Sunday, July 24, 2011

Homemade Vanilla Extract

I think it's safe to say I go through a LOT of vanilla extract with all the baking I do. About a year ago I decided to look into making my own extract. After perusing a few sites, I found that it was actually ridiculously easy to do, and could be mildly cost effective, too; just takes time.

Someone actually went through the bother of calculating the cost difference, but basically I was spending $5 for each bottle of Bourbon Extract at Trader Joe's which only took me 1-2 months to polish off. Making it yourself doesn't save you a ton of money in the long run, but at least I have 1 liter batches to work with at any given time.* And you can say you make your own extract. I think it's worth the 6 months wait time just to say that.

So, basically, get a bottle of vodka (I've tried 3 different brands so far, not sure if the price/quality of the vodka has a huge effect on the flavor, but I try not to get the cheapest stuff, just in case) and remove about 1/4 of liquid from the bottle first. What you do with that, I won't question. Next, take about 10-12 vanilla beans, split lengthwise, and plop them into the vodka jar. Seal the jar, then give it a good shake, label the bottle with the date, and let it set somewhere safe for about 6 months. Be sure to give it a good shake every couple of weeks. Sediment will collect at the bottom, which you can strain out when you get to it, or just leave it.

The other fun part about making your own extract is that you can play with the different varieties of vanilla. I've bought and blended Tajitian, Madagascar, Bourbon, & Mexican varieties so far. I am fairly clueless about what makes them different though. I've been baking with a blend of Tajitian, Mexican and Madagacar beans and think it tastes as lovely as anything, but would fail a deciphering taste-test for sure. Might be worthwhile to make separate batches of each some time just to taste test.

The other beauty of this plan is that you can make however much you want. A recipe from Simply Recipes gives you a 1 cup option. As much as it is technically science, I don't think you could really screw it up however you decided to mix it up. Just don't add simple syrup. You just don't need it, and I think it detracts from the extract if you do add it.

* If you're curious about my calculations, I spend approximately $20 on a bottle of vodka, plus about $10 on the vanilla beans (including the cost of shipping). So, $30 that is then split into approximately (8) 4 oz. batches makes them about $3.75.)

Also, I bought the beans at

Thursday, July 21, 2011

French Macarons

I don't really know enough about French or language to know who is right and who is wrong about how to spell macarons, I just know that these don't have coconut in them, so think it's safer to drop the second "o" and not call them "macaroons." I follow David Lebovitz's lead on this one, anyhow.

What I do know is that these are delicious, and I am still figuring out how to make them. This is the first time I've posted my efforts, as nothing before has seemed either good enough or reproducible enough to post about. But this is the 2nd time I've made this and they've worked out, so I think I'm getting the hang of it.

See, I don't have a kitchen scale, and so many of these French macaron recipes only give you weight measurements (well, cuz they're more accurate, can't blame them for that), but I don't have a scale. So, after many a failed attempt, I finally found a measuring cup based recipe that I had decent results with, minding that I didn't use the pre-ground almond flour they sell at Trader Joe's, and instead, grind the almonds up myself with my food processor, then sift out the largest chunks. While adding another step, and another round of dishes, this seems to have done the trick.

Now, I have to say, they are still not perfect. I expect a certain amount of airy nothingness in the middle of my macaron, and a perfect foot (the sort of crumbly looking side of the cookie), which still isn't consistent across all cookies in even the same batch. I think these ones came out just a little too gooey/sticky in the middle, even though I think the tops domed quite perfectly. So many variables!

I will muse for a second on how ridiculous some of the wives tales that surround making macarons have become. Yes, these are some tricky pastries, but I feel like some bakers swear by witch craft and superstitions to get their macarons just right. "Fold in almond flour no more than 20 strokes!" or "leave out on parchment paper 2 hours before baking" and "dance around the smallest one in a counter-clockwise direction 6 times for best results." Ok, I exaggerate. But for any bakers out there who have also tried to master these beauties, and try and get them perfect, mind you, there has got to be some science to it that could make them universally approachable. Then again, maybe they're just meant to be fickle.

If you like macarons, and have a kitchen scale, I highly recommend checking out my friend Risa's blog, Baked Perfection, as she is always coming up with some special new macaron flavor combo. They all look very delicious!

Friday, July 8, 2011

Creamy Grapefruit Bars

I guess I'm on a citrus kick. I happen to love grapefruit, but hardly ever eat it or see anyone baking with it. Totally under represented. I love lemon bars, and have a great Martha Stewart recipe I have followed with impeccable success, so decided to experiment. I wasn't sure if the 1:1 replacement of fresh squeezed grapefruit juice for lemon juice would be the right flavor balance, but in the end, it worked perfectly. Reviews here at the office, where I often subject my office mates to my creations, has been very positive. I even had someone say they're the best thing they've ever tried of the things I've made. Woot. 
My opinion is that they are quite tasty, and do actually taste grapefruity, which is awesome. They aren't nearly as tart as lemon bars though, so seem to be a bit sweeter. 

Creamy Grapefruit Squares
adapted from Everyday Food Creamy Lemon Squares recipe 
  • 1/2 cup butter, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup flour
  • 4 large egg yolks
  • 1 can (14 ounces) sweetened condensed milk
  • 3/4 cup fresh grapefruit juice (1-2 grapefruit)
  • 1-2 tsp grapefruit zest

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line an 8 or 9-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides.

Make crust: Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy. Add flour, and mix on low just until combined. Press dough into the bottom and up sides of pan; prick all over with a fork. Bake until lightly golden, 15 to 20 minutes.

Make filling: In a large bowl, whisk together yolks, condensed milk, grapefruit juice, and zest until smooth. Pour over hot crust in pan; return to oven, and bake until filling is set, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool completely in pan.

Refrigerate until filling is firm, about 2 hours or up to 3 days. Using overhang, lift cake onto a work surface and cut into squares.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Orange 'n' Cream Cupcakes

With summer officially here, I am definitely feeling nostalgic for the summer flavors I enjoyed as a kid. I'm sure most American kids can recall the wonderous taste of an orange creamsicle pop or Orange Julius drink. There's something delightfully tart, creamy, and sweet about it that embodies the taste of lazy summers.

Making that flavor into a cupcakes was a no brainer. This flavor has been one of my top sellers since I started offering it back in 2009. I was surprised to find that I had never blogged about it before, so figured it was about time I did. And speaking of blogging, I was very delighted to receive an email last week regarding my blog. Apparently, people are reading, and someone decided I qualified for the "Top 50 Cutest Cupcake Blogs." Thanks! You can find the complete list here. While I am very honored to make anyone's "top" list, I will say, if there is a top 50 list... exactly how many cupcake blogs are out there? Yikes. In any case, I definitely enjoy making new and different flavors, and am glad you enjoy reading the recipes I've come up with, so thanks for checking it out.
Best Blog Badge
Orange 'n' Cream Cupcakes
I use a yogurt cake base for this cupcake as it is extremely moist and delicious and has served me well for this recipe. Easily replace orange with lemon, grapefruit, ugli fruit, or any other citrus you want. Sadly, I found the base for this recipe so long ago, I don't even remember its source. Blogger fail.

  • 1-1/2 cups flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp kosher salt
  • 1 cup plain yogurt
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 eggs
  • 2 teaspoons grated orange zest
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 350˚.
Line cupcake tins. Makes approximately 18.

In small bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, & salt.
In medium bowl, whisk together yogurt, sugar, eggs, zest, vanilla, and oil.
Gently blend the wet into the dry mix, until incorporated. Do not over mix.
Fill cupcake lines 3/4 way full and bake for 20 minutes. Cool.

Orange 'n' Cream Frosting

  • 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 1/4 butter, room temperature
  • 1-1/2 c powdered sugar
  • 1 tsp orange zest
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla

In stand mixer, beat butter and cream cheese until incorporated. Gradually add in powdered sugar, scraping down sides of bowl to fully incorporate. Add zest and vanilla and beat until fluffy. Pipe half the frosting onto the cooled cupcakes. I make a swirled pattern on top, leaving space for another round of "orange" swirl. Add a little bit of food coloring to the remaining frosting, making it orange. Pipe the remaining frosting onto the cupcakes, completing the swirls.