Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Extracts 101: Vanilla, Mint, Lemon, Almond

This fall was a busy one for me. I started grad school and by the end of September, I was buried under a mountain of research, homework, and paper writing. I cooked a little, but nothing terribly exciting: a pretty constant rotation of tomato soup, The Best French Bread Ever, and arugula salads.

So. If you're going to start one DIY project when you're pressed for time, this is the one. Minimal ingredients, minimal preparation time, maximum reward. I made these babies in October and bottled them for Christmas gifts.

And winter is the best time for a project like this, because there's little guilt (for me) involved in using non-local, non-seasonal ingredients (like vanilla beans) during the winter, when there are so few local, seasonal ingredients to be had.

Vanilla Extract 
8 vanilla beans
Slightly less than 1 liter of vodka, at least 80 proof

Split vanilla beans lengthwise, so that the "vanilla caviar" inside is visible. Place the beans in a 1-liter Mason jar. Fill with vodka. Wait at least a month, but the flavor will improve and deepen with steeping time. Strain out the beans, then pour the extract through a coffee filter to remove small particulates and make the liquid completely clear.
Note: Vanilla beans from different countries have distinct and unique flavors. I find Mexican vanilla beans spicy, while Madagascar vanilla beans taste creamier.  Experiment to find out which you like best! 

Mint Extract
1 cup fresh mint leaves (preferably organic)
Slightly less than 1 liter of vodka, at least 80 proof

Rinse the mint leaves well, then pack them into a 1-liter Mason jar. Fill the jar with vodka. Within a day, the clear vodka will turn a pale green, and will subsequently darken to a brownish-green over time. Leave the extract for at least two weeks, shaking occasionally, then strain out the mint leaves. Pour the extract through a coffee filter to remove small particulates and make the liquid completely clear.
Note: homemade mint extract has a deeper, more vegetal flavor than store bought. I like this, but you may not.

Lemon Extract
6 lemons (preferably organic)
Slightly less than 1 liter of vodka, at least 80 proof

Peel the lemons in strips with a sharp knife, then remove as much of the white pith as possible from each strip (pith will make the finished extract taste bitter). Place the strips of all-yellow peel in a 1-liter Mason jar, then top with vodka. Leave for at least a month, shaking occasionally. Strain out the lemon peel, then pour the extract through a coffee filter to remove small particulates and make the liquid completely clear.
Note: this recipe for lemon extract is just a step or two away from limoncello, a delicious topic I'll touch on later this spring.

Almond Extract
1 cup of raw almonds
Slightly less than 1 liter of vodka, at least 80 proof

Briefly blanch the almonds in boiling water (no more than two minutes). Peel off the soften skins, cut the almonds into slivers, and put them in a 1-liter Mason jar. Fill the jar with vodka and let the mixture sit for at least two months, shaking occasionally. Strain out the almonds, then pour the extract through a coffee filter to remove small particulates. Almond extract requires more filtration than vanilla, mint, or lemon, and may never be completely clear (though it'll taste just fine).

Price comparison
1 liter of store-bought vanilla: at least $50
1 liter of homemade vanilla: about $18
Make it or buy it? Make it! Simple, easy, and the rewards are enormous.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Blueberry jam

Here's a confession: I don't really like blueberry jam. I don't really like blueberry pie, either, or blueberry syrup, or blueberry ice cream. I think a fresh blueberry is perfection, and why would I mess with that?

Blueberry jammy mixture, mid cooking.
(Yes, those are dilly beans in the background...)
But, others seem to disagree. I mentioned in my post about Dark chocolate blackberry fudge that some of my first memories of my Grammy were of cooking.  Most of the rest were of picking wild blueberries in the fallow field above her farmhouse. More than any other food, blueberries represent family to me. My mom's side of the family loves blueberry jam and blueberry pie. The focus of this post is half out of familial nostalgia, and half out of practicality - as perfect as a just-picked blueberry is, the shelf life is not quite so ideal, and jam is a sensible way to use up fresh-picked blueberries that simply will not get eaten up in time.

My Grammy has since moved out of her farmhouse, so the berries I used for this recipe are a cultivated, high-bush variety, rather than a wild low-bush. However, they were still delicious, picked in the sunshine with my Mom on a beautiful Vermont afternoon.

Classic Blueberry Jam
9 cups fresh blueberries
6 cups sugar
6 tbsp lemon juice

Jammy blueberries, almost done
"Pick over" fresh picked blueberries, removing any stems and over- or underripe fruit. Rinse berries in a colander and transfer to a large, nonreactive pot. Mash briefly with a potato masher to releasejuices, but don't over-mash, if you prefer jam to have small, discrete pieces of berry intact after cooking. Add sugar and lemon juice and stir, then leave to macerate for ten minutes. Cook on medium-low heat until the mixture reaches 220 degrees Fahrenheit, and/or passes the "Freezer test" (explained below).

While jam mixture is cooking, wash half-pint jars in hot, soapy water. Then, sterilize by submerging in a kettle of boiling water for at least ten minutes, along with jar lids and rings. Keep jars hot until filling. When jam has reached the gelling point, fill the jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Place jar lid on top and then screw on ring to what I call "Goldilocks Tight" - tight enough that it feels secure, but not so tight that it takes any significant effort to turn. Do not over-tighten.

When all jars are filled, place in a water bath (off-set from the bottom of the kettle by a canning rack or similar), and turn the burner below on to high heat. When the water has begun to boil, start the timer, and allow the jars to boil for five minutes. When the five minute are up, remove the jars and let them sit, undisturbed, on the counter.

The delicious finished product, waiting to seal
If a jar seals correctly, you will hear a cheerful pop and the center of the lid will snap down, sealing the contents. If this does not happen, fear not - the contents are still safe to eat, you just need to designate that jar for immediate use and storage in the fridge. After twelve hours, the rings from jars that have successfully sealed can be removed (though, obviously, the flat lids should remain in place). If at any point after a successful seal, the jar lid pops off of its own accord, or there are visible or olfactory signs of spoilage, discard the jar and its contents immediately - do not taste first.

*The Freezer Test: place a spoonful of boiling jam on a plate and place it in the freezer for five minutes. If it gels to a satisfactory texture, the jam is done. 

The Cost Breakdown
1 13-oz jar(1.125 cups) of Bonne Maman Wild Blueberry Jam (the closest comparison I can think of to homemade jam - let's be clear, this isn't Smuckers we're duplicating): $4.99
Price per cup: $4.44

3 pounds fresh blueberries from a Pick-Your-Own Farm: $6.00
6 cups sugar: $5.49 per 10-pound bag, or approximately 0.55 per pound, so $1.65
6 tbsp lemon juice: 2 lemons at $0.59 each, so $1.18
Total for 5 pints of jam: $8.83
Price per cup: $0.88

Is it worth it? Yes. For me, at least. Financially, it works out to about one-fifth of the price you'd pay in a grocery store. Taste- and quality-wise, I don't love blueberry jam to begin with, but this recipe gets great reviews. And, finally, from a nostalgic, familial perspective, homemade blueberry jam will always be a win.

Pure beauty

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cheesepalooza, month 1: whole milk ricotta

I have the privilege of being a part of a very cool project this year: Cheesepalooza. Organized by some fabulous food bloggers and modeled after last year's Charcutepalooza, Cheesepalooza works its way through Mary Carlin's Artisan Cheesemaking at Home, setting one cheesemaking challenge a month. This month (month one) was relatively simple: whole milk ricotta.

I should mention that I have made ricotta before, as a byproduct of making mozzarella (a slightly different process than the recipe I used here - I had made whey ricotta, which uses the leftover whey from another cheesemaking project. This recipe simply curdles milk with acid).  It was delicious.

Sadly, though, this time was kind of a flop. I combined the required ingredients - milk, cream, citric acid, salt - in a pot and heated it to 185 degrees fahrenheit, at which point there should be discernible curds and yellowy whey. Sadly, though, while a few curds formed, I never got the curdling transformation I expected. I kept heating the mixture, hoping that maybe my thermometer just wasn't correct, but when I saw simmering bubbles I finally gave up. I strained the few curds through cheesecloth, and I got about a quarter of a cup of (admittedly, very delicious, very expensive) ricotta. So expensive that I don't even want to know about the cost comparison of homemade versus store bought.

Now, if you know me in person, you know that I'm a bit of a perfectionist. Therefore, I'll be trying this recipe again. However - I am terribly disappointed, having heard very positive things about Carlin's book. Oh well. On to better things, Cheesepalooza!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Fancy fudge, for my grandmother

One of my earliest memories of my grandmother, Sally, is "helping" her in the kitchen - though this help mostly consisted of licking bowls and spoons and being generally underfoot. She is sick, in the hospital, right now, and I started to put together a care package for her. Her favorite flavor combination is black raspberries and chocolate (though usually in ice cream form), and I found some blackberry-dark chocolate fudge at a nearby chocolate shop. I was all set to buy it when I realized that I could easily make the same thing at home.

This particular recipe calls for more processed ingredients than I usually like to use. If I was really going to keep to the spirit of this blog, I would probably try to make my own substitute for sweetened condensed milk - but at this moment, I just don't care. This is the recipe that my Mom grew up with my Grammy making, and that is what I want. Tradition is tradition. Delicious is delicious. 

Dark Chocolate Blackberry Fudge
For my grandmother, Sally
1 can sweetened condensed milk
1/4 pound butter (one stick)
3 cups chocolate chunks
1/2 pint blackberries

Line a 9x13 inch cake pan with waxed paper (I couldn't find one, so I used two 4x9 inch pans instead). Arrange the washed and gently dried blackberries on the bottom of the pan. In a double boiler, heat butter, sweetened condensed milk, and chocolate to 240 degrees fahrenheit, or until the mixture is smooth, stirring gently. Pour the melted chocolate mixture over the blackberries. Chill in refrigerator or freezer until firm, then cut into 1x1 inch pieces.

And, as always, the cost comparison. This time, more than ever, the commercial price is based on the particular economics of where I live - and exclusively, on the pricing of Kilwin's fudge, around the corner from my house.

1 1x3x6 inch slice of Kilwin's blackberry chocolate fudge: $8.00
Price per cubic inch: $0.44

1 can Eagle brand sweetened condensed milk: $2.83
1/4 cup butter (one stick from a four-stick package, at 2.89 per package): $0.72
3 cups Nestles chocolate chunks: $3.29
1 half-pint local blackberries: $3.69
Total for two 1x4x9 inch pans of fudge: $10.53
Price per cubic inch: $0.15

Feel better soon, Grammy!

Sunday, July 29, 2012

English-style lemonade

When I was little, my dad - who is originally from Nottingham, England - took a sabbatical to spend a semester teaching in the U.K. Our family moved with him - me, my mom, and my four-year-old sister.  Unsurprisingly, nine-year-old me mostly hated the experience: I missed my friends, I hated my strict school, and I swiftly grew tired of museums and castles (though writing that now makes me cringe - who gets sick of castles?).

However, there were some bright spots in our time abroad, at least in my opinion. Doughy sourdough rolls called stotties, which we bought at the corner bakery every day; our weird little Edwardian apartment, with its nooks and crannies; and the tart, carbonated beverage called lemonade.

Lemonade in the U.S. is sweet and flat - delicious and uncomplicated. In England, lemonade is fizzy and sour and when I look back on living there, I seem to remember drinking it by the gallon (I hope this isn't true, for the sake of my teeth). I've found fizzy lemonade once or twice in the U.S. - usually Fentimans, which contains ginger and other botanicals and is completely wonderful. As tasty as it is, though, it's both expensive and tough to find, so I thought I'd try my hand at making my own. 

I've made fizzy drinks with yeast before, but this time I decided to experiment with the golden child of the homemade movement: lacto fermentation. I'm a little leery of fermenting things in general, and I thought that this recipe might be an easy gateway drug. 

Lacto-fermented fizzy lemonade
Adapted very loosely from The Cultivated LifeA Flock In The City and Natural Health and Prevention
2/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/4 cup whey (I skimmed the liquid from the top of a container of yogurt) 
1/4 cup sugar
Filtered water to fill a 1-quart canning jar.

Combine lemon juice, whey, and sugar in the clean canning jar. Stir gently, but don't worry if all the sugar doesn't dissolve immediately. Fill the remainder of the jar with filtered water, leaving two inches of headspace. Cap it tightly, and leave in a dark place for 4-7 days. Don't panic if you have weird, white drifting masses during the fermentation process - they're harmless. Just strain them if they squick you out. Yields one quart.

Because most of the sugar will be eaten up by the lactobacillus in the whey, it tastes quite a bit tarter after fermented - feisty and summery and delicious over ice. And, as an added bonus, the lemonade has the delightful quality of being somewhat self-perpetuating: in your next batch, you may substitute 1/2 cup of fermented lemonade for the 1/4 cup of whey.

And, for fun, here's the cost breakdown.

  • 1.125 cups of Fentimans Victorian Lemonade: $2.25
Total: $2.25 per bottle, or $2.00 per cup.

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice (the juice of 2 lemons at $0.40 each): $0.80
  • 1/4 cup whey: effectively free, if you buy or make yogurt: $0.00 for my purposes, though that may not be true for you
  • 1/2 cup sugar (~92 grams of sugar in a 2270 gram (5 pound) bag at approximately $4 dollars per bag): $0.16
  • Filtered water: effectively free for me, so: $0.00 for my purposes, though that may not be true for you.
  • 1-quart mason jar (12-pack is $11.99): $0.99, though you could easily use another container
Total: $1.96 for one quart of lemonade, or $0.49 per cup.

Less expensive, healthier, and completely delicious? I think I'll be making this lacto fermented lemonade again, soon. I think I'd also like to experiment with ginger-lemonade, cranberry-lemonade, raspberry lemonade, limeade...the possibilities are endless!

Monday, July 16, 2012

The verdict, and jasmine lime rickeys

After a week of sitting on a dark bookshelf, the jasmine-green tea-gin infusion looked even stranger - a muddy almost-brown, with bits of floating leaf matter. I am not kidding when I say that this looked less appetizing than some of the wetland water samples I've taken.

It had begun to smell pretty delicious, though - grassy and flowery. And, it tasted like a very strong green tea, with a little bit of a perfume-y edge. I decided to strain it. I used a funnel with a coffee filter placed inside - I only strained once, and I think I probably should have done a second round. All of the solid matter was strained out, but the remaining liquid was still a little cloudy. It looked like this:

I planned to make a pretty label for it, put it on a shelf, and admire it - drinking it slowly and conserving it. First, though, I brought it to a picnic and proceeded to make one of my favorite drinks: a gin rickey. The recipe is below.

Jasmine Green Tea Gin Rickey
-Half a lime
-1 1/5-2 oz Jasmine Green Tea Gin
-Club soda

Juice the lime, and put the whole lime half in the bottom of a glass. Add several ice cubes, then pour in gin (I used about 2 oz). Fill glass with soda water, and mix gently with a spoon. Drink up.

(Ignore my crazy alien hand, and the chipped nail polish - field work really does a number on my femininity, guys.)

The pretty label, the bottle on the shelf? Well - and this should attest to how well this infusion turned out - at the end of the night, there wasn't a drop left. 

The verdict? I need to make more. Soon. It was delicious - summery, floral, with just a little bite from the green tea, and mellowed by the honey. I think the jasmine gin rickey is my new favorite drink.

And, for fun, the cost breakdown.
1.58 cups of Koval Jasmine Liqueur (which I'm sure is wonderful, but would be difficult for me to afford): $24.99
Total: $24.99 per bottle, or $15.81 per cup

2 cups Fleischmann's gin ($14.99 for a 1.75 liter bottle, or $2.02 per cup)
1/4 cup Rishi Jasmine Green Tea ($38.00 per pound, or approximately $7.13 for 1/4 cup)
2 tablespoons honey ($8.00 for a 1.5 cup bottle, or approximately $0.33 per tablespoon).
2($2.02 cups of gin)+$7.13 for 1/4 cup Rishi Jasmine Green Tea+2($0.33 tablespoons of honey) = $11.83 per bottle, or $5.92 per cup.

And, more importantly, it was delicious. 

(In case you've started worrying that this blog will be purely about alcoholic infusions - fear not. This week, I'm hoping to make carbonated lemonade and gingerale. Once the weather gets colder, I'll be more excited about cooking real food as well). 

Saturday, July 7, 2012


If you know me in real life, you know how much I love gin and tonics. For awhile, I snobbily refused to drink them from Labor Day until Memorial Day - "g&ts are meant only for summer! If you can't wear white, you can't drink them!" I self-defeatingly maintained, until, in the depths of Massachusetts February, several fresh, sweet-smelling Florida limes in hand, I gave up. I now drink g&ts whenever I please, WASPy rules be damned. I think that gin smells like trees, and as a baby ecologist, that really thrills me.

I also love jasmine tea - more than just about any other beverage. I cold-brew it in the refrigerator in my Nalgene bottle overnight, almost every night. I drink it constantly.

I saw a jasmine-infused vodka the other day, and because it was around $50 a liter and because I'm a brokey-broke grad student, I decided to make my own. I realized recently how well lime juice combines with jasmine tea, so I decided to make a jasmine-infused gin to eventually go in some delicious G&Ts.

The ingredients:
-1/4 cup of jasmine tea (I used Rishi brand)
-2 cups of gin
-2 tablespoons of honey (optional - I like jasmine tea just a little sweetened, but you may not)

Here's what it looks like right now...

A bit like swamp water. I think I'll let it infuse for a week or so, but I'll start tasting it beginning tomorrow. I'll keep you updated on how it progresses!

Thanks for reading!