Saturday, January 31, 2009

Homemade Bourbon Vanilla Extract

I adore the flavor of Vanilla. There is also something so comforting, relaxing, and warm when you walk into a room that is bathed in the scent. If it isn't a flickering candle, then you know there is some baking going on, and that there will be some delicious treats to be had.

So many of us have gotten accustomed to purchasing our little 2 oz bottles at the market, and I've oftened wondered just where it comes from, and how it came to be such an integral part of our culinary lives. After reading a recipe from Kim over at A Yankee in a Southern Kitchen, I was inspired to look into the history of the vanilla bean.

I've found that vanilla beans come from four main areas of the world. In each area, growing conditions significantly affect the flavor of the beans, making each regions flavor vastly different from the other. It comes from the Vanilla Orchid, which grows as a vine, usually up a tree or a pole for support. It can grow extremely high, but is usually folded over by growers which encourages more flowering, and makes the plant more accessible to the growers. Vanilla beans are the fruit of the orchid, a small, trumpet- like flower, that is only open for a small part of one single day. Grower's check the blooms daily, and when they are open, need to hand pollinate them to produce the fruit, or the bean as we know it. They are then cured for a period of months, and then bundled and put into ovens. When removed, they are then taken out to cure in the sun again, re- bundled, and let to "sweat" overnight. The process is repeated until the bean has reached somewhat of a condensed, raisin like quality.

Purchasers of the bean will then "extract" the vanilla flavor by re-hydrating the beans with a water and alcohol solution, circulating it through the bean, then filtering it prior to bottling. To be considered "pure vanilla extract", vanilla must be 35% alcohol by volume. Anything less than that is called "pure vanilla flavor".

On an island off the coast of Africa, known as Madagascar, the bean produced has a creamy, sweet, smooth, mellow flavor. It is also known as Madagascar Bourbon Vanilla, but is not made with the alcohol we are familiar with. It is known as that type of bean because of its growth on the Bourbon Islands- Madagascar, Comoro, Seychelle and Reunion , and is considered to be the highest quality vanilla available today.

Mexico is where the Vanilla Orchid originated, yet that country only produces a very small amount of vanilla used today. Much of the vanilla that is purchased by tourists however, is NOT pure vanilla, yet a mixture of vanilla and the Tonka Bean, which contains Coumarin, found to be in many anti-coagulant prescription medications. I know many swear by this particular type of vanilla for their baking, not realizing the true ingredients. This is a type I'd rather not use, regardless of how wonderful the resulting goodie is. It is also banned in the US by the FDA.

Indonesia is the second largest producer of vanilla, with it's flavor having more of a woody, slightly more astringent, tannin like taste.

Tahitian vanilla is grown from a different variety of the vanilla orchid, and has more of a fruity, smooth flavor.

With all of that new found knowledge, and appreciation for something that I am in no way capable of growing, there is still the somewhat costly price of that little bottle of divine goodness that forces some of us (not me!) to resort to imitation flavoring. I feel those products are extremely inferior, resulting in a not so flavorful product. Why spend good money on most of your ingredients, only to fall short on one of it's most important flavors..?

An extremely wonderful, and much less expensive option, is to make your own vanilla extract. The best part is that it is so easy, you'll wonder why you didn't make this all along. Two ingredients is all that are needed... and a little patience.

The first ingredient is Bourbon. I chose this brand, $18.99 for 1.75 liters at Costco, but you do not have to purchase this much. I did only because I was gift giving:

Pour 1/2 cup into a jar (preferably one that has a lid):

Next you'll need 2 of these- Vanilla Beans. I purchased mine at Costco, $6.98 for 10 beans:

With a very sharp knife split the top of the bean open:

Then with the tip of your knife, scrape along the bean, collecting the seeds:

Take all of that goodness and put it into the Bourbon:

After that, take the pods, give them a little "curl", and put those into the jar as well:

Now for the patience. Some say you can use after 2 weeks, but I prefer to wait at least 2 months, when the vanilla becomes nice and dark.

While vanilla made this way may seem a bit strong initially, you will notice that as it darkens over time that its vanilla scent becomes a bit richer.

Because it is a bit mellower in flavor than its store-bought counterpart, I have been adding about 1/2 teaspoon more in most of my recipes.

The large bottle of bourbon I purchased will be solely for the making of vanilla, as I don't care for whiskey at all. Considering the total cost of ingredients was only around $26, and I have not only made some for myself but for family and friends as well, it is an economical way to share the love in the kitchen! Enjoy!

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

King Arthur Flour

I had such an enjoyable day today with my mom and dear family friends! King Arthur Flour Company had Glendale, Arizona as one of their stops on a National Baking Tour, and we were lucky to have front row seats! The class was interesting, informative, and I definitely learned a few tricks, as well as finally understanding why I had some failures in the past. Our Instructor, Carolyn Hack, had a wealth of information to share. I just wish I had had the extra time to stay afterwords and bombard her with questions... another time I suppose.
For those of you not familiar with King Arthur Flour, it has been around for over 200 years, and I have to say is THE best flour I have ever used, especially when it comes to my breads and rolls. They never add bleach, bromate, or chemicals of any kind, which results in a pure, natural, and consistent product. I have used their Classic 100% whole wheat bread recipe for years (the recipe is on the back of the bag), and it is the only 100% whole wheat recipe I've ever used that has amazing flavor, rises perfectly, and has a wonderful texture. For those that have children that don't care for whole wheat, they have an amazing White Whole Wheat Flour that can be used instead.

They have thousands of fabulous recipes listed right on their site. Everything from baked goods to appetizers, family dinners to Super Bowl Treats. They are easy to follow recipes, and if you find yourself a bit challenged or simply have a question, you can email your questions to the baker and you'll be certain to get a response.

Every time I bake breads or cinnamon rolls as a gift I like to bake them in these Bake-and-Give pans. They always seem to add more of a special touch to something you've already put your heart into making. They aren't terribly expensive, and I usually buy a ton after Christmas when they have their wonderful clearance sales.

Sadly, we were not able to try any of the breads made today... something about the board of health not allowing them to do so. All of the ingredients smelled heavenly though, and I did manage to get a picture of the dough they used.

This is the Almond Filled Braid:

This is the Monkey Bread:
And these were the heavenly smelling Cinnamon Rolls:

They did have a tremendous amount of raffle prizes that sadly, I didn't win.

But they made up for it by giving everyone a small, pamphlet sized cookbook, a package of Red Star Yeast (with whom King Arthur has partnered with and who makes the baking classes free!) a dough scraper, and a $10 King Arthur gift card! It was definitely worth going to see. Check out their site to see if they are going to be in your area.

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Just following orders...

Usually, every morning when I get up, I get the kidlet her sippy cup of milk, fix my coffee, and while she watches Caillou, I check to see whose posted what on their blogs that morning. I'll make note of which recipe I want to make next, mostly because of the delicious looking photos everyone takes. It is usually weeks, and sometimes months before I get around to it, there are so many fabulous ones out there! This morning, the first photo and recipe to show up in my blog reader was this from over at Stacey Snacks, with the directive of, "Make These Sticky Buns!" Well, after heading over there, seeing the full size pics, and drooling, I HAD to make these! I just happened to have all the ingredients on hand, and thought that I had better make these and get that puff pastry out of my freezer before "D" day begins! Thanks Stacey, a fabulous breakfast treat that was quick, easy, and so sticky delicious!

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

A "Skinny" Mojito

The time is drawing near... my deadline. I joined a Get Fit Challenge through my exercise group, Stroller Strides, that begins on February 7th, and lasts for 3 months. On that day, myself and 5 others in our group, in addition to many other moms across the country, begin our journey to not only lose weight, but to become physically fit. We will be weighed by water immersion so that our fat ratio can be accurately calculated, and the national winner will be the one who loses the most fat, not weight, so that it will be fair to all. Physical activity is essential to this, and I thank God every day for being part of the most amazing group of women, and for THE most amazing fitness leader on this earth, Kelly. She is the most positive, motivating instructor, and is the only one I have ever felt accountable to. With her help, I WILL succeed.

I have been trying to not only address the food that I eat, but the social drinking as well. While it's not that often, I don't want it to be something that gets me completely off course. How easy and awful would it be to go hang out with friends, and blow what you've worked so hard on all week with just one drink! One of my favorites, the Mojito, has a range from 150 to 220 calories in just one 8 oz glass- Oh my!

My favorite cook book of late, Hungry Girl, by Lisa Lillien, has an excellent low cal (only 104!) Mojito that is sure to satisfy your craving, without breaking the scale. It is easy to make, and incredibly refreshing.


  • - 6 ounces of diet lemon-lime soda
  • - 12 mint leaves
  • - 1/4 lime, cut into slices
  • - 1 1/2 ounces of rum
  • - 5 to 8 ice cubes
  • - Optional: additional mint leaves & lime wedges (for garnish)


Muddle (smash or pulverize) the mint and lime in a glass. I used the end of a small rolling pin.

Add the soda and rum, stir well.

Add ice and enjoy! Garnish your masterpiece with mint and lime. If you like a sweeter Mojito, I suggest adding Stevia to sweeten it without adding to the caloric intake.


Per Serving:
104 Calories
0g Fat
19mg Sodium
2g Carbs
0.5g Fiber
0g Sugar
0g Protein

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Saturday, January 17, 2009

Diet Margarita's!!

Well, you don't have to tell me twice! Diet Margarita's that are so good, you won't mind the switch!

One of my favorite cookbooks these days is by Lisa Lillien, aka Hungry Girl. I've subscribed to her site for a couple years now, receiving daily emails with tips and tricks , as well as fabulous recipe "makeovers". When her cookbook came out a few months ago, it was a must have. The recipes are simple, the ingredients easy to find, and really delicious. It was fantastic to be able to have a low-cal, low-fat version of my restaurant and fast food fav's show up in my inbox every day!

I made these this afternoon, tripled the recipe over ice in a large pitcher, and shared them with my Sister-in-law and Mother-in-law... it was a happy afternoon!

So get the book, and drink one of these fabulous Margarita's while you're perusing the recipes!

HG's Magical Low-Calorie Margarita

(Entire recipe: 105 calories, 0g fat, 58mg sodium, 2g carbs, 0g fiber, 0.5g sugars, 0g protein = 2 Points)


6 oz. Sierra Mist Free (or Diet Sprite Zero, or your other fave no-cal lemon-lime soda)

1.5 oz. tequila

1/2 tsp. Crystal Light powdered drink mix, Lemonade

1 oz. lime juice
Optional: lime slice for garnish and salt or no-calorie sweetener for rim of glass


If desired, run some lime juice along the rim of the glass and dip into a dish of salt or sweetener. Mix all ingredients together. Pour over 1 cup of crushed ice. Optional: Garnish with lime slice. Enjoy. Serves 1!

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Deceptively Delicious

Mom's night out with my exercise group, Stroller Strides, was at my house last night. I love having people over to my house... it gives me incentive to really clean... and to pretend that my house is always that way. Oh, I love a good snow job...

I'm sure that many of you have heard of Jessica Seinfeld's cookbook, Deceptively Delicious. The idea being that you won't have to beg your child to eat their veggies because you, the parent, has deceptively slipped them into the everyday foods they already know and love. Good idea, huh..? At the risk of some negative comments, I think I just may have to slightly disagree.

I am a "Foodie", a lover of all things food. I love to cook food, bake food, shop for food, search for good food recipes, write about food, and last, but most importantly, encourage a healthy love of food. That includes vegetables. While I understand the need to covertly slip in a veggie or two, in my heart of hearts, it is more important to me that my child knows what they are eating, that it is good for them, and that in and of itself, is simply delicious. I think all too often we send out these negative food vibes, based upon our own experiences, forgetting that whoever prepared those vegetables for us as a child just simply looked in the wrong cookbook that day. Vegetables are nutritious, yes. But prepared the right way, are fabulous, and sometimes a meal in their own right.

With that said, our mom's night out was still a great time for all! We made 3 recipes from the book: Pancakes (with Sweet Potato), Pita pizza, and Brownies (with Carrot & Spinach) .

The pancakes had pretty good flavor- not so much sweet potato as it was the spices. I do think the sweet potato greatly contributed to it's texture though. A concern I have though is that the recipe calls for pancake mix- which to me is not necessarily all that healthy. I'm not sure if the veggies will nutritionally make up for any random box of pancake mix. I did notice that the batter was a tad bit runny, so we did add an extra 1/4 cup of mix.

The Pita Pizza's, I have to say, were somewhat tasty. Personally I would add a bit of nutmeg and garlic to the spinach before adding it as a topping, and maybe change up the cheese a bit. But overall, not too bad. However again, nutritionally, jarred sauce concerns me with it's sodium content.

The Brownies... well, I did not taste the spinach nor the carrot puree. But I beg of you, use the best brownie recipe you have and add the puree's to the mix. My husband will eat just about anything, but he took one bite of these and threw it back in the pan. If you are craving chocolate, her recipe will not do the trick. We used semi-sweet chocolate, and AP flour, following the directions to a "T", however John Belushi's "Rubber Biscuit" came to mind upon first bite.

By nights end though, a good time was had by all. If anything, being able to "speak adult" was worth any bite of a Rubber Biscuit, any day.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Yo, Vinny!

Because my public demands a pic of our newest family member, and because I think the world of her, this one is for you, Cha Cha . Meet your new cousin, Vinny:

I don't have the heart to tell him he really isn't a Rottweiler... He's got this Napoleon thing going on that is too cute! For now, I'll just let him keep telling all the neighbors dogs just where they can go.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Where does the time go..?

My oldest daughter, "Picklehead", a finance counselor

My oldest son, my "Sweetie", a Senior, going to ASU in the fall

My youngest son, the "Tedstermeister", almost ready for Junior High

My youngest daughter, my "Kidlet", she makes me laugh

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Thursday, January 1, 2009

Welcome 2009! Lasciati andare in cucina!

I think for so many of us, 2009 was a welcome sight. We watched 2008 shoot itself in the foot, we locked the door behind it, threw away the key, and tried to sweep up the porch as if it had never even happened. The perfect crime, I suppose, if only the evidence of its existence would stop trying to come from up under the door like a bad can of tear gas. I am so looking forward to what this year has to bring... it has got to be better. I am determined that it will. My daughters New Years hat tells me it will.

Part of my changes for the New Year are much like everyone else's, to eat healthier. Of course, I've been threatening myself with that for year's. But now, I have too. Cholesterol is knocking at my door... it even had the flipping nerve to let itself in. I bent over, numerous times, trying to get it to kiss my ass... but all it did was laugh and utter "which part, your all ass." You know, high cholesterol is bad enough, but when it starts taunting you... well, lets just say the fight was not a pretty one.

I decided to kick off the New Year with a little spice. My intention was to follow a recipe I had gotten from POM for pomegranate salsa, but I wanted to use what I had on hand. I ended up improvising, and finally came up with a recipe I will call my own, Pomegranate Mango Salsa. I served it over garlic grilled chicken, and called it good. Why..? Because my husband planted a good one on me after he ate it, so I know it was good.

Pomegranate Mango Salsa

2 large Pomegranates, seeded (see here for an easy way)
1 ripe Mango, diced
2-3 teaspoons minced jalapeno pepper
1/3 cup diced red or orange pepper
1/4 c minced red onion
1 Tbs rice wine vinegar
1/4 c Rose's Infusion Pomegranate Twist
Pinch of kosher salt, if desired

Combine all ingredients. Chill for 30 minutes. Serve over grilled chicken or serve with chips. The salsa's heat will intensify the longer it sits. So if you are not a lover of spice, decrease the jalapeno just a tad. If you love spice, I love you... add more.

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