Homemade Vanilla Extract: Giveaway!

Way back in mid-October, I’d already decided on the treat-trifecta I would be doling out to friends and family during the holidays: vanilla extract, handmade orecciette, and candied citrus peels. It is currently t-minus 3 days to christmas, and I have completed one of those items. Well, one and a half . . . ish. I made one gift bag of orecciette for a yankee swap; it took up three hours of my time and a majority of my counter space. Doing that again, for a dozen more gifts? Nuh uh. Not happening. And as for the citrus peels, watching a pot of boiling sugar water for several hours and cleaning stickiness off of everything in my kitchen is pretty much at the top of my list of Things I Don’t Want To Do right now. But in my world, where ambition is constantly pitted against laziness-fueled procrastination, one out of three ain’t bad.

Because I love the idea of homemade vanilla extract so much (which—to give credit where credit is due—I originally discovered here), I really wanted to post this in late November / early December, so that you too might have a chance to make your own and delight all of the bakers on your gift list. It’s hard to find a more perfect gift for a habitual baker. Not only is it practical, adorable, and easy to make (once you’ve collected all the components), it is also virtually endless. Every time I run out of vanilla extract, I wind up in the baking aisle, begrudgingly scanning the bottles and trying to convince myself that it really is ok to spend $7+ on a tiny amount of liquid, because I will only be using it a teaspoon at a time. But this will be a problem no more! Once you begin to run low, you just add a little more vodka.

Anyway, since I’m way too late to inspire any of you to make this yourselves (for this holiday season, at least), I would like to give a few away! It’s the least I can do. Please forgive me for being lazy. I’ve got three up for grabs. Just comment on this post by midnight on Sunday. I will choose the three people at random, and announce the winners early next week. Hurray for free things!

Now, for those of you who would like to make your own extract, here’s how it’s done. First, you need a bunch of vanilla beans. I purchased a half pound of bourbon vanilla beans from Beanilla. Next, you’ll need a bunch of 4 oz. bottles and caps (I bought a couple dozen from the Specialty Bottle company). And last, you’ll need some vodka. The cheap stuff is fine, just make sure it’s unflavored. As for labels, I just bought some label paper from staples and made my own. If you don’t feel like bothering with that, there are plenty of places online where you can get custom labels.

Now that you have all the pieces, start by cutting up the beans. First, cut them in half. Then split each one down the side, making the yummy goodness (“caviar”) inside more accessible.

And then, stick the beans in the bottle and pour in the vodka.

Seal it, and you’re done. This will begin to look and smell like extract after only 24 hours, but you should let it steep for about 6 weeks for it to reach its full vanilla-ness. As I mentioned before, just keep adding a little vodka when you start to run low. If it seems weak after a while, just throw in another vanilla bean. Three cheers for never buying the store-bought stuff again!

 

 

TURKEY POT PIE

Do you still have some Thanksgiving leftovers hanging around? Are you growing a little tired of turkey sandwiches? Please say yes. And then please, make this.

This year’s holiday was quite a success, if I do say so myself. It will be a model for all future Thanksgivings I host. From now on, I will always brine my turkey. I will happily delegate dishes to friends and family to preserve my own sanity. And I will always make a pot pie out of the leftovers. In fact, I will probably make larger meals all winter, just so I can make more pot pies. They are the ultimate cold-weather comfort food. And they are awesomely good.

I will list the ingredients I used below, but you can use whatever you’d like. Just make enough stuff to fill your pie, and hold it all together with some gravy. You really can’t go wrong!

Turkey Pot Pie
(adapted from Bon Appétit via Epicurious)

  • 2 pie crusts
  • 1 ½ cups of turkey, diced or shredded
  • 1 cup of carrots, thinly sliced
  • 1 cup of mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 cup of green beans, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 1 cup of mashed potatoes
  • ½ cup of frozen peas
  • ½ cup of scallions (or onion), sliced
  • 1 heaping cup of gravy
  • 1 tbsp fresh parsley, chopped
  • 2 tsp fresh sage chopped
  • salt & pepper, to taste
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 egg white

Roll out one round of dough and place it in your pie pan. Trim off any excess and chill in the fridge.

Melt butter and olive oil in a large saucepan. Add in scallions and mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms just begin to soften and release a little liquid. (If you are using onion instead of scallions, cook onion for a few minutes, until it becomes translucent, then add the mushrooms.) Add carrots and green beans and cook for another two minutes. Add turkey, gravy, peas, mashed potatoes, herbs, salt, and pepper. Bring mixture to a boil, then reduce heat. Let simmer until it has thickened slightly.

Remove mixture from heat and let it rest for a few minutes, then pour it into your chilled pie crust. Cover with saran wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes.

When the pie is nearly done chilling, preheat your oven to 400°. Roll out your second dough round until it is big enough to cover the top of the pie. Trim excess, then pinch edges to seal. Brush top with egg white. Score a few times to release steam during baking.

Bake for 30–35 minutes, or until the crust begins to turn a pretty golden brown. Remove pie and let it rest for at least 15 minutes (this will be difficult, because it’s going to smell good).

After you’ve waited for as long as you can stand, cut pie into hearty slices. Serve it with a side of leftover cranberry sauce, if you are so inclined. Be prepared to go back for seconds!

HOMEMADE BUTTER

That’s right. That delicious stuff you’re buying in the store, those tasty blocks that come wrapped in paper and packaged four-at-a-time in little 1-lb boxes—you can make that.

Not only is homemade butter so much yummier than the store-bought kind, it’s also easy to make. This can be done several different ways. You can use a mixer, a food processor, or a container of some sort. I prefer the container method because it allows for a slow churn, rather than an unbridled whip that risks incorporating buttermilk back into the butter, so that’s what I will explain here.

All you’ll need is:

  • 1 pint of heavy cream
  • a 2-pint* or larger container (I used a 1-liter bottle)
  • cheesecloth (I use a gold filter)
  • salt

*You will need to use a container that is at least twice the volume of the cream.

First, you’re going to want to bring the heavy cream to room temperature. Why is that, you ask? Okay, science time! Milk and cream contain oodles of tiny fat molecules called globules (I still can’t decide how I feel about that word, but I think I like it). These globules are surrounded by membranes that prevent them from sticking to each other, keeping your milk and cream un-chunky (gross, I know). You make butter by agitating these membranes until they begin to break down, allowing the fat molecules to stick together (a process more commonly known as churning), and eventually resulting in the separation of butter and buttermilk. These membranes break down quickest at room temperature or slightly below. You can churn chilled cream and it will eventually yield butter as well, it will just take a lot longer. If you’re impatient like me, pour the cream into a wider container and set in a warm area for an hour or two, stirring occasionally. (I also use this time to try to finish a liter of seltzer.)

Once the cream has warmed, pour it into the empty container and seal with a secure lid. Shake the container steadily but not too rapidly (I am really trying to avoid the term “medium pace” here, despite how fitting it would be—thanks a lot, Adam Sandler). If you shake too violently, you risk reincorporating the buttermilk and over-churning the butter, which cannot be undone. As you shake, you’ll feel the cream begin to thicken, like whipped cream. Next, it’s going to start to feel like a big dairy rock. It will seem like your shaking isn’t doing anything at all (and you may need to put a little more “umph” into it). And then, like magic, things will start to separate! I switch to a slower and more emphatic shake at this point in time—forcefully inverting the bottle one way, then the other. Continue shaking for a few more minutes, or until a good amount of buttermilk has separated from the butter (around ¾–1 cup).

Remove the top from the container. Place the cheesecloth or gold filter over the opening and strain out the buttermilk. (Reserve the buttermilk for delicious pancake- or biscuit-related uses.) Now, you need to rinse the butter to remove any lingering buttermilk, which can cause your butter to spoil quickly. (Confession: I actually forgot to do this and didn’t remember I was supposed to until I started writing this post. My butter has survived so far [it has been about a week], but it’s still an important part of the process that should not be bypassed.) Fill your container with very cold water until it just covers the butter, then drain out through the cheesecloth. Repeat this process a number of times (around 7), until the drained water is clear. Remove the butter from the container (if you’re using a bottle, just cut the top off) and transfer it to a large wooden cutting board. I actually used a plastic cutting board, which was a mistake. (Is it obvious that it’s been a while since I’ve done this?) You want to use something semi-porous that’s capable of absorbing a little liquid.

Using a wooden spoon, press your butter down into a large, flattened pancake. As you do this, you’ll notice liquid oozing out from the butter. Your cutting board should absorb some of that, but you can also use a paper towel to lightly dab away any excess. Gather butter back into a ball and press flat again. Continue to do this until you have removed most of the liquid. Before you gather up your last butter pancake, add some salt to it (about ¼ teaspoon). This will also ward off spoilage.

And now, grab the nearest piece of bread and slather it with fresh butter! It’s good, isn’t it? It isn’t exactly practical to make for use in cooking or baking, but it’s definitely worth the time and effort as a table-bound, buttering butter. (*Ahem*, a Thanksgiving table, perhaps?) There’s no reason this shouldn’t make an appearance at Thanksgiving, or any holiday, for that matter. It can be made days in advance, it’s easily transportable, and it’s delicious. Done and done.

Butternut Squash Alfredo

For the record, I love butter. Love it. So for me to replace it with something else—especially something healthy—the end result has to be delicious. And this certainly is.

Last fall, I was going crazy for roasted butternut squash. Then one day, I happened upon a recipe for a butternut squash and parmesan sauce. I’d never thought about puréeing the thing before, but it seemed like a potentially yummy idea. I decided to try making a faux alfredo, leaving out butter entirely.  And oh my, was it good! I’m not going to say it was better than alfredo (I feel like a statement claiming anything to be better than alfredo might potentially be blasphemous), but it is equally good, in a different way. The squash gives it a nice richness and depth of flavor—it’s a surprise to find out that there is no butter in it whatsoever. And it’s healthy (or, not as unhealthy), so you can justify snacking on the leftovers incessantly (and there will be leftovers—this yields a lot of sauce). If you don’t like leftovers and you aren’t feeding a family of 8, I recommend cutting this recipe in half.

Butternut Squash Alfredo

yield: approx. 4 cups of sauce

  • 1 medium-sized butternut squash (approx. 3–4 lbs)
  • 1 ½ cups of half & half (or more, if sauce seems too thick)
  • 1 cup of fresh parmesan cheese, finely grated
  • 2 tsp. salt

Preheat oven to 425°. Cut squash in half lengthwise. Scrape out seeds and pulp. Arrange squash in a pan, cut side down (you may need to halve your halves or use two pans if you can’t get it to fit). Cover with tinfoil and roast for 45 minutes, until squash is tender.

Remove squash from oven and let cool. Once it is cool enough to handle, scrape out soft squash meat with a spoon. Combine squash, half & half, parmesan, and salt in a blender or food processor and purée until smooth (using an immersion blender would work fine as well). Add sauce to whatever pasta dish you’d like! I’ve used this as a sauce for lasagna before, and it was quite good. My favorite way to use it, however, is in a sort of faux mac & cheese. I cook an entire package of chicciole pasta (they hold sauce well and they look like screaming faces), steam one small package of frozen peas, saute one medium-sized head of broccoli (cut into small florets), combine everything (including sauce) together, distribute between two baking dishes, sprinkle breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese over top, and bake for 20–30 minutes. So good! Because it’s so tasty, I’m having trouble envisioning other ways to use this sauce. I welcome suggestions!

BASIC EGG PASTA DOUGH

When I learned how easy it was to make fresh pasta dough, I couldn’t believe it. Just mix together some flour and eggs, and knead for a bit? Yeah, I think I can handle that.

So, what can you do with this? Many, many things. Roll it out to make ravioli or lasagna. Tear off little blobs and smush your thumb into them to make orecchiette. Mix it with potato to make gnocchi. Run it through a pasta crank to make spaghetti. The list goes on! I’ve even entertained the idea of rolling out the dough, slicing it into thin strips, rounding them out, and wrapping them around a skewer to make fusilli. (I’ll save that project for when I start to get the dead-of-winter crazies).

A few notes about fresh pasta dough:

— If you’re rolling out pasta dough by hand, you will find that the dough becomes difficult to work with after a couple minutes. Whenever you are kneading, rolling out, or working dough in any way, you are aggravating the glutens in the flour, causing them to form and strengthen. This is why the dough becomes increasingly elastic. To fix this, simply cover it with a damp tea towel and leave it alone for a few minutes. The glutens will relax, and the dough will be easy to work with once again.

— If you’re using a pasta crank, you will want to divide your dough into four pieces. Cover three with a damp tea towel. Set your crank to the widest setting (usually 1). Run your first piece through. Fold it into thirds (like a business letter) and run it through on the same setting again. Repeat until you have a smooth dough (around 7–10 times). Set the crank to the next thinnest setting and run dough through once. Continue until you’ve reached the desired thickness for your pasta. (Don’t try to skip settings. You’ll just wind up with a dough pile-up in your machine.)

— Fresh pasta cooks much quicker than the regular ol’ dried versions. Keep an eye on it. A few minutes in boiling water is all you need.

Basic Egg Pasta Dough

2 cups of all-purpose flour
3 large eggs
olive oil if/as needed

Sift flour into a large bowl or onto a pastry board and make a well in the center. Crack eggs into the well. Using a fork, beat eggs and begin to pull flour into liquid.

Once you can no longer mix with a fork, knead dough on a well-floured surface until smooth and elastic (8–10 minutes). (If dough feels a bit dry, add a little bit of olive oil when kneading.) Cover dough with a wet tea towel and let rest for 10 minutes. If you won’t be using it right away, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate. I’ve read that you can keep fresh pasta dough in the fridge for 2 days, but I don’t recommend more than 24 hours, as the dough will start to turn a weird greyish-brown color. If you won’t be using it within one day, just toss it in the freezer.

PUMPKIN OATMEAL CHOCOLATE-CHIP COOKIES

I spent the past week house sitting for my parents in rural, upstate New York. Which means I went through several bottles of wine, struggled to keep my sanity while waiting for pages to load on a dial-up internet connection, and spent my evenings watching crime-drama television. My days, however, were filled with baking and photography. My parents have a great kitchen. There’s plenty of counter space, tons of baking supplies, and all of the kitchen gadgets I could ever need. And then for photography, there’s the sun room . . .

Oh what a great room. And the cookies turned out super yummy. In my opinion, they’re a totally viable breakfast treat (oats!). The only disappointing thing about all of this was that I accidentally left all of these cookies (along with all of the pumpkin molasses cookies I also made) in a bag in the kitchen. Luckily, I have a mother who understands the importance of cookies, and she sent the off in the mail the next day.

Pumpkin Oatmeal Chocolate-Chip Cookies
(adapted from Pumpkin: A Superfood for All 12 Months of the Year)

yield: approximately 5 dozen

  • 3 cups of oats
  • 1 ½ cups of flour
  • 1 cup of brown sugar
  • ¾ cup of granulated sugar
  • ¾ cup of pumpkin
  • 1 cup (2 sticks) of butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1 ½ cups of chocolate chips

Preheat your oven to 350°. Combine butter and sugar until beat until fluffy. Add pumpkin, eggs, and vanilla and beat until well combined. Add all remaining ingredients except for the oats and chocolate chips and mix on low until a well-blended batter forms. Stir in oats and chips.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (it actually helps to use two, so you can prep one while the other is in the oven). Drop tablespoon-sized rounds of batter onto the sheet. These cookies don’t spread too much, so you can put them relatively close together. Bake 12-15 minutes, until you can see some light browning on the bottom. Cool on a wire rack.

PUMPKIN MOLASSES COOKIES

I am really trying to cram in all of the pumpkin recipes I possibly can! I’ve seen it used in entrees like pasta or pizza, but I just can’t seem to get past the baked goods. There’s still time though. We’ll see.

I was planning on making pumpkin whoopie pies last week, but then I found this recipe. I’m a total sucker for molasses cookies and their chewy, spicy yumminess. And adding pumpkin to them? Even better. But what sealed the deal for me was the mention of bacon grease being substituted for butter. What? Bacon grease in baked goods? Why didn’t I think of that before?

 

I only had a couple tablespoons of bacon grease to use in this recipe. I am curious what it would be like to use a 50/50 combo of grease and butter (or 100% grease!). I am listing the amount of butter you would need if it was the only fat you were using in the recipe, but you can substitute bacon grease in equal amounts if you wish. Because I used a rather small amount, I’m not sure if it made any difference in taste. But the cookies were definitely yummy. And it’s bacon grease, can it really make something taste bad? No. Nuh uh.

Pumpkin Molasses Cookies
(adapted from Pumpkin: A Superfood for All 12 Months of the Year)

yield: approximately 2 ½ dozen

  • ½ cup of butter
  • 1 cup sugar, plus more for rolling (if you have it, I recommend turbinado sugar for rolling)
  • ½ cup of pumpkin
  • ¼ cup of molasses
  • 1 egg
  • 2 ⅓ cups of flour
  • 2 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tsp ginger
  • 1 tsp cloves
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Beat butter in a large bowl until fluffy. Add sugar, pumpkin, molasses, and egg and mix until well combined. Add remaining ingredients and beat until a well-blended batter forms. Refrigerate dough for at least 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350°. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper (or two, if you’d like to prep a second sheet while the first one bakes). Fill a bowl with your rolling sugar. Roll tablespoon-sized balls of batter in sugar until well coated and place on sheet. The cookies will spread, so give them a couple inches of room. Bake 10–12 minutes, or until cookies look cracked. Let them sit on the sheet for a few minutes after removing them from the oven, then transfer to a wire rack to cool.

Chai-iced Pumpkin Cookies

I’d like to take a moment to talk to you about a serious addiction I had many, many years ago. Absurd amounts of money went towards supporting my habit. I would indulge at least once—and sometimes twice—a day. I’d sneak away during lunch breaks to get a fix. I even tried to drag my friends and co-workers into my world of obsession.

My addiction: Starbucks Pumpkin Chai Lattes. I know everyone is all about the pumpkin espresso lattes as soon as fall hits, but I’m telling you, pumpkin chai lattes are where it’s at. Imagine drinking a warm cup of extra-spicy pumpkin panna cotta—it’s that good. I’m going to stop myself right here before I go full throttle on the latte love, because this post is about cookies, not lattes!

Point is, I’ve become quite the coffee and tea snob since I moved to Vermont a few years ago. I turn my nose up at coffee that isn’t roasted locally. I want nothing to do with chai that comes from a box. I know, I know—groan if you must, but it’s an unavoidable side effect of having a barista brother who also roasts coffee at a local shop, and a boyfriend who manages the café at another. (I even feel the need to put the acute accent on the “e” in “café”—it’s that bad.) If it’s any consolation, I still load my coffee up with cream and sugar, so there’s hope that I may not become completely insufferable!

Wait, am I still not talking about cookies? The real point is, I still crave that delicious pumpkin and chai combination. And if it works in drinks, it must work in baked goods as well, no? Yes. The answer is definitely “yes!”

I chose a more cake-like cookie for this recipe because it reminded me of the iced apple cookies my mother makes. And they are indeed very, very similar—in both texture and deliciousness. Just a warning: the icing can be a bit intense when it covers the entire top of the cookies. So if you like something that’s slightly less sweet, I’d suggest drizzling the icing over top, rather than dipping the cookie directly into it.

Chai-Iced Pumpkin Cookies
(adapted from Allrecipes)

yield: around 3 dozen

Cookies

  • 2 ½ cups of all-purpose flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • ½ tsp nutmeg
  • ½ tsp cloves
  • ½ tsp salt
  • ½ cup of butter (1 stick), softened
  • 1 ½ cups of sugar
  • 1 cup of pumpkin purée
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Icing

  • 2 cups of confectionery sugar
  • 3 tbsp milk
  • 1 tbsp melted butter
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 chai tea bag

Preheat your oven to 350°. Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices, and salt in a bowl and set aside.

In a separate bowl, cream together butter and sugar. Beat in pumpkin, egg, and vanilla until creamy, then mix in dry ingredients until well-combined.

If you batter seems a bit soft, stick it in the fridge for about half an hour (I had to do this). When ready, drop tablespoons of batter onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake cookies for 15–20 minutes, or until they begin to have just a hint of golden brown around the edges. Remove from oven and cool complete before frosting.

For the icing: Melt butter in a saucepan and add milk. Steep chai tea bag in the liquid for 5 minutes, then discard. Combine together with sugar, vanilla, and milk, and mix until a smooth icing forms.

Dip the cookies if you have a real sweet tooth, or drizzle the icing over top with a fork if you’d like to dial it back a little. Try to avoid immediately packing a ton of them into a bag in order to deliver them to a friend, like I did. (Big tasty mess!)

SPAGHETTI SQUASH WITH HOMEMADE ALFREDO

Spaghetti squash—what a neat vegetable! It’s low in calories, easy to make, and a nice alternative to pasta. And, if you’re like me, that whole low-in-calories thing means you can justify covering it in something like homemade alfredo sauce. The first time I had spaghetti squash, it was prepared this way, and that’s how I’ve made it ever since.

Note: although not included in my recipe below, I highly recommend using shrimp in this dish. (I meant to do so, and then smacked myself in the head when I got home from the grocery store and realized I had forgotten it.) I use around 1 lb. of 31–40 count shrimp. I also like to add mushrooms and avocado, but I don’t recommend doing so if you’re going to have leftovers, as they won’t keep very well.

Spaghetti Squash with Homemade Alfredo

one 3 1/2–4 lb. spaghetti squash
6 large carrots, peeled and sliced width-wise
2 large broccoli crowns, cut into spears
4 large garlic cloves
2 tablespoons of olive oil
homemade alfredo sauce (recipe below)
Preheat your oven to 400°. And now for my favorite part: stabbing! With a sharp knife, stab a bunch of holes on all sides of the squash. Place in the oven and bake for around 40 minutes, flipping once half-way through.

While the squash is baking, heat oil in a skillet and saute garlic for 1 minute. Add carrots, cook for 4 minutes, then broccoli and cook for another 8 minutes, or until carrots have softened. Remove from heat and set aside.

When the squash is ready, remove it from the oven and let it cool for 10–15 minutes. (I use this time to prepare the alfredo.) Cut off ends and slice open lengthwise. Be careful! Even though you’ve let it cool, that thing is still h-o-t on the inside, and there’s plenty of steam just waiting to escape. I gave my right hand a proper steam-burning a few years ago while lifting a cookie sheet off a pan of simmering curry. (What? I didn’t have a top big enough to fit.) You do not want a steam burn—take my word for it. Remove the seeds and discard (or set aside, if you’d like to roast them later). Using a fork, begin scraping the squash away from the sides.

 

Scrape with caution. I go nuts trying to get every last bit of squash meat out, and have accidentally incorporated chunks of the outer skin into the strands. Yuck. Empty squash into a large bowl and mix in your sauteed vegetables. Cover with alfredo and serve.

Homemade Alfredo Sauce
(I can’t recall where I found this recipe originally, but I have tweaked it over the years.)

1/4 cup of butter (1/2 stick)
1 cup of half & half or heavy cream
1 1/3 cups of freshly-grated parmesan cheese
1/4 cup of fresh flat-leaf Italian parsley, chopped
a few pinches of nutmeg
Notes: I did not use garlic in the sauce as there was already garlic in the spaghetti squash dish. If there was not, I would have crushed 2 cloves of garlic and added them with the cheese. Also, while I will be lazy from time to time and use whatever cream and butter I happen to have lying around, using the fancy organic kinds will make your sauce that much more amazing. But if there’s one ingredient you definitely don’t want to cut corners on, it’s the cheese. Get yourself a nice big chunk of quality parmesan. I recommend grating it through one of the finer slots, as it blends better when it’s more powder-like. You can also find fresh, finely-grated parm in the cheese section of most co-ops/organic food stores. Please do not use that pasta-aisle, cheese + potassium sorbate & anti-caking agents stuff!

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium-low heat. Add half & half/cream and allow it to simmer for a few minutes. Add cheese and whisk until sauce thickens. Stir in nutmeg and parsley. That’s it!