I realized the first time I tried to bake a cake in Greece that readily available vanilla extract was something I had taken for granted in California. In Greek supermarkets the most common form of vanilla is a white powder that's sold in a vial. Yes, I know how suspect that sounds. But to Greeks, that's vanilla! Aside from its comparable appearance to a substance I would never want in my home, much less my cake, I could not help but wonder what that version of "vanilla" contained. How had vanilla, or the essence of it, been transformed from its dark and aromatic glory, to a bitter white powder? I'm ashamed to say that without knowing the answer to that question I decided "when in Rome (or Athens)," and used the powder in place of vanilla extract in the cake.
The coffee cake, which I had made many times before, suddenly had an unpleasantly bitter finish. I tasted the powder on its own. The astringent flavor was coming from the vanilla powder. You could have told me that was bound to happen, right? So I threw out the vanilla powder, and the inedible cake. I had to find a solution. I wondered, could I simply bake without adding any vanilla to my recipes? But a cake without vanilla would be like a sea without the fish! I was in crisis mode.
In Greece they have lovely spice markets called "bakalika." I decided that if I couldn't find decent vanilla at the supermarket, the spice markets would be a good place to begin my hunt. Much to my delight, they were selling plump and fragrant vanilla beans for no more than the cost of the caustic vanilla powder. I purchased a half dozen beans, and headed to the market to pick up a glass jar and some inexpensive alcohol.
Back in the days when I worked as a pastry chef in restaurants, I always insisted that we make our own vanilla extract. It was more cost effective. It was a perfect way to prevent the vanilla beans from drying out. Plus it was just so darn simple! Making vanilla extract is one of the easiest things you will ever do in the kitchen. In fact, after reading this you might not bother to ever buy a bottle of vanilla extract again. If you're living in Greece, I hope this will become a well-adapted solution to the vanilla powder situation!
To make your own vanilla extract you need three things.
• A clean & sterilized jar (I typically use an old jam jar that I wash and sterilize with boiling water)
• Vanilla beans (a good rule of thumb is 3 to 4 beans for every 4 ounces of alcohol)
• Alcohol (typically vodka is the spirit of choice for making vanilla extract, but I like to use brandy or rum for a more robust flavor)
Once you have the above ingredients, split the beans, scrape out the seeds, and drop the pods and the seeds into the jar. Add the alcohol to the jar and give it a good shake. After these simple steps, making your own vanilla extract simply becomes an exercise in patience.
Typically you should allow the extract to rest for 4-6 weeks before using it. This allows the alcohol to properly infuse with the vanilla flavor. Alternatively, if patience is not a virtue with which you've been blessed, you can speed up the process! To make a quick vanilla extract, place the pods, seeds, and alcohol in a pan. Heat the mixture over low heat, while stirring. Once warm and fragrant, remove the extract from the stove and transfer all the contents to a sterile jar. You can begin to use this vanilla extract within a week. I have photographed both vanilla extracts. As you can see from the photo below, the quick extract (on the left) is lighter in color and the flavor more delicate. This is because it hasn't had as much time to infuse. The traditional vanilla extract (on the right) has a darker color and a more intense vanilla flavor.
Both variations will improve with age. Always be sure to store your vanilla extract in a dark and cool environment. Light damages vanilla, and results in lackluster flavor.
There you have it. See, I told you it was easy!