I have some sort of a love affair with vanilla. And in my mind, vanilla is tied forever with Mexico. For as long as I can remember, my family has always brought back big bottles of Mexican vanilla whenever we go there. It brings back memories of shopping on First Street in Ensenada, of dusty and cluttered shops where the overly friendly shopkeeper wants to make a "special deal for you today". Of course, if you want the really special deal you leave the tourist area and go to the big supermarket where the Mexicans shop. In more recent years, my vanilla memories take me to Zihuatanejo, and Puerto Morelos, to stifling hot days and only slightly cooler nights, geckos clicking and running across the walls, much to the delight of my children and myself, beaches and sand castles and waves, mysterious Mayan ruins rising from steaming jungles, cool clear cenotes, and more dusty shops with rows and rows of shiny bottles of vanilla.
Yes, in my familia Mexico and vanilla go hand in hand. Whenever anyone goes south of the border, they take orders for vanilla. So when I recently ran out of my big bottle of Mexican vanilla I was tempted to load up the van and head south. Seriously, it would be almost criminal to run a kitchen with no vanilla on hand! And sure, I know I can buy vanilla here; I can even go to the latin markets and buy Mexican vanilla, but it just wouldn't be the same. Instead, I began looking into making my own vanilla extract and lo and behold, it's a very, very simple thing to do. So, not one to do things in moderation, I decide I might as well just make a gallon or more so that I can have some to share as well.
The basic "recipe" for making vanilla is simply to soak vanilla beans in alcohol for at least 8 weeks, and presto change-o... vanilla extract! So, after reading up on the various origins and their properties, I ordered from The Arizona Vanilla Company a half pound of beans from Madagascar and another half pound from Mexico. The vanilla orchid originated in Mexico and Mexican beans are still considered the finest. But I was curious to see if I could tell any difference in the extract made from the two different origins.
Next stop, the liquor store. Now I was raised in a home where alcohol consumption was strictly taboo. I've relaxed a bit on this point, but still, between Erik and I, we consume maybe 1 or 2 drinks a month. (I guess this is one area where I do exercise moderation.) So when I traipsed into the liquor store, baby on my hip and two children in tow, I felt a bit out of place. A friendly employee pointed me in the direction of the vodka, and, at my request, pointed out the cheap stuff, as I'd read it doesn't really matter for making an extract. At this point Peregrine piped up, asking the man, "Isn't alcohol bad for you?" We assured him it's only bad in excess. (Like if mama went home and downed a whole lot of that vodka.) I, of course, felt compelled to explain to whoever might care that the reason I was buying two huge bottles of cheap vodkaand a bottle of rum was that I was using it to make vanilla, and that I'd be making a lot of it. As if the liquor store employees regularly pass judgement on people buying cheap alcohol. Yeah. They probably only think it's funny when people like myself seem nervous and make excuses. Yeah right, lady, we believe you're going home to make vanilla. Likely story.
So, I survived my liquor store experience and have been just waiting to put it all together. I've enjoyed the scent of vanilla that has greeted me when I walk into my kitchen and have politely ignored the brown paper bag full of cheap vodka that cluttered up my countertop. Last night I ran a knife down the length of each vanilla bean to expose the wonderfully fragrant little seeds. I dropped the beans into the jars, about 3-4 beans per 8oz of alcohol. Already this morning the clear liquid is turning a beautiful amber as the alcohol begins to extract the vanilla essence. And now, we wait. I'm excited to see how my vanilla experiment turns out. But that doesn't mean I don't want to get on a plane for more Mexican adventures!