Homemade Vanilla Extract

How to Make Homemade Vanilla Extract | Photo by Zoë François

It is a brand new year and I figured I should start 2012 with a fresh start—right at the pastry beginning. For me that’s homemade vanilla extract, probably the most-used ingredient in my kitchen after flour and sugar.

I always have a stack of beans and bottles of extract. I admit I don’t always make my own, but it is something, like homemade yogurt, that once you make it, you’re ruined to the store-bought version.

It is easy to make, but to get the best result you have to be patient. The longer you let the vanilla beans sit in the vodka, the better and stronger the flavor. I let this bottle sit for 5 weeks before opening it, which was a test of willpower I didn’t know I possessed. The result is like perfume, I want to add this homemade vanilla extract to all of my recipes and dab a bit behind my ears. I’ll use it in everything from cakes to cocktails.

Here you can see me make my homemade vanilla extract on The Drew Barrymore Show!

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How to use a Vanilla Bean – updated

Vanilla beans - photo by Zoë François

This is one of my favorite ingredients and essential in the pastry kitchen. Vanilla beans come from the fruit of an orchid and are not cheap, second only to saffron in costly spices. So, you want to pick a good one and use the whole thing, pod, and seeds. The beans should be soft, oily, and have an intense vanilla aroma. Avoid a bean that has no luster, is dry and brittle.

Here is an overview of a few different types of vanilla beans:

Mexican beans are the original and most highly prized beans. They have a mellow, smooth, quality and a spicy, woody fragrance.

Madagascar Bourbon beans are long and slender, with a very rich taste and smell, have thick, oily skin, contain an abundance of tiny seeds, and have a strong vanilla aroma. They are also considered high-quality beans and reflect this in the cost. This is where most of the world’s vanilla comes from. The name refers to the region they are grown and is not at all related to the booze.

Tahitian beans are usually shorter, plumper, and contain a higher oil and water content than Bourbon beans. The skin is thinner, they contain fewer seeds, and the aroma is fruity and floral. They are often described as smelling like licorice, cherry, prunes, or wine.

You will have to get your hands on them all and decide for yourself which is your favorite. There are others, but they are hard to come by, if this changes I will update the post.

You want to store your vanilla beans in an airtight container, in a cool, dark spot. If you buy them in bulk and won’t be using them all at once you can throw them in the freezer to prevent them from drying out.

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Apple Blossom Blackberry Tart with Homemade Puff Pastry (two Le Creuset winners!)

Apple Blossom Berry Tart Recipe | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

I admit I enjoy the detailed work of an elaborate dessert or cake on occasion. I was a fine arts major who couldn’t paint or draw particularly well, but loved being in the midst of all that creativity in the art department. It wasn’t until I found myself in a pastry kitchen that I realized food was the medium that allowed me to express myself. Fussing over gum paste and fondant is relaxing to me. But, there are times I want to create something that is just pure and simple. When flavors are the end all and their natural beauty unadorned.

I’ve been reading A Platter of Figs and Other Recipes by David Tanis. The executive chef from Chez Panisse who has the most enviable career I’ve ever heard of. He spends 6 months of the year cooking at Alice Water’s acclaimed restaurant and the remainder of his time in France. Just one chapter in and you can’t help but hate him for having figured out the perfect life. He eloquently describes shopping in the morning at the outdoor produce market and then cooking with his friends while drinking local wines and nibbling on aged cheeses. His entire philosophy is simplicity. In fact, the book’s one downfall for me is that there is no challenge in any of his desserts, they are all simple to a fault. Gorgeous and as delicious as a fresh fig, but where is all of the fussy detail that I often crave. 😉

I want to be David Tanis when I grow up! Read More

Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake with Sugared Cranberries! (The Apron Winner is…)

Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake with Sugared Cranberries Recipe | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

This past week I taught several classes on bread baking. We made breads from my book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day that fit the cooling weather, like oatmeal pumpkin bread. The recipe calls for a roasted “pie” pumpkin, but only uses 1 cup of it. I promised all the wonderful people in my class that I would come up with a way to use the rest of that pumpkin puree and share it here. Every year at this time I make a bourbon pumpkin cheesecake, in fact I make a few of them, by demand. It tastes like the richest, creamiest pumpkin pie you will ever eat. Even people who swear they don’t like pumpkin love this cheesecake.

I topped it with some beautiful red fruits, including sugared cranberries. The tartness combined with the crisp sugar coating is a perfect compliment to the smoothness of the cake. Keep reading and I’ll show you how.

Before I make the cheesecake I want to THANK YOU all for the fantastic well wishes during this eventful month! The winner of the Zoë bakes apron by Crooked Brook is… Read More

Basics: Génoise and Homemade Rolled Fondant! part one.

Génoise Recipe | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

I’m gearing up for my one year blog-iversary next week and I’m making myself a cake. On the way to that celebratory occasion, I’ve made a few of the basic elements in the pastry kitchen: génoise and homemade rolled fondant. As Sherry Yard says in the opening of her génoise recipe from The Secrets of Baking, this simple cake is a test of pastry chefs technical prowess. It is used in competitions and in restaurant job interviews to see if you were paying attention in culinary school. Génoise is a basic cake used for weddings, birthdays, jellyrolls, petits fours and many more classic desserts. I love this delicious, light and versatile cake when it is baked well. You can add flavored syrup to it without it disintegrating into mush, it holds up to buttercream, ganache, fondant and anything else you can think of. It may seem old school, but I think génoise really is essential and can be easy if you have the right recipe and the proper technique. Read More

Mocha Chip Cookies

Mocha Chip Cookies Recipe | ZoëBakes | Photo by Zoë François

For those of you who have been visiting with me on Twitter, you already know that my day doesn’t begin until my first, or sometimes second, cup of coffee. It was a happy day for me when my local Costco started carrying Illy coffee. I first had this smooth, rich, deep cup of “liquid life” when I attended a pastry conference at the CIA in Napa Valley a few years ago. I was hooked, but it is awfully expensive and I rarely splurged. Now I can have it and not feel as though I’m exploiting my bank account. My Twitter friends are very vocal about their coffee preferences and say they like illy but prefer Caffe Kimbo and LavAzz. What is your favorite bean?

My 1st Anniversary of Zoe Bakes is coming up and I’ve ordered a special apron in honor of the event. I’ll be giving it away as soon as it arrives. One Year, how time flies!

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