Vanilla Extract

I’ve been fascinated by making my own vanilla extract since reading about it on several of the different blogs I read–it seemed to be the thing to do last summer, and I never got around to doing it.  But a few weeks ago Olive Nation had a 20% off coupon that made purchasing a bunch of whole vanilla beans seem a little less daunting.   They arrived really quickly, and as soon as we cut into the vaccum sealed back, the whole first floor instantly smelled amazingly delicious.  We were certainly impressed with the product, and I should have known that a company from my home state would be exceptional!

After reading a bit on the best way to do this, we settled on the “soak the cut in half beans in cheap-ass vodka for 4-6 months” method.  For a half gallon of vodka, you need 40 vanilla beans, and all you do is split them in half, but in a jar, pour the vodka over it, and put in a cool dark place and forget about it.  In 4- 6 months you revisit the jars, strain, bottle the liquid and enjoy.  The leftover beans should still have a little oomph left in them, so you can dry them off and stick in sugar to create vanilla sugar (AMAZEBALLS).

Why go through all this trouble just to say you have homemade vanilla?  Two reasons:

  1. It’s cheaper.  Like, significantly cheaper.  Even though it’s seems like a lot upfront (I’m in it about $35 dollars at this point), it’ll end up being about 50 cents and ounce once all is said and done.  Have you priced out pure vanilla extract lately?  Last I looked it was about $4.26 plus tax for two ounces.
  2. Do you really know what’s in your vanilla extract?  I looked for giggles on my off brand big-box store vanilla and saw the following, “Vanilla bean extractives in water, alcohol, corn syrup”.  Um, I spend $3.50 for “pure” vanilla extract, and you put corn syrup in it? Really? Something doesn’t sound right with this one….

The concoction is currently sitting in the basement curing away, but we’ll be sure to report the final result once we hit that 6 month mark.  In the meantime I’m dreaming up ways to use up the remaining beans, and I think I’ve convinced the fam to make some more when were up visiting in a few weeks.  I think we have a lot of ice cream and vanilla scented jams coming our way!

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Coffee Cake: “Summer-ized”

Cherries have always been something that I knew I could bring into the house and no matter where I set them, they were mine.  JGL swore up and down, “I don’t like cherries.”  Even after all of my cherry craze last year, he would not budge.  So when I splurged after playing with my favorite god-daughter last week and brought home local cherries, I had no fears about if they would suddenly go missing.  Those cherries were mine and mine alone!

Until I made the mistake of asking JGL to hold a handful for me on the porch while I got up to grab something.  When I came back he had a stem in one hand and a contemplative look on his face.  “They taste like plums.”

Well shit.  JGL got brave, and now I’m sharing cherries.  Which isn’t all bad because it does allow me to try cherry based recipes, and for that I should be grateful.

Diving right into this new-to-JGL-fruit, today we revisited coffee cake.  I had read somewhere about replacing the cinnamon sugar filling with jam, and with JGL’s new found love of cherries, we used the cherry jam I made last summer.   In addition to the jam, I used up the last of the cake flour I had on had from a chocolate cake experiment.

The end result was a finer crumb than my normal coffee cake, and an incredibly moist slice.  Having the jam as the filling made the coffee cake taste less like the holidays, and more like the summer.  This is going to be perfect tomorrow morning with our morning coffee, or maybe even tonight as a late night snack with a dollop of vanilla ice cream.

Summer Coffee Cake
Adapted from here
 
1/4 lb butter
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups cake flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup sour cream
 
Filling:
Cherry jam
 
Cream butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.  Mix dry ingredients together in a separate bowl.  Add dry ingredients to the sugar mixture alternately with sour cream.  Put half of the batter into buttered tube pan, and spoon filling on top of batter.  Put the other half of the batter on top, and smooth.  Bake at 375 oven for 40-50 minutes.  Cool on rack, then serve.  
 

Strawberry Icebox Pie

I’ve been in a bit of a culinary rut, and I’m the first to admit it.  Making dinner and such has been more like a chore than something I’ve been looking forward to.  I blame work and not enough “me time,” but after sleeping in for the past few days and catching up on getting the house back to “base beauty zero,” and an excellent batch of blueberry muffins  I’m feeling more like myself.

So we tackled pie the other day with the local strawberries I picked.  I have a go-to strawberry pie recipe, but one of the key ingredients in it is soda, and since JGL and I have both attempted to sworn the stuff off, it seemed silly to use it in a recipe.  So naturally we whipped out the Epicurious app, and I was  delighted to find a soda-free strawberry icebox pie. It has very few ingredients (a plus!) and honestly set up better than my old pie.  Bonus?  I got to use some of the botched whole wheat pie crust I had frozen for a rainy day back in December (that I “neglected” to blog about).  Let’s just say it was a first attempt at using whole wheat pastry flour AND the first time trying to use a food processor to blend–end result was a delicious pressed crust, but one that wouldn’t roll to save my life.

But it’s perfect for this pie, and this pie is perfect for this time of year–sweet, fresh, and full of strawberry flavor.

Strawberry Icebox Pie 
Adapted from Bon Appetit, April 2003 (as found on Epicurious)
 
1 Crust 
5 Cups quartered and hulled strawberries
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
2 Tbs fresh lemon Juice
 
Place 2 Cups of the strawberries in a medium sauce pan and mash until chunky, like you were making jam (a potato masher works well).  Add sugar, cornstarch and lemon juice.  Stir over medium high heat until sugar dissolves and mixture boils and thickens, about 3 minutes.
 
Transfer mixture to a bowl and cool to room temperature.  Then add the remaining berries and stir to mix.  Mount into your pie crust, and chill pie until cold and set.  
 
Would be EXCELLENT with whipped cream!

Honey Cake, revisited

The Honey Cake we made the other week screamed Easter to me.  It was also the perfect excuse to try to revamp it a bit.  This time around I nixed the pineapple and macerated just strawberries, and used the juice they made to pour over the finished cake instead of using orange juice.   I also took out the nuts and replaced that with 1/4 cup sour cream mixed in with about 1 Tbs of white grits.  The end result was a more even flavor, and JGL even said he liked this one better.  It’s certainly a keeper!

Honey Cake with Berries and Cream, Take Two
Adapted from BHG, April 2012 pg 180
 
2 Tbsp honey, divided
2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
2 pints strawberries sliced
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup sour cream mixed with 
1 TBS white hominy grits
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup honey
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup cream cheese
1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbsp honey, divided
 
Preheat oven to 325. Butter and flour a 9 by 1 1/2 round cake pan.
 
Combine strawberries in a bowl and stir in the 2 Tbsp of honey and balsamic vinegar. Set aside and let macerate while you make the cake.
 
In a medium bowl combine flour, cornmeal, sour cream/grits mixture, baking powder and salt; put to one side. In a large bowl beat butter for 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup of the honey and beat into butter until nice and fluffy. Slowly beat in eggs, one at a time. Add 3/4 of the flour mixture and mix until it just barely comes together. Add milk and remaining flour mixture and fold in with a spatula until combined (being careful not to over mix). Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes (in my oven it took more like 45-50 minutes to get it to set).
 
When cake is finished and has cooled in the pan for about 5 minutes, remove from pan and place on your cake plate. Poke cake with a toothpick to create multiple holes on the top, then brush on the juice from your strawberries so it absorbs into the cake. Set cake aside to cool completely.
 
Just before serving, create topping. Combine cream cheese and 2 Tbps of honey, beat on high for 30 seconds. Add whipping cream and beat until soft mounds form. Spoon cream onto cake, and then top with fruit.

Honey Cake and Spring

We turned the heat off in the house over a week ago. The windows have been letting the perfect 75 degree air flow through our house taking any stale winter blues that were left lingering. In essence, it not only feels like spring, but it feels absolutely invigorating and inspiring!

Nothing says spring to me more than the return of fresh fruit to the grocery store and markets. Our strawberry plants are starting to bloom, and the strawberries in the store are a good second best while we wait for our own crop to develop. We love macerating berries in honey, and as soon as I saw the below recipe I knew we would have to try it. It is just about as perfect as Spring 2012 is shaping up to be–a dense cake with added texture from the cornmeal topped with folds of whipped cream and beautiful berries.

I say take one below because I want to try a few things with it, such as omitting the nuts and playing around with the glaze. It’s amazing to start with, but I think it can be improved. Plus we have two willing taste testers at the L. Homestead–anything for culinary research 😉

Happy Noshing!

 

Pecan-Honey Cake with Berries and Cream, Take One
Adapted from BHG, April 2012 pg 180
2 Tbsp honey, divided
2 Tbsp Balsamic Vinegar
1 pint strawberries sliced
1/2 pineapple, sliced into pieces about the same size as your strawberry slices
1 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup cornmeal
1/4 cup pecans, ground
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
3/4 cup honey
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 Tbsp orange juice
1/2 cup cream cheese
1 cup whipping cream
2 Tbsp honey, divided
Preheat oven to 325. Butter and flour a 9 by 1 1/2 round cake pan.
Combine strawberries and pineapple (or whatever fruit is fresh and tastes good to you) in a bowl and stir in the 2 Tbsp of honey and balsamic vinegar. Set aside and let macerate while you make the cake.
In a medium bowl combine flour, cornmeal, nuts, baking powder and salt; put to one side. In a large bowl beat butter for 30 seconds. Add 1/2 cup of the honey and beat into butter until nice and fluffy. Slowly beat in eggs, one at a time. Add 3/4 of the flour mixture and mix until it just barely comes together. Add milk and remaining flour mixture and fold in with a spatula until combined (being careful not to over mix). Pour batter into prepared pan and bake for 30-35 minutes (in my oven it took more like 45-50 minutes to get it to set).
Meanwhile combine 1/4 cup honey and orange juice in a small saucepan and set on stove on low to heat through (if combining just before cake comes out, you can turn up the heat to warm it through quicker). When cake is finished and has cooled in the pan for about 5 minutes, remove from pan and place on your cake plate. Poke cake with a toothpick to create multiple holes on the top, then brush on the honey-orange juice so it absorbs into the cake. Set cake aside to cool completely.
Just before serving, create topping. Combine cream cheese and 2 Tbps of honey, beat on high for 30 seconds. Add whipping cream and beat until soft mounds form. Spoon cream onto cake, and then top with fruit.

Cranberry Upside Down Cake

I come from the land of cranberries.  Growing up there never seemed to be a shortage of the tart and sweet berries.  I have always had a penchant for them, and I’m not picky as to what form they come in–dried, fresh, in the can, you name it and I like it.  And for me, it’s not quite the holidays without them.

This Christmas I was charged with contributing to the dessert table, and after much hemming and hawing I landed on the Cranberry Upside-Down Cake that I had scoped out in my mom’s newspaper during Thanksgiving.  It felt like the thing to bake for the holidays, and I was thrilled to try something new.  It turned out extra sweet and not too tart, and the batter was buttery and a great balance to the cranberries.  I would absolutely make this again, and it would be PHENOMENAL with some extra vanilla-y ice cream.

Cranberry Upside-Down Cake
Adapted from the November 23, 2011 New Hampshire Union Leader, Page C3  
 
8 TBS butter at room temperature 
1 cup sugar (divided)
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
dash of nutmeg, ginger, and cloves
1 3/4 cup fresh cranberries
1 large egg
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup unsweetened almond milk (or regular milk is fine!)
 
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Rub bottom and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan with 2 TBS butter.  In a small bowl, whisk 1/2 cup sugar and spices together, and then sprinkle evenly over the bottom of the pan.  Pour cranberries in next and shake pan to distribute them evenly over the pan.
 
Cream butter and 1/2 cup sugar until light and fluffy;  Add egg and vanilla and beat until well combined.  In a separate bowl combine flour, bp and salt.  Add flour mixture to butter mixture in batches, and then alternate adding with almond milk until well combined (batter will be nice and thick).
 
Spoon batter over the cranberries and smooth over the top.  Place on a cookie sheet and place in oven; bake 30-35 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean from the center.  When done, remove from oven and cool on wire rack for 20 minutes.  Run a knife around the edge of the cake and invert onto a pretty serving plate.  
 

Coffee Cake

Years ago my grandmother gave me a bundt pan.  When I first moved out on my own I brought it with me, and it has served me well over the years–creating cakes, ice rings, flower-pot holders–all the good things a good bundt pan should do.  This time of year it’s not quite the holidays in my family unless you’ve made a boatload of Gram’s Sour Cream Coffee Cakes, and the bundt pan, particularly THIS bundt pan, creates a perfectly shaped cake, and it bears all of the battle scars of a well-loved kitchen tool to prove it.

But I lost it.  I went to make cakes last year and couldn’t find the blessed thing.  I had a freak out, and tore apart every cabinet and every shelf in the house, and tried to retrace my bundt-steps, and finally concluded that the thing grew legs and walked off.  I was inconsolable for about 24 hours, and then tried to accept my failure at handling precious heirlooms, and then gave up on coffee cake making all together.

This week I made my mind up to suck it up, use the other bundt pan, and get on with my life.  I reached into the cabinet that holds those pans, wrapped my fingers around one and pulled, and much to my disbelief Gram’s pan came out.  I have no idea where it was hiding, but like an old friend with whom the conversation is easy no matter how long you’ve been apart, this pan and I kicked some serious coffee cake ass.

The batter for these comes together super quick, and it’s very easy to bust out several (I made six in one day…eep!) in one session.  I love giving them as neighborhood gifts, but they also make welcomed additions at potlucks, breakfasts, or my favorite, Christmas Morning Breakfast.

Gram’s Sour Cream Coffee Cake
1/4 lb butter
1 cup sugar
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla (or for a nice twist almond extract)
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 cup sour cream
 
Filling:
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup chopped nuts (optional)
Cream butter, sugar, eggs and vanilla.  Mix dry ingredients together in a separate bowl.  Add dry ingredients to the sugar mixture alternately with sour cream.  Put half of the batter into buttered tube pan, and sprinkle filling liberally over batter.  Put the other half of the batter on top, and then top with filling.  Bake at 375 oven for 35-40 minutes.  Cool on rack, sugared side up, then serve.  
 
GAL’s note on filling:  I mix this in triplicate in a small tupperware container so it’s always on hand.  Makes for great cinnamon sugar toast or for when you want to whip up a quick apple pie.  

Cran-Apple Sauce

There are several things I miss about living New England, including a white Thanksgiving, using your garage/mudroom/outside space as a spare refrigerator during the holiday season, and the varieties of Apples I have a hard time finding in VA.  There’s more, but these three were glaringly obvious this past week as we spent the Thanksgiving Holiday with my side of the family.

My folks are fixing up an old farm house, and their mudroom is just glorious.  Not only does it get cold enough to truly serve as a spare fridge, they also have a ton of apples in storage out there.  We’ve been snacking on my favorites, MacIntoshes and Cortlands, and making pies and apple pie cake in the spare moments in between.  And thanks to a fire sale of cranberries at the grocery store we were able to make Cran-Apple Sauce, a long standing family favorite.

I very vividly remember coming home from school in the afternoon and Dad having a pot of apple sauce bubbling away on the stove, and there was nothing like a warm bowl of apple sauce after a particularly cold hockey practice or a rough day at school.  This is another one of these recipes that doesn’t have specific measurements and you can adjust it to taste, and if you feel particularly resourceful it cans beautifully.

Cran-Apple Sauce

Apples, peeled and cored,  to fill a large pot about 3/4 full

1 bag of cranberries

1 cup apple cider

About 1-2 cups sugar

Splash of lemon juice

Cinnamon, Nutmeg, ginger to taste

Add apples, lemon juice and cider to the pot and bring to a boil; reduce to a simmer, and add sugar, spices, and cranberries.  Stir and cook down until apples and cranberries are tender (at this stage, you can leave it on the stove on low for a few hours if need be).  Run mixture through a food mill–best when served warm!

When life hands you cider…

One of my favorite stories Mom and Dad tell is about Mom making doughnuts for the first time after they were married.  Dad talks about how fragrant, delicious, and telling the smell was wafting from the back porch, and as he made he way around the house trying to find my mother how he was just completely filled with dread, fearing the worst.  When he finally found her on the back porch frying away in the Fry Daddy, he asked her, “who died?”  And when she replied, “Nobody, why?”, he retorted, “because my Mom only makes doughnuts to go to a funeral!”

Now, I’ve made doughnuts plenty of times without having a funeral to go to, but in case you’re ever wondering, doughnuts (or in this case, Death Donuts) are really the perfect food for such an occasion.  The last time I made doughnuts on our porch here in VA, it was legit Death Donuting for a neighbor that at the time we didn’t know so well, but he had just lost his dad.  Today, though, it was just for the same reason my Mom made the doughnuts that fall day–I just wanted doughnuts.

That and we had some leftover cider that was just on the verge of going hard and I needed to find a way to use it.  After a bit of searching I found an amazing recipe for Apple Cider Doughnuts on the ever amazing Smitten Kitchen blog.  They’re crisp, sweet, spicy, and they were perfect with legit hard cider on this most perfect Sunday afternoon.  We left the actual doughnuts alone in terms of toppings, but shook the doughnut holes with some cinnamon-nutmeg sugar.

Whether it’s Death Donuts or I-Just-Want-Doughnuts, the best thing you can do with these baked gems is share them–my favorite way is to put them in a double-bagged lunch sized paper bag and hand over while still warm.  No matter what the situation is, your neighbors will thank you.

Apple Cider Doughnuts

Adapted from Smitten Kitchen

1 cup apple cider
3 1/2 cups whole wheat flour, plus additional for the work surface
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
4 1/2 stick butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs
1/2 cup buttermilk

Vegetable oil or shortening for frying

In a saucepan over medium or medium-low heat, reduce the apple cider to about 1/4 cup, 20 to 30 minutes. Set aside to cool.

Meanwhile, combine the flour, baking powder and soda, cinnamon, salt and nutmeg. Because I used whole wheat flour, I did sift all of the dry ingredients together.

In a separate bowl, beat the butter and granulated sugar until the mixture is smooth. Add the eggs and stir until the mixture is thoroughly mixed. Reduce the speed to low and gradually add the reduced apple cider and the buttermilk, mixing just until combined. Add the flour mixture and continue to mix just until the dough comes together.

Line two baking sheets with parchment or wax paper and sprinkle them generously with flour. Turn the dough onto one of the sheets and sprinkle the top with flour. Flatten the dough with your hands until it is about 1/2 inch thick. Use more flour if the dough is still wet. Transfer the dough to the freezer until it is slightly hardened, about 20 minutes.

Pull the dough out of the freezer.If you have a doughnut hole cutter, use that to cut out the doughnuts.  If not, a biscuit cutter and a milk cap will do the trick!  Place the cut doughnuts and doughnut holes onto the second sheet pan. Refrigerate the doughnuts for 20 to 30 minutes. Re-roll the scraps of dough left from the first batch, refrigerate them briefly and cut additional doughnuts from the dough.  Refrigerate those as well.

This is the time to man your battle stations–I recommend frying outside simply because then your house doesn’t smell like grease and a doughnut shop.  Take cooling racks and set a good amount of newspaper underneath them (to catch the grease).  Line the cooling racks with paper towels, and be sure to have a doughnut retrieval tool (my favorite is a Spider Kitchen Skimmer).  A timer is also helpful if you’re anything like me and get distracted when counting out 60 second intervals.

I used an electric fryer, but if you don’t have one you can simply used a heavy pot filled with about 3 inches of melted shortening–just be sure to have a candy thermometer so you can keep track of the temperature.  Fill fryer up with about 3/4’s of the tub of shortening, and turn on to let melt.  When the doughnuts are ready to be pulled from the fridge, turn the fryer up to 350-375 degrees.

Carefully add a few doughnuts to the oil, being careful not to crowd the fryer, and fry until golden brown, about 60 seconds. Turn the doughnuts over and fry until the other side is golden, 30 to 60 seconds. Drain on paper towels for a minute after the doughnuts are fried.  These are best when served warm, but they will keep for a few days as well (if you can keep yourself and your family out of them!).

Quince-Lemon Marmalade

My travel for work is starting to come to a close for the fall.  I have traversed all throughout Southwest Virginia, and then made two loops around my home stomping grounds of New England.  I always come back from these jaunts excited to be back home, and more often than not inspired by something new that I saw or ate.  Like the Lemon-Orzo soup with a hint of kale that I am going to have to replicate, or the incredible mum and pansy displays I saw while driving through the suburbs of Maine and Connecticut, or the plethora of pumpkin spiced lattes and pumpkin spiced muffins and pumpkin spiced donuts.

Inspiration, however, can come from funny little places, too.  I got to visit with my Mom and Dad for a hot minute over the weekend, and having not been to their New Hampshire home during this part of October before, I was taken by a little bush up front that had tons of fruit on it.  After asking what it was, Mom said, “Quince.  But your grandfather says the fruit is inedible.”

Quince!  I’d read about this power packed fruit that to the normal person just passing by is too tart to eat off of the bush.  But quince has an incredible abundance of pectin–so much so that in the days before I could run to the grocery store and grab a packet of pectin, folks would use quince boiled down to produce it’s own pectin.  So much so that the origin of the word Marmalade is actually derived from quince (the Portuguese word for quince is marmelo, and marmelada was originally made with the quince fruit).

After giving this exact lecture to my mother, she agreed to let us try to make something with the fruit, and after a bit of searching, she came up with the Quince-Lemon Marmalade Recipe below.  It was easy, relatively quick, and let me tell you–it’s some of the best looking and smelling jam/marmalade I’ve ever seen!  The quince cooks down into a beautifully rosy color, and the day after we processed it the whole concoction had jelled up beautifully.

Next on my to do list is to see if I can try to grow one of these gems in Virginia, and to see if the folks can preserve or freeze the remainder of their harvest for a can-a-palooza at Thanksgiving time.

Quince-Lemon Marmalade

Adapted from Dana McCauley in Cooking Light
OCTOBER 2005

Ingredients

4 cups chopped cored peeled quince (about 1 1/2 pounds)

1/2 lemon, seeded and coarsely chopped

2 cups sugar

2 cups water

2-ish tsps of vanilla

Preparation

  1. Place quince and lemon in a food processor; pulse 10 times or until finely chopped.
  2. Place quince mixture, sugar, water, and vanilla in a large, heavy saucepan. Bring to a boil; reduce heat, and simmer 55 minutes or until reduced to about 3 1/2 cups.
  3. Cool; pour into an airtight container or process in a hot water bath to can for about 20 minutes.
  4. Don’t be tempted to crack open that marmalade!  It needs at least two weeks untouched to fully develop the flavor.  It’ll be worth the wait, I promise!