Here is a way to create an even better gift (if only for yourself): Make vanilla extract. Actually, you can use the same technique to make other extracts as well.
For vanilla extract, all you need is liquor of some sort (whiskey, vodka, gin, tequila), fresh (not dried) vanilla beans, and some agave syrup (we’re using organic for this). To get fresh vanilla beans, search on ‘fresh vanilla beans’; don’t use dried. It works but it’s not as good. Ours came in a vaccuum-sealed bag. You will want to have at least 5 beans for a big bottle; preferably 10-12.
Why bother? You can buy vanilla extract (or, shudder, vanilla-flavored extract) at the grocery store. Well, the vanilla extract, even if it’s been made with ‘real’ vanilla, has corn syrup in it. If you have any issues with corn syrup, then making your own is the way to go. Making your own also gives you more control over how strong an extract you have. Then there is the issue of ‘renewable-ness’ — once you’ve used up all the extract in the bottle, guess what — just put more of the liquid ingredients in the bottle and voila – more extract. As long as you use fresh beans, these bottles are almost permanent.
So, you’ve got a bottle of vodka (if you have to go out and buy this stuff, go for what is coyly referred to as ‘bottom shelf’ – the cheapest stuff works as well as the super expensive stuff. I am using Smirnoff because I inherited that bottle along with a bunch of other liquor when my parents passed on. We don’t drink or entertain in that way, but we do a lot of baking), etc. You will also need a glass measuring cup and an empty bottle for the extract that has some sort of seal. You can find empty bottles in kitchen supply departments in stores – the ones with the ceramic or glass corks and metal bales work well; we used wine bottle because that is what we have and we also have the equipment to cork the bottles.
How to make your own vanilla extract:
First: Find out how much your empty bottle holds. Fill up the empty bottle with water to the point where you want it. In our case, we needed to leave room for the corks to go in; if you are using one of the ones with a ceramic or glass seal with a bale, you’ll want to still leave a couple of inches of room at the top. Pour the water into the glass measuring cup and read off how many ounces that is and write that down. Divide that number by 4 (or, multiply by 25%). That’s how much agave syrup you will be putting into the bottom of the bottle. I can tell you that this works much better if you have a funnel that will go into the neck of the bottle.
Second: Put your vanilla beans into the bottle - just the way they are. They will feel a little bit greasy – don’t wash them or try to get that off. It’s natural.
Third: Put the agave syrup into the bottle. Remember – this is going to be 1/4th of what the bottle holds. You can wing this by doing it ‘by eye’ but I prefer the slightly more scientific method of figuring out how much the bottle holds and getting 1/4th of that.
Fourth: Put the vodka (or other liquor) into the bottle to fill the bottle as far up as you wanted.
Fifth: Seal it up and put the bottle(s) into a dark, cool spot, such as a cupboard that is NOT over the stove or a heater and leave it there for 6 months to a year. That means that if you do this now, you will have gift extract for next year at the holidays.
What can you do with this stuff? Well, it’s fantastic vanilla extract just the way it is, but because you are using a type of alcohol which is for human consumption, you can actually drink this stuff (not that you’d want to swig it right out of the bottle, mind you), and use it to make cocktails.
So, there you go.