Saturday, June 21, 2014

The guilt free art of making vanilla...

Early last Fall I ran across several blog articles about making vanilla at home. It caught my attention and I decided I wanted to give it a try. First thing you have to have in making your vanilla of course, is vanilla beans. Vanilla beans are NOT cheap, well, not if you try to buy one in a grocery store, however, I found several places online where you can buy beans in bulk that pretty much get your bean costs to about a dollar or less per bean...I was okay with that! The second thing you have to have in making your own vanilla is....alcohol...most generally...Vodka!

Now, I am certainly no stranger to alcohol. In my younger days (MUCH younger!), I tried several of the various forms of alcohol, but thankfully, I never acquired a taste for it! Having family members that have regularly imbibed over the years certainly did nothing to lend to my appreciation of said liquors, and to be quite honest? Having seen the effects of it...I have no use for it! And until a few short months ago, you wouldn't have found alcohol in my home. Whether good or bad, the discovery of homemade vanilla has changed that outcome! ;)

I decided to start small with my first batch. I had the idea to do a "homemade Christmas" last year and vanilla was going to be one of the items on the gift list. So, I ordered my beans, bought a small bottle of vodka, and set to brewing. I started this about September, figuring it would give it enough time to distill with plenty of flavor in time for the holidays. I corked/lidded my bottle, set it in the pantry where it's dark, and shook it every few days throughout the season. When I pulled it out to get it ready for gift bottling, it smelt wonderful, so I stuck my finger in and gave it a taste test.....oooohhhhh YUCK!! I couldn't taste vanilla (or very little), all I could taste was the booze! I was seriously disappointed, figuring money wasted for something that wasn't going to be fit to use, but I bottled the stupid stuff anyway, since I'd already shopped the various thrift stores for cute little glass containers to put it in. I spent a day or two making up my label to go on them, filled the bottles, attached the label, and let them set. Of course, the girls thought it was all cool and great to get several homemade items, but I warned them in advance that I didn't really think the vanilla was fit to use.

My own bottle set in the pantry for several weeks after the holidays...I couldn't bring myself to just pour it out, but my fear of the taste kept me from using it. One weekend, when it was snowy and cold, I decided to make some sugar cookies. When I reached into my cabinet for my store bought vanilla, I realized I had an empty bottle...what to do now? Against my better judgement, I brought out the brewed stuff and added a teaspoon to the mix and baked up the cookies. I wasn't concerned about the alcohol itself since I knew the content would "cook out", but the flavor was what had me worried. While the cookies were still warm I took a tentative bite...ooohhh my goodness!!! Those were best tasting sugar cookies I'd ever made!! The next morning I decided to make pancakes and added a teaspoon of that vanilla...heavenly!! I could not believe the vanilla was rich and intense...and very delicious! I stared at my home brew with a new-found appreciation and decided right then and there I was making another batch! ;) I also called my girls and told them to try the vanilla in their next round of baking as I thought they were going to be pleasantly surprised...they were! They've since informed me their supply is getting low and they want more!!! :)

Now then...the cheapest place in our area for me to buy alcohol is at our local Walmart...I can get a large jug of cheap end vodka for a little less than $10 and I've been on the lookout for it for the past several weeks. Every time I would go to get a jug the shelf was always empty. I don't know if there are a lot of alcoholics in this area, or just a large group of cheap drunks, but time after time, that particular brand was sold out. Having received my large pack of vanilla beans I was getting a little frustrated in acquiring my alcohol. The beans arrive vacuum sealed, but with the heat and humidity for the past several days I did not want them laying around for very long.

Now, you have to understand...I live in a small town rural area, one of those where everybody knows everybody and since I've lived in this same area most of my life, it would be safe to say that a lot of people know me. So to see me in Walmart perusing the alcohol isle could most definitely set some tongues to wagging! ;) However, through experience, I've come to know that tongues will wag whether there's really anything to be worthy of wagging about, so with a clear conscience, and after the fifth trip in and shelf STILL empty, I decided it was time to start inquiring. I headed to the service desk where a well known employee was stationed and asked if I could speak to someone in grocery. With a smile beginning to form she replies, "Ohhh sure...hang on and I'll call someone...was there a particular area you needed?" To which I immediately answered, "Well, yes...I need something in the alcohol department." Smile freezes, finger pauses over the call button and a confused look begins to form beneath the eye lids..."Alcohol?"

Okay, so maybe I'm beginning to enjoy the moment, maybe that little guy with horns starts to prod me into playing this up...perhaps I see an opportunity to be a little, shall we say, ornery??!! My mother would say that was just "the Stevenson coming out in me", but as deadpan as possible I reply, "Well, I've made umpteen trips in here to get a big jug of vodka and there's never any on the shelf, so I wanted to find out when and if it's going to be stocked and how soon I can expect to get some...." The employee's smile then fades to nothingness and the call goes went something like this: "yeah, uhhh...I've got a customer up here that's wanting to know about vodka and why there isn't any!" The rest of the conversation becomes mumbled and I'm thinking my reputation has just become very cloudy indeed! I'm not sure if the person she was talking to was expecting an irate drunk or what, but you could see the wariness as they were approaching the service desk, eyes darting around, looking for this alcohol searching customer...again, another employee who knows me. Since I'm the only person standing there, they do a once over, dismiss the idea that it could possibly be ME who has asked this question, and then turns to the service desk to inquire where the "customer" was. With a very dismissive flick of the wrist, I am pointed out!

I will give the other employee credit...there was only a slight widening to the pupils when they turned to face me, but again, the "shock" was there! I explain my dilemma, no I did not mention the manufacturing of least not at this point, and then inquire as to whether there could possibly be any bottles in the back. With an overly bright smile, and only a slight stammer, the employee tells me they'll have to check, so off we head to the back of the store. She runs her scan of the bar code that tells her there is indeed some bottles in back and off she goes while I wait patiently next to the Jim Beam/Kentucky Bourbon bottles and try my best to look nonchalant!! ;) I might add that the "beer man" was already there stocking the shelves. I know he is the beer man because I had already inquired of him earlier as to why there was no vodka...he told me, "I'm just the beer man..." hmmmm?! So he's stocking, I'm waiting, and pretty soon the employee returns with an entire BOX of vodka...she carefully places the box on the floor, looks up at me and asks tentatively, "Soooo, uh, how many do you want?" ONE...I just need one! As she hands me up the jug and I place my grubby little hands around the neck of the bottle I exclaim without thinking, "Ooohhhh halleluiah...FINALLY!" I hear the beer man begin to chuckle and the employee starts to we three have now become co-conspirators in a booze fest about to start!

Okay, I admit...I was rather embarrassed after making that comment...I mean, "halleluiah" and "vodka" really shouldn't be used within the same context, but hey! I WAS glad to finally get it and to know my beans weren't going to be lost in the waiting. As I set my jug down in the cart I turned to both of them and said, "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said that...I just want you both to know my intentions are not to DRINK this stuff. I'm actually making vanilla and I need it to make a big batch.." They pass a look between them and continue to chuckle as I head off down the isle. I'm pretty sure they didn't believe a word of what I told them and probably had several more laughs once I was out of ear range. I could just see them discussing the fact that "they've heard it all" when it comes to someone needing alcohol...but making vanilla? I bet they've never heard THAT one before!!! ;)

I managed to make it through the rest of the store and the checkout line without running into anyone else I knew. Thankfully none of my church ladies happened to be shopping in there that day, as I don't know if I could have explained it quite as unflappably to them as I had done previously! But as you can see by the pictures I posted (proof of my innocence!) I did indeed go home and make vanilla! I actually had enough left over in my jug at the bottom that I decided to try my hand at lemon extract as well, so all drops, sips, and drips went into glass jars! Both jars are now quietly resting in the darkened pantry working their magic to arrive at flavors to be enjoyed to their fullest in about 4 months.

I have told myself I will try to be a little more circumspect the next time I am in need of some alcohol and hopefully whatever thoughts the grocery employee had about my intentions, will at least keep the shelf stocked and not require any further inquiry into supply and demand! Even with five of us using this marvelous brew, I should have no need for further purchases for at least another year and by then perhaps all memories will be erased! ;) But I have a notion I will be carefully "watched" from now on when shopping the local store, as such is the way of small town America and our town is no different! And yes, I could have went out of town to make my purchase, saved myself some gossiping, but to me that would imply I was somehow guilty of something, and you can bet I would have run into someone I knew, also shopping out of town, that would have made my particular purchase appear more guilt infused! As I said, people will believe what they want to believe and at my age, if my strength of character hasn't proved anything by now, no amount of explaining will! I will continue to buy locally and cart my jug to the front of the store with no qualms whatsoever, because the proof "will be in the puddin"....or in my case...the cookies, cakes, and pancakes!!


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