Madagascar vanilla beans from Beanilla.com for $16.99 with free shipping. Twenty-five beans will allow for 40 ounces of vanilla extract or 10 (4-ounce) bottles. I used an old bottle of bourbon that we had on hand.