Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Homemade Vanilla Extract in Wax-Sealed Bottles

There must nine hundred and ninety-eleven recipes for homemade vanilla extract online, and I suppose that's why I've never seriously considered posting a recipe for it here. But I've had a change of heart, because it's something I make regularly and use in almost every sweet thing I bake.

The reason why I love homemade vanilla extract so much is because I know it's pure (I control the ingredients), it costs less to make and - most importantly - the flavor is superlative. As far as staple ingredients go, it's pretty important to me.

This year everyone on my holiday gift list is getting a bottle of homemade vanilla extract - not just the avid bakers in my circle, but also the occasional chocolate chip cookie makers and even my pal who uses her oven as a make-shift magazine rack (she likes vanilla in her hot cocoa and coffee). Everyone can benefit from the loving touch of a little vanilla, if you ask me.

The bean pods need to steep for several weeks, so if you get started now (right now!) the extract will be ready in early December.

It's best if the pods can steep for at least 8 weeks. In the picture above, you can see how the extract develops over time.

You'll need just two ingredients and bottles with tightly fitting lids to make the extract. My personal touches to the bottles are wax-sealed caps and botanical washi tape "labels". Here's a run-down of everything I used, and a few links to the specialty products.
  • Vodka 35-40% alcohol (70-80 proof): Opinions are sure to vary on this, but I say there's no need to buy top shelf. I usually buy an inexpensive variety of vodka, and make sure to steep the vanilla pods for a full 8 weeks before using the extract in a recipe. As long as the vodka isn't too harsh or bitter on the tongue, then it should be fine for extract making. I sometimes use Smirnoff because it can often be found on sale, or read the virtues of $8 Nikolai vodka here.
  • Madagascar vanilla beans: These vanilla beans are strongly fragrant and have a creamy taste that goes well in cakes, cookies and quick breads. Vanilla beans in general can be awfully expensive, but if you them in bulk they cost much, much less. I've been a repeat buyer of this brand, and I've never had a bad batch. I usually get a few more than their promised 22-24 beans. My last shipment held 27 fat bean pods. I use these beans specifically for extract making, and save the more pricey Tahitian vanilla beans for custards and frostings. 
  • Lidded 5 ounce bottles: Theseare actually sold as hot sauce bottles, but their size was spot-on for gifting. They're bigger than the usual 2 ounce grocery store bottles, and tall enough to accommodate most whole beans. I only wish these came in amber or green bottles, because dark bottles will obscure sunlight and prevent the flavor from being sapped over time - although that's not a real concern for me, I go through bottles of vanilla extract very quickly.
  • Sealing wax: I used burgundy sealing wax on the bottles I'm gifting. Thiskind of wax, in bead form, melts easily. I heated it in a small metal measuring cup over medium heat on the stove-top. You could also use a small aluminum disposable pan in which to melt the wax, for easier clean-up. 
  • Filament tape: If you plan to cap the bottles in wax, you'll need to wrap a little filament tape around the bottom edge of the bottle cap to make a pull tab. (Filament tape has fibers running through it to give it strength, if you didn't know that already.) This makes the wax cap easy to remove. (See pictures for further explanation.)
  • Decorative washi tape: This is not essential, but it is quite pretty. I found a forest botanical print tape at Terrain Shop. Something about those little mushrooms made me feel happy.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Baklava Pull-Apart Bread

I can't tell you how many times I've drooled over the thought of making pull-apart bread in my own kitchen. I've seen all different varieties - sweet and savory, lemony and cheesy- from my blog buddies and beyond. I've been itching to put a new spin on the recipe, and that's the only reason I've waited so long to make it.

Perhaps you remember the time I made Baklava Cheesecake. All that nutty goodness seemed to improve upon something that is hard-pressed to be made better (because, cheesecake alone is pretty darn good!). I felt in the same quandary with this bread. After some meditation, I dug out my baklava filling recipe.

Here's where I lose my modicum of correct grammar: YOU GUYS. This bread is all kinds of major. Those delicate layers of cinnamon-sugared bread? They hold pockets of nutty baklava filling. It all bakes up so perfectly together. And if that wasn't enough, it also gets a douse of honey syrup.

I have but one complaint with most yeast dough recipes, and that's yield size. If I'm going to spend the better part of a day babysitting dough, then I don't want a measly dozen buns, or just one loaf of bread. So, I've developed this recipe to yield two loaves - one for you, and one for a friend (or one for the freezer, if you're not feeling particularly charitable).

Friday, September 5, 2014

Homemade Stroopwafels

I've always wanted a waffle cone maker, but admittedly, there's very little space in my cabinets for one to live. I've talked myself out of buying one many times, but the desire came back anew when I walked into my favorite ice cream parlor. I can testify that the warm fragrance of freshly made vanilla waffle cones is strongly persuasive (not that I needed much arm-twisting in the first place). So, I got one.

I fully expected the machine to be single purpose (waffle cone iron = only waffle cones) but I've found it has a second, and maybe even better use for making one of my favorite coffee time treats - stoopwafels!

For those not familiar, stroopwafles are thin cookie-like waffles with a chewy caramel syrup in the center. They hail from the Netherlands, and recently my friend Darla (who happens to live in Nederland) sent me a care package with all kinds of delicious Dutch treats inside. To my delight, authentic stroopwafels were included. They were better, more dense with filling, than the ones I can find locally. That made me curious enough to seek out a stroopwafel recipe. Until now, I'd never dreamed you could make them at home. I'd pondered their thinness while eating one, and figured it defied any tool that inhabited my utensil drawer. To my great surprise, scratch-made stroopwafels are achievable.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pastel Layer Cake and a Blog Birthday!

Sprinkle Bakes just turned 5 years old! When I look back at all the sweet things I've made - the cakes, the friends, the memories -I feel truly blessed. This little corner of the web has brought me more happiness than I ever dreamed possible, and I appreciate everyone who stops by for a peek at what I'm doing. Your support means everything to me!

Because I heart you big time (and because no blog birthday is complete without a gift) I'm giving away a pretty pink mixer. Over the years I've tried several brands of standing mixers, and while some are quite good (I really like my Bodum and Sunbeam) few are truly as great as a KitchenAid. That's not an advertisement, that's just my working experience. I believe every avid baker needs one!

Enter below for a chance to win this KitchenAid Artisan stand mixer. Open worldwide.
Please include your name or username as entered on the Rafflecopter widget with your comment.
Note: You will not be selected as a winner without commenting on the blog post.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Rainbow Meringue Truffle Cones

I've had my serious hat on for a couple of weeks now, mostly due to  deadlines and commitments. I believe that's partly how these rainbow meringue cones came about. I just couldn't take one more day with a furrowed brow. And do you know that rainbow treats are the opposite of a furrowed brow? They are.

Another reason why these rainbow puffs made it onto my baking sheet is because ThinkGeek sent me a Sprinkles the Unicorn Sprinkle Shaker. It's just the cutest thing. I've been waiting for the right  inspiration to use it in a blog post, and I felt something rainbow-themed was in order. This morning while drinking coffee and cloud gazing (I do that sometimes when the clouds are extra puffy), I saw a vaguely horse-shaped cloud illuminated by light, and felt it was a sign to use my unicorn shaker today.

Do you see it too? Practically a unicorn without a horn, right? 
Or maybe a dog. A goat with an abnormally fluffy tail? (smile)

Because the folks at ThinkGeek are so awesome, they sent along another Sprinkles the Unicorn shaker for a giveaway, and I'm opening the contest worldwide. You can enter with the Rafflecopter widget below. Email subscribers, please visit the blog post to enter.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Crème Brûlée Filled Strawberries

Happy July, friends! This will be a month of celebrations and birthdays (including my own!) so I've been trying to think up new ideas for party food. One of my favorite desserts of all time is creme brulee, and with all the juicy ripe strawberries at the market right now I felt the two should get together.

The hollowed-out berries each hold one spoonful of creme brulee. The tops of the strawberries are heaped with granulated sugar and then torched until caramelized. It's all so nice together - the freshness of the berry, the creamy custard and the crack of the caramelized sugar - it's a perfect bite!

To make the berries stand upright, cut the pointed end off flat with a serrated knife. Hollow the centers and take extra care to avoid piercing through the sides. At this point the berries can be filled with creme brulee and stored in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve them.

Just before serving, place a spoonful of sugar on top of each berry and use a chef's torch to caramelize the sugar. You can also caramelize the sugar under the oven broiler, just be sure to get it good and hot before you put the strawberries in. The strawberries will break down under heat, so they should only be allowed to stay in the oven for 2-4 minutes, just long enough for the tops to caramelize. Keep a sharp eye on them, it won't take long!

These turned out better than I'd hoped! I served them with mini forks but honestly there's no need for utensils. If you serve them to guests, I suggest putting the berries in paper liners for easy pick up, or have napkins close by to keep fingers tidy.

Crème Brûlée Filled Strawberries
[click for printable recipe]

1 cup/232 g heavy cream
1/3 cup/80 g half and half
Seeds from 1/4 vanilla bean or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup/50 g granulated sugar
30 to 40 medium strawberries, capped, hollowed and pointed ends trimmed flat
Additional granulated sugar for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 300F.
Heat the cream, half and half, and vanilla bean (or vanilla extract) in a medium saucepan over medium heat just to a boil. Immediately turn off the heat. Set aside to infuse for 10 minutes.

Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a large bowl until just combined. Whisking constantly, gradually pour in the hot cream mixture. Pour the mixture into a 10x10-inch baking and remove the vanilla bean.
Place the 10x10-inch pan in a large roasting pan and pour in hot water until it reaches halfway up the custard pan. Bake in the center of the oven until the custard is set but still has a slight wobble (it will cook more as it cools), about 55-65 minutes. Remove it from the water bath and let it cool. Cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator until chilled, about 2 hours.

Fill each berry with a spoonful of creme brulee. Store the filled berries in the refrigerator until you're ready to serve them.

Just before serving, place a spoonful of sugar on top of each berry and use a chef's torch to caramelize the sugar. You can also caramelize the sugar under the oven broiler, just be sure to get it good and hot before you put the strawberries in. The strawberries will break down under heat, so they should only be allowed to stay in the oven for 2-4 minutes, just long enough for the tops to caramelize. Keep a sharp eye on them, it won't take long! Let the berries stand for 5 minutes to let the caramelized sugar harden.

Note: The longer the berries stand at room temperature, the more likely they are to weep a little berry juice around the bottoms. I suggest serving these in paper liners or cute candy cups. They'll keep things tidy and disguise drips of berry juice.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Magic Flan Cake

Life feels a little crazy right now because in two short months the manuscript for my second cookbook is due. As you can imagine, I've been spending all my time baking, testing, and washing loads of dishes. Most mornings I can be found in a quiet place, trying to connect my head and heart so I can articulate how much these recipes mean to me. I'm eager to share all the details with you, but for now I can only tell you that all of the recipes are brand new, except for three favorites from the blog - and the only reason those are being included is because they were the inspiration for the book. Are you curious? (smile)

Between all these working days that fly by too fast, life happens. My husband had a birthday yesterday, and even though there are cookbook sweets all over the house (on every flat surface and some balanced precariously on chair arms) I was determined to make him something special.

This was my first time making Magic Flan Cake, and let me tell you this: it is special. It may not win any beauty contests, but it's the kind of cake that makes you close your eyes after you taste it. And the magic part? That takes place in the oven. The cake batter get poured into the pan first, and then the flan mixture is poured on top of the batter. During baking the two switch places- pretty neat! My favorite part is how the flan infuses the cake batter with creamy goodness, so the whole thing is a glorious custard/pudding/cake masterpiece.

There are two important things you need to know about this cake. (1. start one day ahead, the cake needs to chill in the refrigerator 8 hours or overnight, and (2. it requires a water bath. That might sound like a lot of work, but it's worth it. I repeat - It's SO worth it!

Magic Flan Cake
[click for printable version]
Yields 14 to 16 servings
Source:  adapted from Cook’s Country
Prep: 2 hours 30 minutes

1/2 cup/155g prepared caramel sauce
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons/60 g all-purpose flour
1/3 cup/46 g cocoa powder
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 tablespoons/85 g unsalted butter
1/2 cup/121 g buttermilk
1/2 cup/105 g sugar
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
28 ounces (2 cans) sweetened condensed milk (not evaporated milk!)
2 1/2 cups/598 g whole milk, room temperature
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
6 large eggs, room temperature
4 large egg yolks, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350°F.
Spray a 12-cup bundt pan with flour-based baking spray (such as Baker’s Joy).  Pour the caramel sauce evenly into the bottom of the pan.
In a medium bowl, combine the flour, cocoa, cinnamon, baking soda, and salt; set aside. In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the chocolate and butter; heat at 30 second increments in the microwave, stirring between heating until smooth. Add the buttermilk, sugar, eggs, and vanilla to the melted chocolate mixture and whisk until incorporated. Add the flour mixture and stir until combined. Pour the chocolate batter evenly over the caramel in the pan.
Add all the flan ingredients to a blender pitcher and process on liquefy (high) until smooth.  Slowly pour the flan mixture over the cake batter. Place the cake pan in a large roasting pan and then place it in the oven. Carefully pour hot water into the roasting pan (I used hot water straight from the tap) until it reaches halfway up the sides of the bundt pan. Bake the cake for 80 to 90 minutes, or until a toothpick tester comes out with a few moist crumbs clinging (mine took about 1 hour 40 minutes). Gently remove the Bundt pan from the roasting pan and place it on a cooling rack. Allow it to cool completely in the pan. Refrigerate the cake in the pan for 8 hours, or overnight.

To unmold the cake, fill a large bowl (or your sink) with hot water. Place the bottom of the cake pan in the water to warm the caramel/flan portion of the cake. This will help the cake release. Turn the cake out onto a large serving platter or a cake stand that has a lip. The caramel will drizzle down over the cake as you remove the pan. Store the cake covered in plastic wrap in the refrigerator.

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