If I could bottle the scent of the holidays, it would be my most treasured fragrance. That cosy smell of cinnamon sprinkles and gingerbread men is enough to make me carol my heart out even in the midst of the summer! Especially during December, it's no surprise to be welcomed home by the smell of vanilla, wafting from the kitchen. So when I do get down to baking (as rare as that maybe!), I always prefer using natural vanilla, which has that deliciously warm scent to boot.
What hampers that however, is the fact that most organic and natural products; both Indian and international, are either inaccessible or exorbitantly priced. Realising that I wanted to neither compromise on quality nor have to pay a ridiculous sum of money, I arrived at the idea of making my own vanilla extract. Versus the readily available vanilla essence, the extract of vanilla contains the actual bean extracts and not just its synthetic flavour. It is an obvious first choice when baking or cooking with the only setback being how unavailable and expensive it is. So after discussing it with my friend Roanna and sifting through various methods to make it, I got down to business and hand made my very own bottle of pure vanilla extract.
Step 1 - Gather your supplies
With a tutorial as simple as this one, the right supplies are crucial. Vanilla beans; which are most important, are available in most international food stories. While some of them arrive all the way from Tahiti and Madagascar, mine have been sourced from the local Goan markets. When it comes to the vodka, quality won't affect it so getting out the Grey Goose won't be necessary. Instead, a mid-range bottle of unflavoured vodka is all your need. Finally, your sharp knife is handy, keep that patience ready too because this is going to be a waiting game, my friends.
Step 2 - Slice 'em
Start by placing a vanilla pod on a flat surface steadily and using just the tip of your knife, slice it vertically right down the middle. This opens the bean and makes its flavour more accessible so repeat the slicing for each one of them. The ends of the pods are tough to chop open so I've either sliced it completely or separated them. Finding the right ratio of vanilla pods to vodka is crucial so I've used 3 full pods for 60 ml of vodka to give a pleasant extract without overpowering it.
Step 3 - Dunk it
Now simply immerse your vanilla pods in the vodka while making sure they are completely submerged with no ends sticking out. Since I'm creating a small batch, I've made the extract in the vodka bottle itself. If you are creating yours in a different bottle by adding the vanilla pods and vodka to it, pick your bottle carefully which didn't contain anything with a strong scent or anything inedible. Once you do, wash the bottle, sanitise it in hot water and dry it in direct sunlight before carrying out this tutorial.
Step 4 - Seal and store away
Finally, slap a label on the bottle (so that no one mistakes it for an creepy crawly growing!) and name it. Now here's where the patience part comes in. The vanilla extract will take a minimum of 6 weeks for an abundant flavour to set in. During this time, it needs to be stored in dark cupboard, away from direct sunlight. During the first week itself, the bottle will turn a pale ochre shade and will get darker as time goes by. Post 6 weeks, taste test a few drops to judge if the flavour is robust enough. If not, store it back away and wait for a few more weeks.
Photography: Raynor Pereira / Style File
If this isn't December in a bottle, I don't know what is. Now if only I could turn it into a perfume! I hope you enjoyed creating your vanilla extract and I'm sure, even in the middle of May, one whiff of this baby will remind you of a cold December night.