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How To: Make Vanilla Extract

31 Jan

When I moved to Germany three months ago there were things I was prepared for and things that I wasn’t.

What I was prepared for: language differences, crazy techno, drinking until 8am (shhhhh), snow, the absence of sunlight in winter, and a dearth of Mexican food.

What I WASN’T prepared for was the difference in baking supplies. Things I had always considered compulsory-vanilla extract, brown sugar, chocolate chips-were suddenly either completely unavailable or ridiculously expensive. You guys. A tiny-ass package of chocolate chips (maybe half a cup?) costs over 2 euro and claims to contain enough chips to make 20 cookies. They do not. I’d need at least 4 packages to make a batch of chocolate chip cookies which would cost way too much money. I haven’t had a chocolate chip cookie since I moved here.

Brown sugar is available but it is brown granulated sugar, not the dark, sticky stuff you can get in the states. Vanilla extract comes in either tiny glass vials or plastic envelopes and doesn’t taste or smell the same. It is much more sweet and syrupy.

Another surprise is that baking powder comes in packs of paper envelopes, and Germans use vanilla sugar more than vanilla extract, which also comes in paper envelopes. Many German baking recipes use these envelopes as measurements, so it’s not uncommon to see recipes call for “one packet of vanilla sugar, one packet of baking soda”, etc.

I moved to another country armed with all of my American recipes, of course, so these measurements make no sense to me and are not very helpful when I’m trying to re-create my favorite chocolate chip cookies. I’m sure I could figure out how much vanilla sugar to substitute for vanilla extract but not only does that sounds like a pain in the ass, I’m not sure how well it would work. So.

A welcome discovery was that vanilla beans are actually much cheaper than they are in the states and I decided to just make my own vanilla extract. I’ve actually done this once before on a larger scale and ended up with enough to last me almost 2 years. There are tons of formulations for vanilla extract making out there. I think the internet kind of exploded with them a few years back when someone discovered just how crazy easy it is to do.

All you need is cheap vodka, vanilla beans, and time. What?? I know. Also, an added bonus of doing this is that if you ever get desperate you can drink what is essentially your very delicious, very potent vanilla vodka. You’re welcome.

The amount of vodka to vanilla bean varies depending on how much vodka you start out with. I had a teeny bottle (about 1/2 a cup) so I only used one bean. If you have a larger bottle I would use two to three beans. A good ratio to keep in mind is one bean to every 1/2-1 cup of vodka.

First, you want to take the label off of the vodka. You can do this by soaking the bottle in a mix of water and soap for a few hours. After that the label should come right off.

Take your vanilla bean (or beans) and make a vertical cut down the length of the bean, splitting it in two but keeping the ends intact.

Put the bean in the vodka, seal the bottle, and shake to release all the vanilla particles.

Put the bottle in a cool, dark place and shake it every few days for at least a month. It will begin to take on a darker and darker hue, and after a month it is ready to use. That being said, the longer you can stand to let it infuse, the better. Two to three months would be the best.

This is the same bottle 10 days later.

This is 2 months later.

Still 2 months. Vanilla particles!

And ta-da! Vanilla extract. You can also use bourbon or rum as long as it’s high proof. (Bourbon would be super delicious, yeah?) Once it has been infused you can strain out the vanilla particles if you like but I personally don’t think it is necessary.

You can also cut the proportion of vanilla to booze in half, decrease the infusion time, and make vanilla infused booze! More on that later, perhaps?

Wouldn’t this make a great gift for that baker in your life? I’ve also heard of people making giant batches and using them as party (or wedding!) favors. What would you do with your delicious homemade vanilla extract?

xoxo, Stef

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Recipe: Strawberry Jam

18 Jan

It’s officially winter. Part of me loves winter-I grew up in California, in the uber-temperate Bay Area, and despite what many Bay Area natives will tell you, winter doesn’t really exist there. Yes, it gets colder. Sure, you have to wear a jacket. But until I moved to Boston I never had to buy a winter-specific jacket, never had to fully change my wardrobe (my CA winter wardrobe consisted of summer clothes with the addition of tights, boots, and jackets), and never had to deal with snow.

When I first moved I was wary. I had no idea what kind of jacket to buy. My classmates (most of whom were from the east coast) made fun of me. I didn’t mind. I probably would have made fun of me too. The truth is that I grew to love it. I like snow, and the freezing temperatures, and the excuse to drink warm alcoholic beverages on a cold winter night. I like wool and I like to knit warm hats for me and my friends. I like subsisting on stews and roasted meats, and I like watching the snow fall outside my bedroom window.

That being said, sometimes a respite from the freezing temperatures and the gray weather is necessary. Sometimes it’s nice to create a bit of summer, enjoyable even, even if it’s just you in your kitchen, making jam from frozen strawberries.

Strawberry Jam for Wintertime

1 16 oz bag of whole frozen strawberries

1 C sugar

Skin of 1 tart green apple

1 tsp lemon juice

Sprinkle of cinnamon

Sprinkle of ginger

First you have to let the strawberries defrost a bit, so leave the bag out on the counter for an hour or so. Or, if you’re in a hurry (like me), throw it in the microwave for 30 seconds at a time until the berries aren’t as hard.

Put the strawberries and the sugar in your pot and just allow them to sit for about 15 minutes. Don’t turn the heat on yet, just coat the berries in the sugar and let them get all sugary.

Mash them with a potato masher. If you don’t have a potato masher, use a fork.

Bring the jam to a boil on a medium heat setting. Boil for about 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the lemon juice, the cinnamon and ginger, and the apple peel.

The apple peel is a natural source of pectin. The more you learn, right?

Return to a rolling boil and stir until you can’t stir down the boil anymore. It should be really bubbling away. Boil for another two minutes.

Turn off the heat source and check to see if the jam is set by using the back of a frozen spoon. If you look closely at the image above you can see a line drawn in the jam on the back of the spoon. That’s how you know it’s ready.

Ladle into jars.

At this point, you can choose to process it in a water bath if you like, or you can just stick it in the fridge. I chose to just keep it in the fridge. This recipe only make a little bit of jam and I was planning on using it right away. If you WANT to water process it, you need to have the correct canning jars. Finger tighten the rims and process in a water bath-a rolling boil-for about 10 minutes. Remove from the water bath and cool for 24 hours. Check the seals on the jars to make sure they are tight, then store.

And there you have it. Delicious jam for the wintertime; guaranteed to lift your spirits.

❤ stef

 

Recipe: Gingerbread Caramels

21 Dec

Christmas, oh Christmas.

I’m not religious but Christmas is  my guilty pleasure. I love the holiday season in general-that magical time between Halloween and New Year’s makes me all gooey. It’s probably all of the alcohol and baked goods you’re encouraged to imbibe. (Hey-o!)

Since my fiance joined me on the east coast a year ago, we’ve only gone back home for one holiday a year, which means picking between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Last year we went home for Xmas. This year was Tgiving. And so, schmoops and I will be celebrating Christmas with our cat this year. Honestly? I’m really excited about it. I’m making epic Christmas brunch, we’re going to lay around in our pjs, open presents, and maybe go to a movie. Our theatre here has a bar inside of it so, because it’s Christmas, I’ll probably splurge and buy us movie-themed adult beverages to enjoy. You know. Live it up.

The downside of spending Christmas (almost) alone 3,000 miles away from the rest of your family is that Christmas presents begin to pose a problem. Add to that the fact that you’re broke and you’ve been unemployed for 5 months (guilty…) and you see what I’m talking about. This called for creativity. What could I send loved ones that would be inexpensive, easy to mail (to three different countries), and universally well received?

CANDY!

Specifically, caramel. Gingerbread caramel. Thank you, Ms. Martha Stewart.

Gingerbread Caramels

4 cups (2 pints) heavy cream

2 cups light corn syrup

4 cups granulated sugar

12 tablespoons (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

1/2 cup unsulfured molasses

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

3/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground ginger

3/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

Vegetable-oil cooking spray

A quick note about the corn syrup-I really didn’t want to use it. I’m a giant hippie deep down inside so I think corn syrup is the devil. Also, my best friend’s little daughter is allergic to it and I wanted her to be able to eat these things. However, at the last minute I got lazy (and I had a random bottle of the stuff) that I wanted to use. If you’re interested in corn syrup substitutions, there are lots of suggestions on the ol’ interwebs. The best ones I found were to make a thick simple syrup  from water and sugar, or to use honey. I think you can also use tapioca syrup and/or agave syrup.

ONWARD.

Prepare your pans. This is what you will be pouring the hot caramel into to cool. The recipe suggests using a 12×17 inch rimmed pan, but I didn’t have one of those so I just used what I did have, and made sure that the sum of their measurements matched. The caramel is crazy sticky, so you have to grease the bottom and sides of all the pans. Then, line the pans with parchment or wax paper, and grease the paper as well. Trust me on this. You want to do it.

Bring the cream, corn syrup, sugar, butter, and molasses to a boil. Continue to cook over medium-high heat until it reaches 248˚F. The amount of time it takes to do this will vary depending on your altitude and what you put in the caramel. I swear it took me almost an hour. The thing is-it is very important that you reach that 248˚ mark. If you don’t the candy won’t be thick enough and it won’t harden properly.

Boiling boiling.

Once it reaches 248˚, turn off the heat and stir in the spices, the salt, and the vanilla.

Pour the mixture into your prepared pans. Allow to sit undisturbed for 24 hours. This is to make sure the caramel cools completely. Also, I would recommend that you lightly cover the pans with a clean dishcloth. Caramel is sticky. You don’t want any dust or..whatever else getting in it.

The next day, get yourself a cutting board and a knife. I used my pizza cutter, which, incidentally, I have never used to cut a pizza. Grease the cutting surface and your cutting implement. Turn the caramel over onto your prepared surface. You might have to use a knife to loosen the parchment overhang, but if you greased properly this should be easy. Then you’ll have to peel the paper from the back of the caramel.

Cut the caramels into 1″ pieces. I actually used a ruler and traced a light grid onto the caramel before I cut them. You don’t have to do that if you don’t want to, but I found it helpful.

Wrap the individual pieces in wax paper or parchment paper.

Twist the sides to make them look like real candy.

If you’re giving them as gifts, you can put them in fun little cellophane bags. I used a free template to print those stickers, which can be found here.

The whole process was really quite easy, if time consuming. I hand-wrapped over 100 caramels, you guys.

❤ stef

How To: Creme Fraiche.

30 May

Alrighty. Creme fraiche. So it turns out creme fraiche is ridiculously easy to make. All you need is some heavy cream, culture, and a warm-ish windowsill. Emphasis on the warm-ish windowsill. I made this stuff in early May and Boston was still dealing with some shitty weather, so although I left my jar out for almost two and a half days the creme fraiche did not thicken correctly. I ended up sticking it in the fridge and then leaving it out for again for about an hour when the sun finally showed up, and it thickened almost immediately. Bacteria yay?

It is very fun to make. Very. It doesn’t involve much active process, but you feel triumphant anyway. Like an ass-kicking pioneer woman who is about to blow your bloody MIND.

1 container heavy cream

1 TB buttermilk or 2 TB yogurt – I used yogurt

jar

This picture makes me believe that the cream is ready to conquer the WORLD.

So. Pour all of your cream into a jar and add the buttermilk or yogurt. I used 2TB of greek yogurt. I had read that the cultures in yogurt aren’t as “strong” as the ones in buttermilk so I doubled the recommended amount. The yogurt you use will impart a slight flavor to your finished creme fraiche. For example, I used a tart greek yogurt and my creme fraiche was likewise slightly tart.

Stir in the yogurt/buttermilk and leave it (preferably uncovered, unless you’re worried about bugs) at room temperature for 24-48 hours. Keep in mind that it will continue to thicken slightly once you move it to the fridge.

I left it out longer (2.5 days).  On a warm day I would probably leave it for 12 and then check on it to ensure that it is thickening correctly, but you likely won’t need to leave it out for so long. Mine, even after 2.5 days, was initially very thin. I then left it out in the sun for maybe an hour and it thickened right up.

This is how it looked after 2.5 days.

As you can see, it wasn’t coagulating correctly. It still tasted good, it just didn’t quite have the texture I was after. If you end up with runny creme fraiche, remember that you can always whip it like whipped cream if you wish. I was actually planning on doing that until the sun finally showed up.

You can use the finished product in so many ways, just be sure to use it up in a week-ish. (I’m a little lax with expiration dates…I basically use something until it starts to smell.) (TMI?) Things I made:

Scrambled eggs

Pancakes

Creme fraiche/nutella strawberry dipping sauce (you just swirl the two together).

Enjoy!

❤ stef

Recipe: Dulce de Leche

14 Jan

What is dulce de leche, you ask? That is an excellent question. It’s basically caramel, but made from milk and sugar instead of just sugar. Literally translated it means “milk candy”. It’s gotten pretty popular up in the states in the last 10 or so years, but it’s a South American candy. I actually grew up with it, because my mom’s family is from Argentina and they have a dulce de leche recipe that is passed down from oldest child to oldest child on her father’s side of the family. My grandfather, Nono, is the oldest child in his family, and I am the oldest of mine. So when I was around 10 or 12 he taught me how to make dulce de leche.

My brother, sister, cousin and I were in San Diego visiting my grandparents. We were playing in the back yard and my Nono came to get me and bring me inside. I remember being a little annoyed because I wanted to be outside playing, but he brought me into the kitchen and told me that because I was the oldest he was going to teach me how to make his dulce de leche. He told me that his mother had taught him when he had been around my age (at the time) and so it was my turn to learn. I still remember that day, the kitchen tiles against my feet, the cool darkness of the kitchen. I didn’t try making it on my own until years later but that was one of the only afternoons I ever spent learning something from my Nono.

My grandparents used to eat dulce de leche on toast in the mornings. My grandparents ALWAYS eat toast for breakfast-toast with butter, cream cheese, jam, honey, dulce de leche, and sometimes a combination of the above! I always preferred cream cheese and honey, but someone always ate their pan con dulce de leche.

This being my second year as a poor-ass grad student, I wanted to give christmas gifts but could not spend much money. I also didn’t want to give crap gifts. Then I remembered that pretty much everyone in the whole world likes caramel, my friends probably haven’t eaten much dulce de leche in their lives, and gosh darnit it just sounds so exotic. Duuuulce de lechhhhe. Mmmmmmm. Also, when you tell your friends that you spent six hours in front of the stove stirring they are very impressed and think you are the best friend ever. Which I am.

Dulce de Leche

Ok, now, here’s the thing. I can’t actually give you my family recipe. Well, I could but I’ve been instructed not to. Seriously. So I’m giving you Alton Brown’s instead. Rest assured, though, I have checked it for accuracy and it is basically the same, but this will only make you 1 jar and mine made 8. Also, I’m taking out some of his totally unnecessary steps. Like, straining the finished product. Um, Alton? You really don’t need to do that.

1 quart whole milk

12 ounces sugar

1 vanilla bean, split with seeds scraped out

1/2 tsp baking soda

Mix everything together. Grab your vanilla bean, split it lengthwise and scrape all of the seeds into the milk sugar mix, then throw the vanilla pod in there as well.

In the beginning.

Now. Keep the heat at about medium low so that you achieve a very gentle simmer, and stir constantly for the next 2 hours. You really have to stir frequently otherwise the bottom of the caramel will burn. At some point take out the vanilla bean pod.

I'm sorry this picture is horrible.

This is about what the dulce de leche should look like-a medium brown caramel color. This picture is terrible because it was late and I had no natural light. The batch I made was huge so I was stirring for six hours, not two.

Allow to cool and then pour into jars.

You can serve dulce de leche:

on toast

on ice cream

as a cookie topping (alfajores, anyone???)

on pretzels (enthusiastically suggested to me by a friend the day after I gave him his jar).

on apples (pears, whatever)

with PIE

as a cake filling

etc

etc

etc

or you can just eat it from the jar.

❤ stef

Recipe: Pumpkin Cheesecake

19 Oct

Man oh man. I am getting BEHIND in the blogging.

Ok, so, we left off with a whole bunch of pumpkin puree, it was about 2 cups. I decided to take that puree and turn it into delicious, soul-sustaining cheesecake. Yummy yum yum!

I was a little worried that I would have to eat the whole thing by myself, but my fears turned out to be unfounded. The cake was split equally between my internship class and my internship site-ie-a whole bunch of counselors LOVE ME right now. I don’t know why no one else has ever thought of this. Problems at work? Bring cheesecake, douchebag. (Not that I had problems. I’M LOVELY. Even without baked goods).

Ingredients (Recipe by Paula Deen).

Crust:

1 3/4 C graham cracker crumbs

3 TB sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/2 stick melted butter

Filling:

24 oz cream cheese (3 8oz packages)

1 15oz can of pureed pumpkin (this is where I used my homemade pumpkin puree, which I had about 2 cups of).

3 eggs plus 1 egg yolk

1/4 C sour cream

1.5 C sugar

1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

1/8 tsp ground nutmeg

1/8 tsp ground cloves (I didn’t use cloves because I didn’t have any).

2 TB flour

1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350˚.

Crush up your graham crackers. I used my hands.

Add the sugar, cinnamon, and butter. Mix until combined and then press into the bottom of a springform pan.

Beat the cream cheese until smooth (it’s supposed to be room temperature, but I put in in the microwave for about 30 seconds). Then add the pumpkin puree, eggs, egg yolk, sour cream, sugar, spices, flour and vanilla.

Beat until well combined.

Pour into the springform pan and bake for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let rest for 15 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight.

My effing cheesecake cracked.

And it started out life as so perfect and smooth!

Right after exiting the oven.

I left it to sit for longer than 15 minutes, and I suspect this is what made it crack. It may have looked like The Land Before Time but it tasted like DELICIOUS. Cut up into slices you could hardly tell, too, so I consider this cheesecake experiment SUCCESS!

Eaaaaat meeeee!

Nommy. Remember to share!

❤ stef

How To: Pumpkin Puree

4 Oct

Alright ladies and gents. It’s that time of year again, the time when most Americans begin to experience uncomfortably desperate pumpkin cravings. You know who you are. You’re the one in the corner mainlining pumpkin spice lattes. Don’t try to hide! YOU’VE BEEN SPOTTED.

Ahem.

Sugar pie pumpkins and all manner of squash are currently on sale at Whole Foods for 99 cents a pound, which is what made me want to buy one. That and “sugar pie” pumpkin is such a cute name. Don’t you want to go buy one now? Sure you do. Go ahead. I’ll wait.

I’ve never actually been a fan of pumpkin pie (one of the only pumpkin incarnations I am aware of, I’ll admit) and I’ve recently decided that this might be because my grandma uses canned pumpkin. I know, I know, apparently there are really awesome and good quality canned pumpkin products out there, but this is just my THEORY. I really want to like pumpkin pie. I feel like I might be missing out on something.  In any case, making your own puree is really easy, and if you get the pumpkin on sale it is SO CHEAP. My pumpkin cost me about $1.50. You’re welcome.

The first step is to grab your pumpkin. Hello pumpkin! He is a sugar pie pumpkin, one of the smaller, sweeter varieties best for dessert making, and he weighs approximately 1.5 pounds. Aww.

Now, wash him. Cut off his stem and then cut him into quarters. This is his better half.

Use a spoon to scoop out all of his insides-seeds and stringy pulpy bits. Put it all aside because you can use the seeds for roasting, or making pumpkin brittle.

Put the quarters on a baking sheet, cover with foil, and roast in a 400˚ oven for 35-40 minutes.

My pumpkin has battle scars.

When it’s done, the pumpkin should be soft enough for you to scrape the shell off with a spoon. I left mine for 35 minutes and it was perfect.

Allow the pumpkin to cool for 10-20 minutes, then take a spoon and scrape the shell off.

Using some sort of mixing or mashing device, puree your pumpkin! I used my very favorite immersion blender that I use for everything. You might prefer a cuisinart, or a fork. I just don’t know.

The puree will keep for a few days in the fridge. I am still trying to decide what to so with mine. Right now, I’m thinking either pumpkin cheesecake or pumpkin pavlovas. I’ll decide in the next few days and post the results next Monday. In the meantime, happy pumpkin making!

❤ stef