I really hate artificial anything, especially knowing what we all know now about the effects overly processed foods have on our bodies. We also know how much better fresh food tastes-think about fresh from the farm, hormone-free milk in glass bottles as opposed to non-organic milk in plastic jugs from the grocery store. The low fat organic, antibiotic and hormone-free milk tastes so rich and creamy, it’s better than store bought whole milk. It’s also sweet and fuller-flavored. I also always like to look for the more economical way of doing things and ones that don’t involve tin cans.
Alas, I decided this weekend to make a few things on my own, starting with Vanilla Extract. This couldn’t be easier. I had some rum on hand that is 80 proof, but I know you could use other alcohol as well, including bourbon or vodka. I had bought whole vanilla beans not too long ago and they sat in my cupboard because I was too intimidated to use them and they were so expensive that I thought I had to save them for a really special recipe, one where I wanted to see the vanilla bean seeds floating around. They sat for months until I realized they’d also be perfect for making extract. In my case, I scraped out the insides of the bean pods and saved it for an ice cream recipe. I took the pods and stuck them in a mason jar and covered it with rum. I did use an anejo rum but not a dark or flavored rum as I want the extract to be overpowered by the vanilla, not the alcohol flavor. It will now sit in a dark place in my kitchen cupboard for the next 6-8 weeks but I will certainly check on it often. Why do this? The beans cost me maybe $10-$12 and the alcohol (I used 1/2 a bottle) cost me $10. So for around $20 I have home made vanilla extract in the amount that would have easily cost me $30 or more. Note, you can make almond extract the same way-throw some raw almonds into a jar and cover with vodka. Wasn’t that easy?
Next up, Condensed Milk. I love condensed milk and sweetened condensed milk, but really? How hard could this be to make, I wondered. Not hard at all as it turns out. So once again, you can start with your own choice of milk, I like to use whole but you don’t have to by any means. You simmer it on the stove until it reduces by half. Most recipes you will find on the internet use powdered milk (no idea why), sugar and margarine or butter. I can not find any need for the margarine or butter, although some say it helps thicken it and I suspect it just makes the ingredient that much richer and more delicious. But I chose to left it out of my experiment. I also left off the sugar because I don’t understand why the milk has to be sweetened when you could just add sugar or whatever sweetener you choose to your recipe. Of course I had these grand visions of making so much condensed milk that I wouldn’t need to buy any ever again, but the truth is, it only keeps for about a week so you really should just make this as needed. Some love the sweetened version as a nice addition to their morning coffee or tea, which I think is just brilliant. But in my simple experiment, to be used for baking, I started with the basic but could see adding vanilla, cinnamon, or other things.
Here are a few other quick ingredient ideas, good to know because you may not have these on hand all the time.
Combine 1 teaspoon baking soda, 2 teaspoons cream of tartar and 1 teaspoon of corn starch. The cornstarch is important because it helps keep everything from clumping and keeps the mixture dry, which is important. You know how they say cooking is intuitive but baking is scientific? This is what they mean. Baking powder starts working when it is wet, which should be when you combine it with your wet batter. Both baking soda and baking powder are leavening agents, but they work differently-soda neutralizes acids in recipes that have things like citrus or vinegar, but also works to leaven when heated. Baking powder works when wet. Here’s a really helpful page about these two ingredients on the Joy of Baking.
For every one cup of cake flour you need, take one cup of regular flour, minus two tablespoons. Replace with two tablespoons of corn starch. Sift this so it gets well incorporated. Done.
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Place 1-2 tablespoons lemon juice (strained) or white vinegar into a cup and fill the rest of the cup with regular milk. Let stand for 10 minutes. It will curdle. Use immediately or store. If you don’t need a whole cup, then just cut the recipe down to your needs. I loved it when I learned what really made buttermilk buttermilk-it’s curdled milk, full of acidity, which can do all sorts of wonderful things to your food. It makes sense why you hear of buttermilk chicken-the acid is working to make that chicken more tender and when used in baking it not only extends the shelf life of the baked good but it adds a richness to the end product.
This couldn’t be easier-you take regular sugar (I use evaporated cane juice) and blend it or put it in a food processor or coffee grinder until it becomes powdered sugar. Of course it yields more in volume because air is incorporated, but wasn’t that easy? If you are storing, add one tablespoon cornstarch to the blender so it doesn’t clump while it hangs out in your cupboard. This is optional, but recommended if not using immediately.
This is a fun little exercise I like to do with my kids once in a while, which of course happened to me by accident the first time. I have been whipping cream by hand since I was a child-my grandmother used to have one of those hand cranked beaters and I loved being the one in charge of whipping cream. Now I use an electric stand up mixer, which actually means I need to keep an eye on things as the cream whips rather quickly. I just take heavy cream and stick it in my stand up mixer and whiz away. If I am making whipped cream for a dessert, I often add a touch of vanilla or sometimes powdered or brown sugar. However, by accident once, I let it go too long and it turned to butter! So if you want to do this intentionally, you can take the opportunity to add all kinds of mix-ins like chives, salt, lemon zest, or other herbs.
I’m not done with this idea, just done for now! Maybe next I’ll make pickles!
Rosemary Maggiore is our Last Minute Lady. A single mom of two kids plus a full time job (she runs this website!) keep her busy and usually pushing things to the last minute. Somehow she manages to keep her cool and her sanity while she enjoys good food, wine, friends and most importantly, family.
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