just make mine vanilla

Love ice cream.
I let myself have that about once a week.
Vanilla.

Tim Tebow


(three old shots from back in 2013 when I was first making my vanilia extract–the longer it sits,
the better it gets…just add a new bean or two over time and top off with the sprit of choice)

I like to cook.
This much we know to be true.

I use to post a good bit about my cooking exploits but over time I’ve obviously shifted my
focus and attention to issues I find more pressing…
issues like those concerning Christianity
and the practicing of our faith in a post-modern, post-Christian era.

However, I will still raise the battle cry over other issues I think pertinent to this good fight
we call life…

Take today for instance…(or yesterday if you’re reading this on Saturday)

I ran to the grocery store to pick up a few items.
I needed some cat food and Grapeseed oil so while I was over in the cooking oil aisle,
I decided I needed to check out the spices.
I needed to peruse the spice area as there seemed to be a mental list somewhere nagging
in my brain, begging me to remember something from this particular section that I needed…

I grabbed some Adobo chili powder.
I’ve never used it before but I’d seen a recipe for slow-simmered chicken…a recipe for chicken tacos…remember, I’m trying to reduce the iron content while looking for foods that will avert the absorption—spicey things supposedly help.

While still perusing, my eyes stopped on a bottle of Vanilla beans.

Ahhh, the mental alarm clock sounded.

Yep, I needed some more beans as I’d used the last two I had in the recently poached pear recipe.
(also a tasty recipe I once posted)

I grabbed the bottle.
There were two measly beans in the bottle.
Vanilla beans are a precious commodity.
But why companies are so chintzy I’ve never figured it out.

I looked at the price—they are usually costly as I’ve paid almost 10 bucks a bottle before,
but I was wondering just how high they might be now.
I do prefer ordering my beans in bulk as it’s cheaper but I needed to have at least two on hand.
One never knows when an unctuous creme brulee is calling…

What to my wandering eyes did appear but a 2 and a 5 joined together…as in
25 dollars for the bottle!!!!!!

WHAT?????

Is this a misprint??? my panicky brain wonders.
I march myself, with the bottle in hand, over to a gal at a register.
“Is this price correct” I practically screamed at the unsuspecting cashier.
She scanned the bottle.
“Oh my gosh” she practically screams back.
“25 dollars for Vanilia beans???? she nervously screams again.

“That’s what I thought” I reply almost exhausted from our heightened sense of distraughment.

I use vanilla beans a lot.

I’ve actually made my own vanilla and bourbon vanilla extracts, a recipe in which
I’ve shared in prior posts from back in 2013.
A homemade vanilla extract is the best of the best!! And it lasts forever.

Making the extract required my having to buy a bunch of beans…
beans I had actually ordered from Amazon–
I used Tahitian and Madagascar beans as each offers a different floral warm scent and taste.

Once home from the store, I decided to go check out the Amazon site,
just to see what they were currently selling my bulk bag of beans for as I was going to order
a new batch just to store for when I needed them—

Immediately I see that 5 beans, just 5 little beans, were going for a whopping 27 bucks.
Which did, however, beat the grocery store’s two beans for 25 bucks.
My regular ordered batch of shrink-wrapped beans was going for…
sit down before I tell you…
1/4 of a pound of beans at $115.00 while a full pound of beans listed for $400!!!!!!!!

For a batch of homemade vanilla extract, you need a good 15 to 20 beans…
of which maturate in a bottle that is large enough to contain them with enough vodka or
bourbon poured over to cover…as they are left to steep until a deep rich brown color
appears and the heady spicy aroma of delicious warmth wafts from the uncorked bottle.

WHAT IN THE WORLD IS GOING ON????? I practically wail.

I immediately race to the trusty all-knowing Google to type in ‘vanilla bean prices’
and sure enough, I found many articles and news stories regarding the exponentially
skyrocketing prices

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/vanilla-bean-shortage-madagascar-drives-up-us-prices/

A precarious commodity that is a fragile commodity.
A product that is prone to drought, fickled growing seasons, poaching, farmers who don’t
allow the pods to fully mature in a race to get the pods to a demanding market and finally
it is simply a matter of time…for it takes three long years for a plant to produce a pod.

According to Wikipedia, vanilla is the second most expensive spice coming in right
behind saffron.
And gathering a ready pod is extremely labor intensive because these pods of
this particular species of the orchid family are each hand pollinated…pod per pod.

Vanilla, just plain old vanilla.

Consider its humble base taste…it is often the brunt of those who refer to things as
just being average..as in vanilla, as in plain jane, as in generic, as in nothing special,
as in the bottom of the list.

Yet vanilla is a great building base—a needed and important humble building block.
Imagine Chocolate chip cookies without that added splash of vanilla.
Think vanilla bean ice-cream, sour cream pound cake, pannacotta, rice pudding,
milkshakes, protein shakes, puddings, eclairs, cookies, candy, yogurt, chewing gum,
cosmetics, perfumes, aromatherapies…the list is nearly endless….
all without their needed vanilla.

There are four main types of vanilla beans used in our consumption: Tahitian, Indonesian,
Mexican and Madagascar

http://www.foodandwine.com/blogs/4-kinds-vanilla-beans-know

There are however those purists out there who do indeed favor the unadulterated flavor
of that simple, smokey, sweet, floral flavor of just plain old fashioned vanilla.
No swirls of caramel, no colorful sprinkles, not bits of cookie or peppermint or toffee,
or chocolate syrup or diced fruit…just simple, plain old vanilla.

So I suppose I might just have a little problem…a little expensive problem…
As we might all just have a largely flavorless problem…

Here’s to hoping the current growing crop thrives…
hopefully in time for this summer’s long-awaited and even yearned for home-churned ice cream…
because it just won’t be summer without a bowl of fresh homemade vanilla ice cream!!!

There is gold and abundance of costly stones, but the lips of knowledge are
a precious jewel.

Proverbs 20:15

Burn, Burning, Burned. . .out!

I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant blaze than it should be stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.”
Jack London

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(one of the culprits on the strands of light / Julie Cook / 2014)

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(the burned out strands in the trash / Julie Cook / 2014)

The presents are wrapped, finally, and the stockings are hung—meaning— what you see is it. . .as in the decorations you see are as far as it goes–So just tell me it looks nice and lets move on. . .
The store is still busy as both time and people seem to keep coming as I’m running on fumes.
So imagine my chagrin when I came home one evening from working the holiday madness, aka retail, plugged in the tree and. . . nothing.
As in no lights.
As in a dark tree.

WHAT?

Too tired to scream, I could be heard mumbling to myself, “it figures”
Yet the girl scout in me knew there had to be some sort of remedy I could rig.
Grabbing two extension cords I began digging ever so gently through a well decorated 10 foot tree in search of the ends of the light cords I had pushed back in the branches to hide their unsightliness during the decoration ritual.
Finding the ends I began unplugging and replugging in an effort to see which cord would light and which would not.

As miracles would have it, I didn’t have to climb around all over the tree, discovering which cord was the culprit with very little wasted time or effort. . . ahhhh.
All I needed to do was to thread one extension cord up through the tree in order to plug in the good cords and run the other extension cords up to the other working cords.

Voila, a mostly lit tree with a dark mid-section—but at this point, I’ll take what I can get.

Getting home late again Thursday evening I scrambled out of the car to a darkened front porch in order to plug the lights in. . .the very ones I labored putting up around the front of the house on that blasted day known as “black friday”. As it was dark and cold, I was hurrying to get the show on the road so I could hurry up and make supper, I plugged in all the extension cords when I suddenly noticed an entire chunk of lights had burned out on the right side of the porch railing.
UGH!!!!
Great.
Now the house looks lopsided.
Clamoring around in the dark, I could be heard telling the dark of night, the lights that worked, the dead lights and anything else that was perhaps wandering around in the dark that “by God, I decorate this freaking house once a year, and I am bound and determined, as God is my witness, to light things up, and light I shall. . .”
Very Scarlet O’Hara you know—It’s a southern thing.

Fast forward to this morning.
As my oh so tired and exhausted husband headed out the door, making his way to the store to put in another solid day of making holiday cheer, aka our work in retail, I made my way to Home Depot. I had told him that I was going to go pick up some more lights before heading to the store to help (sell, wrap, greet, smile, and make merry, and curse my aching feet).
“Why in the world would you go buy new lights with only a few days left in Christmas?” he mumbled heading out the door.
“Because by gosh, as God is my witness, I decorated this house and I won’t have it half lit up as in half a&$. . .
He could be seen rolling his eyes as he got in his truck because at this point, he is so over Christmas. Plus I think he finds my Scarlet O’Hara impersonation a bit melodramatic.

Arriving at Home Depot, the place that saw my credit information stollen in the data breach they suffered earlier this year. . .as my bank account was accosted by some thieves in south Georgia, Illinois and Indiana that was luckily caught early enough before any real damage occured, I was ready to do business again, risking my bank account and identity all in the name of holiday lights.

Do you know how sad the shelves holding the holiday decor look right about now at a massive home improvement center? Kind of like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree. . .empty and sparse with a few remaining boxes which look as if they’d been opened, pilfered through, stuffed back shut and left for any poor sucker who happened to come by at the 11th hour in need—such as myself.

There were twinkling warm mini lights, snowflakes, giant icicles, round colored balls, and the very retro looking giant colored lights. . .those monstrosity lights of my childhood—-the ones I hated—so tacky and garish.

I grabbed a couple of remaining boxes that had obviously been opened and hoped for the best.
Kind of the same mindset I felt when I handed the cashier my debit card–thinking here goes nothing, again, or maybe here goes everything I own again, sort of feeling.

Back home, I open up the boxes, yanking out a waded up tangled mess of lights. Just as I figured—someone either returned these puppies or either pulled them out taking a gander before stuffing them back in the box deciding they weren’t for them. Smoothing and pulling as best I could, I stretched the cord along the railing. I proceeded with 3 more boxes. As they all seemed to work, I felt a sense of relief—until the one strand filling in the area of my original area of contention began blinking.

WHAT?

The strand was also white, my other strands are green.
AGGGGHHHH!!!
Making the sound Homer Simpson makes, I see that I have all constant green wire shining lights except for a lone white wire strand that now “twinkles”—-
“REALLY?!” I am now heard shouting to all birds and any passing cars.
“Well, too bad!!!” I’m heard to exclaim to the squirrels.
I have lights, who but the raccoons and possums will notice the twinkling—any passing cars will be driving too fast but to merely briefly “ooooo” at the sight of lights as they move like a bat out of hell down the road past the house as no one drives up and down our road paying any attention to posted speed limits, yellow lines or much else for that matter, so who cares if one batch is now twinkling??!!

“By God”, I exclaim, I have lights and lights I shall!!
Makes no never mind anyway as the lights will just be coming down in less than a week.
“This is Christmas by George and we will make merry!!!”

The moral of the story you ask. . .besides being wary of using debit cards now a days anywhere or buying obviously previously opened boxes. . .
We need to be mindful that everyone gets a bit burned out this time of year, even the kids–from the constant going here, there and yon, to the constant shopping, cooking, cleaning, traveling, working, caroling– to the high expectations, the hopes, the dreams, the let downs and disappointments. . .

At first it’s just the burned out holiday lights, then the next thing you know you’re shooting the neighbors giant inflatable Frosty the snowman with a BB gun. . .
It won’t do any of us, or those around us, any good letting ourselves get all worked up in a tizzy. . .it’s best to simply let go and go on— moving forward and making “Merry” the best way we know how. . .

Now where in the h*!l is that pitcher of eggnog—you know the one. . .was that one cup of rum and one cup of bourbon per one quart of eggnog or was it two quarts of nog. . .I think I like the odds with one quart and equal ratios!!

Merry Christmas!!!

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Vanilla Extract or is Cookie a Lush?

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Ok, so I was thumbing through a recent copy of Southern Living, what woman/ girl of southern origin does not currently have, or at some point previously had, a subscription to this bastion of all things southern?? Let’s not digress shall we….

I flipped to an interesting little article about making homemade vanilla extract. Now any good cook worth his or her salts (salt…so many types and varieties, we’ll talk about that later, ok? I told you, no digressing!!) has a decent bottle of quality vanilla in their arsenal of cooking accoutrements, none of this “vanillin” artificial phony flavoring business. It’s the real deal or nothing when it comes to vanilla extract.

And speaking of which—there are so many types and varieties–Tahitian, Bourbon Madagascar, Mexican…and then there are the brands–too many to name. Magazines such a Cook’s (no relation sadly) has their famous “test” kitchen which will often put things such a vanilla extract to the test attempting to uncover the best brand for use in the home kitchen.

Let’s just say that this “cook” will solve that little mystery quite easily—we’re just going to make our own—then that way, we know what it is we’re getting—no guesswork for us—we’re good like that 🙂

Now this is going to require a trip to the local liquor store. That can be a bit harrowing for some, unnerving for others and for a few of us—pure wonder and joy. Now I know what you’re thinking, trust me, I’m not about to lead you down the path of ill repute. This is where we must find the extract part of Vanilla extract.

There is something fascinating to me about a liquor store. All those beautiful glass bottles, in a vast array of shapes and sizes, all full of glistening translucent liquids in all of those shimmering colors of tints and shades. Some of my friends worry a little bit about me and this “fascination” but I trace this back to my dad, aka Mr. Mole.

When I was a little girl, each Saturday morning my dad would head out to the neighborhood liquor store/ package store, with me in tow, in order to buy a case of beer and a few bottles of liquor for the usual weekend gathering of my parents friends– who would come over to cookout or watch the latest football game. I always looked forward to these gatherings as everyone brought their children and that meant a wonderful time of play.

Now it must have been ok back then for a dad to take his little girl in the liquor store with him as he made his purchases, because as that said little girl, I recall being mesmerized by all of the bottles of colors reflecting light–as beautiful as stain glass, in a round about way –what else could it have been? To this day I can wander aimlessly in a liquor store or wine section in the grocery store marveling at all the bottles. I know–odd.

Having been an educator for the past 30 years, trips to a liquor store in our rather smallish community are akin to playing with fire…a real career busting move. Not a real good idea. One must either go on the outskirts of town, or even to a neighboring community or go incognito. A teacher does not want to draw negative attention their way. You know how these small towns can be…. Anywhoo, back to our trip to procure our “extract.” I’m retired now, it’s ok.

I knew of the traditional use of vodka, having read that cheap vodka is perfectly suitable—no reason to break the bank for this little endeavor–not unless you plan on sipping along as you prepare your recipe. Let me discourage that–wait until we finish.

I picked out a liter of some Scandinavian business—you need about 3 cups worth per bottle of homemade brew. Next I wandered over to the Bourbon section as I had read that using bourbon or rum can make for a wonderfully rich and robust extract that is nice when making chocolate things such as cookies or cakes.

But here is where I had a trouble. I am obviously from the South, I attended the University of Georgia 30 some odd years ago. Bourbon and the South, bourbon and SEC football, bourbon and life at UGA years ago… ok… well, that’s like Andy and Barney, Lucy and Ethel, Fred and Ginger—they just go, one with the other. I just couldn’t bring myself to buy the cheap stuff. That would be a sacrilege. I didn’t break the bank, but I didn’t go cheap. This shall be my Chateauneuf du Pape of extract.

I have read that you should gently heat the liquor of choice being very very careful, just to give it a little warmth as too much heat and all this alcohol, well lets just hope you have the fire department on speed dial—CAREFUL.

I also read that you should use 5 vanilla beans per cup of liquid–the more the better in this case. Oh, I almost forgot…the beans!! I didn’t even begin to attempt buying up enough bottles of the lone vanilla bean on the spice shelves of the grocery store at about 8 to 10 bucks per bottle…instead, go to Amazon (oh how I love Amazon–the go to for all your needs, digressing…) where you can find Madagascar or Tahitian beans—24 for about 19 bucks. You can buy more or less and spend more of less depending on who you buy them from and the type you want. I bought one pack of both Madagascar and Tahitian.

I bought a couple of cute little glass bottles with corks to use for the gift giving end of this endeavor but I’m using empty liquor bottles for the initial brew mix. A mason jar is perfectly fine—whatever you have on hand.

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Cut the beans in half by using a shape knife (don’t sneak into the Vodka or bourbon yet as you need precision when cutting these skinny little suckers). I stuffed the cut beans down into the bottles then poured in the liquor through a funnel. Some folks say to scrape the seeds from the beans, adding them to the bottle/ jar separately–I didn’t do this–I simply cut them in half and pushed them down into the bottles.

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For the bourbon extract I actually mixed 1 cup of honey bourbon with 2 cups regular bourbon. You could use just straight honey bourbon if you prefer or experiment with maybe some dark spiced rum. I may “release the Kraken” and give that a-go in a small bottle. I even thought to add some coffee beans but thought I should hold off and see how these do first. Mustn’t get too carried away.

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Once you have beans in bottles and you’ve topped off the bottles with your liquid/ liquor, let the bottles sit before capping, that is if you heated your concoction–allowing them to come to room temp. Cap or cork the bottles and give a good shake for about 30 seconds. Then place the bottles out of the way in a cool, dark spot and wait 6 to 8 weeks—longer is better—I’m thinking 3 months. When is Christmas? Let’s see, if this is May…8 months—perfect. Sorry to all those in need of instant gratification.

You may decant the extract, pouring through a strainer or cheesecloth, into a decorative bottle for gift giving. I am, however, opting to keep the beans and any sediment. As you use your liquid extract, you can just top off the bottle, as long as the beans are present. You may also take out the beans, if you no longer want them floating around, and add them to a jar full of sugar and make vanilla sugar. This is what I do with all left over vanilla beans. It’s great in coffee, tea or added to recipes.

My kitchen now has a delightful heady aroma –rich and intoxicating…and no, I have not been drinking the extract!! The kitchen now just smells really good.

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Have fun experimenting with additions—next I’m going for flavored vinegars and oils–ooooooohhh