experiments in cooking

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Chris’s Hot as Hades Queso

For our church’s New Year’s Eve family game night, I planned to make Rotel cheese dip in a small slow cooker. The afternoon of the party, I opened my cabinet and realized I didn’t have any cans of diced tomatoes with green chiles, just a can of plain diced tomatoes.

But I had an idea. After adding the diced tomatoes and a couple dashes of garlic powder to the cubed Velveeta and milk sitting in my slow cooker, I called to Chris, in the living room watching a football game.

“Hey, Chris, do you have any peppers you can chop up for my cheese dip?” I asked.

Chris, who grows container peppers every year and then saves them for the winter, is always thrilled to be asked to add peppers to something. “You bet!” he said, jumping up and running for the freezer.

He came back a few minutes later with a bag full of peppers.

“I only need a couple of peppers,” I said, explaining about not having any Rotel.

“Yeah, I know,” he said.

He chopped up a habanero and put it in with the cheese mixture.

“That’s probably enough,” I said.

“No way!” he said. “One pepper will be totally covered by the taste of the cheese.”

“I don’t know …” I said.

But Chris proceeded to chop up another habanero and five or six cayenne peppers and dump them all into my cheese dip.

We took the dip to the party, and it was the hottest cheese dip I have ever tasted in my life. It looked beautiful, and nearly everyone tried some. Then, as people passed through the serving line and settled down at their tables, all around the room I could hear voices calling for a drink, gasping, and pleas for relief. At one point, I took a bite myself and I think I screamed.

Chris was very, very proud of himself. This is a man who once won a special prize at a chili contest for having made chili so hot that no one was sure what it tasted like, but it sure was hot.

Yes, nothing suits a church party like the dip I am now calling “Chris’s Hot as Hades Queso.”

Rotel Cheese Dip

One can of Rotel tomatoes

½ block of Velveeta

Milk to suit the cook’s taste (approximately ¼ to ½ cup)

Cut the Velveeta into cubes and put the cubes in a microwavable container. Add milk.

Microwave Directions

Microwave in a covered dish for about four minutes. Stir. Microwave in small increments until the cheese is melted. Watch the dish to make sure it doesn’t spill over. After the cheese is melted, stir in the diced tomatoes. You may want to microwave it about one minute more to reheat the mixture after adding the tomatoes.

Slow Cooker Directions

Add all ingredients and turn the slow cooker on low for about two hours, stirring occasionally after the first hour.

Hot Version

Use (1) Rotel or (2) plain diced tomatoes with a couple dashes of garlic powder. Add chopped hot peppers. Know that the more you add, and the hotter the pepper, the hotter your dip will be.

Baked Macaroni and Cheese in My New Dutch Oven

For Christmas, Chris gave me a Dutch oven made by Lodge. A Dutch oven is a thick-walled (usually cast iron) cooking pot with a tight-fitting lid that can be used both on the range top and in the oven. I’d never had any cooking dish that could be used both on the range and in the oven. How cool is that?

I asked for a Dutch oven because so many recipes I’ve seen called for one, including a couple of recipes for some personal favorites: chicken fricassee and macaroni and cheese. In the past few weeks, I’ve made both dishes with my new Dutch oven and got to make use of the range-to-oven versatility for both meals. Boy, is it fun to use!

It is not, however, fun to clean any dish in which you have made macaroni and cheese. That said, this baked macaroni and cheese recipe, which my mother emailed to me, is absolutely delicious and worth the time it took to clean the pot—my lovely, cast-iron, pre-seasoned Dutch oven.

Macaroni and Cheese (from New World Pasta

8 oz dried elbow macaroni (2 cups)

2 tbsp butter or margarine

2 tbsp all-purpose flour

1/8 tsp ground black pepper

1-1/2 cups fat-free milk

12 oz of Velveeta (or processed cheese product), broken up

Directions:

Cook macaroni according to package directions; drain.  Meanwhile, for cheese sauce, in a large saucepan or Dutch oven, melt butter over medium heat.  Stir in flour and pepper.  Add milk all at once.  Cook and stir until slightly thickened and bubbly.  Add cheese, stirring until melted.  Stir macaroni into cheese sauce in sauce pan, stirring to coat.  Cook over low heat for 2 to 3 minutes or until heated through, stirring frequently.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.  Makes 4 servings.

Oven Macaroni and Cheese:  Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.  Prepare as above, except increase milk to 2 cups.  (If mixture is not in a Dutch oven, transfer mixture to a 2 quart casserole.)  Bake, uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes or until bubbly and heated through.  Let stand for 10 minutes before serving.

Christmas Dinner: Spiral-Cut Ham with Cranberry Glaze and Ranch Mashed Potatoes

A few weeks back, I volunteered to make Christmas dinner, because my mother-in-law was scheduled to work all Christmas Day. I, on the other hand, would be home and available to cook.

I let Chris decide what he’d like for dinner, and he chose ham. I’d never baked a ham before, but I said I’d do it. A couple of days before Christmas, Chris’s brother dropped off a spiral-cut ham for me to bake. Thanks to his work schedule, he wouldn’t be at Christmas dinner himself, but we planned to send ham and all the fixin’s to him after dinner was over.

Spiral-cut hams are typically fully cooked, so you just have to warm them before serving, unless you want to serve cold ham. It was going to take quite some time to warm up a ham the size of the one Jeremiah brought over. The package recommended two and a half hours at 275 degrees, so I popped the ham in the oven at 2:15 p.m., planning to take it out of the oven at 4:45 and serve it at 5 o’clock.

Around 4 p.m., I mixed up a cranberry glaze (taken from Joy of Cooking) for the ham and began a pot of mashed potatoes. I’d never made mashed potatoes myself before, although I’d helped my mom make them once or twice. The thing is, I hate mashed potatoes. But most people, including my husband, seem to love them, and they go well with ham, and it was Christmas, after all, so I thought, Why not? For the potatoes, I combined an online recipe with one in my new 2006 edition of Joy of Cooking.

At 4:45, the potatoes were coming along swimmingly, and the cranberry glaze was on the ham, but the ham just wasn’t hot. Frustrated, I checked my Joy of Cooking, which suggested baking a fully cooked ham at 325 degrees, a full 50 degrees hotter than suggested by the instructions that came with the ham. Stupid instructions! I wound up having to turn up the oven to 400 degrees for the last several minutes, and shortly after 5 p.m. got the ham warm enough to eat. But it still was not as hot as I would have liked.

The ham tasted good, even if I wasn’t happy about the baking process. And the cranberry glaze was delicious. (In fact, it was so good that I used the leftover glaze a couple of days later as a topping for baked chicken breasts—baked them beneath the cranberry glaze at 350 degrees, covered, for 40 minutes. Yum!)

Also, Chris and his parents told me the potatoes were great. They certainly looked good—white and fluffy as any I’ve ever seen—and they smelled good too. The ranch dressing, everybody said, added a nice flavor.

Finally, Chris begged me to try a bite, and I did, but couldn’t stomach ’em. I just flat out don’t enjoy mashed potatoes, no matter how pretty they are. You know how much easier my life would be if I could enjoy a big pile of mashed potatoes? For one thing, then I wouldn’t have to hear Chris telling everyone how weird I am.

Below are the recipes for the best parts of our Christmas meal: the glaze that I loved, and the potatoes that Chris loved.

Cranberry Glaze

1 can of cranberry sauce, jellied or whole

¼ to ½ cup brown sugar

Orange juice (amount left to the cook’s discretion)

Optional: whole cloves

Mix cranberry sauce, brown sugar, and orange juice. If you are using the glaze on a ham, remove the ham from the oven 45 minutes before the end of the baking time. If you want to use cloves, press them into the outside of the ham. Spread cranberry sauce mixture over the outside of the ham and return the ham to the oven.

Ranch Mashed Potatoes

3–4 baking potatoes, peeled, cut into chunks

1 bay leaf

2 cloves crushed fresh garlic

2 tbsp butter

¼ cup Light Ranch Dressing

For best results, cut potatoes into equal-size pieces to ensure even cooking. Cook vegetables, garlic, and bay leaf in boiling water in large saucepan 20 min. or until tender; drain and remove the bay leaf. Add butter and dressing. Mash until light and fluffy.

Cherry Moos: Not Quite Like Grandma Used to Make

For Christmas Eve this year, Chris’s mom and I planned a German Mennonite supper of chicken noodle soup, zwiebach, and cherry moos (pronounced moze.) I volunteered to bring the zwiebach (all I had to do was thaw some rolls I froze in November) and to make the cherry moos as part of my education in traditional German Mennonite cooking.

Cherry moos are essentially a cherry soup or thin cherry pudding. I’d had cherry moos only once before, the Christmas Eve when I met Chris’s grandma Dorothy Weber 10 years ago. So I had a vague idea of what they should look and taste like.

Without the German gastronomical experience, I confess, I found the idea of plain cherry soup to be missing something. It wouldn’t sound odd to me if I’d grown up eating cherry moos, I’m sure. But I am who I am. So I decided to add my own touch to the cherry moos.

When my parents serve strawberries and cream, they serve the fruit over broken pieces of pie crust, which is eaten scooped up with the fruit like crackers crumbled into soup. That gave me the idea for making pie crust Christmas shapes to eat with the cherry moos. I figured it would be like a deconstructed cherry pie.

“Could you eat cherry moos over cookies or a crust?” I asked Chris.

He gave me a weird look. But after a moment he said, “I don’t know. That might be okay.”

And that was all I needed to forge ahead with my plan to make some “holiday pastry crisps” to serve with the cherry moos.

Other than adding some pastry as an accompaniment for the cherry moos, I intended to stay completely true to Chris’s grandmother’s cherry moos recipe. I read over the recipe several times before Christmas Eve. It didn’t look difficult.

But when I went in the kitchen on Christmas Eve to start cooking, it suddenly occurred to me, rather late in the game, that I didn’t have an important ingredient in my cabinets: cherries.

I sent Chris, armed with a cell phone to call me with questions, out to Russ’s Market to buy two cans of cherries. He called me a few minutes later.

“What kind of cherries am I supposed to buy?” he asked.

I looked at the recipe.

“The recipe says 1 quart fruit in syrup,” I said.

“Well, there are two kinds here,” Chris said. “Tart red cherries and dark cherries.”

“I have no idea which,” I said.

“You’re sure the recipe doesn’t say?”

“Nope, it doesn’t,” I said.

There was silence on the other end of the line. Clearly we were at an impasse.

“How about dark cherries?” I said. “They sound good.”

“Okay!” said Chris, sounding relieved.

As soon as he got home with the cherries, I got to work. The recipe was easy to follow. And while the cherry moos were stewing on the stove, I made my pastry crisps. Then we put everything into portable containers and took it over to Chris’s mom’s house.

After dinner, I brought out bowls of steaming, purple cherry moos and stood a couple of pastry crisps in each bowl. I hoped the cherry moos tasted right, but only Chris and his parents would know.

Chris took a bite. His mother took a bite.

Quietly, everyone took a few bites. But no one said anything.

The silence seemed significant.

“Well, how do they taste?” I said.

“It’s … good,” said Chris. But he sounded puzzled. And I wasn’t convinced.

“Yes, it’s good,” Chris’s mom agreed. But she’s so nice, she’d say it was good if it was the worst thing she’d ever tasted.

“You can serve cherry moos cold,” said Chris’s dad.

As we were not discussing the temperature of the dish, this non sequitor seemed to be a hint that the cherry moos were not all that they should be.

“It’s not right, is it?” I blurted out. “Just say it.”

“No … It’s … good …” said Chris.

“Then why are you saying it that way?” I asked.

“Something is different,” he said.

Bad is different,” I said. “I knew it!”

“No, not bad,” said Chris. “Let me think …”

Then inspiration hit him.

“The cherries!” he said. “You used dark cherries.”

“You said you didn’t know which to buy,” I said.

“I know, but I think maybe you’re supposed to use the tart cherries,” he said.

“I wish you’d remembered this earlier,” I said.

“But this is good!” said Chris. “Now that I know why they’re different, I think they’re fine.”

I looked at Chris’s mom.

“I like it this way,” she said. And she said it very firmly, not like when you serve her meat that is underdone or overdone and she says she likes it but you know she couldn’t possibly like it, really.

I must have still looked downcast, because she added, “I suppose my mother and grandmother used the tart cherries, but I don’t think they had canned dark cherries available back then.”

“I wanted to make it the way you remembered,” I said.

“No worries!” said Chris. “And you know some people make moos with plum. I bet it tastes like this.”

But it wasn’t plum moos I wanted to make for Christmas Eve.

On the plus side, the “holiday pastry crisps” added a nice texture to the dish, as well as a nice visual contrast to the deep color of the cherry moos.

We had several pastry crisps left over, so I froze them to serve with the next batch of cherry moos I make. And I will get them right next time.

Below are Grandma Weber’s recipe for Cherry Moos and my recipe for Holiday Pastry Crisps.

Cherry Moos

Combine:

1 quart fruit in syrup (traditionally, tart red cherries are used)

3 cups additional water or milk (can use 1 cup cream)

½ cup honey or sugar

Cook slowly until fruit is soft.

Combine in small bowl:

4–5 T flour

Additional honey or sugar if needed

1 cup milk or cream

Mix to a smooth paste. Dip out some of the hot fruit mixture and stir into paste; then slowly pour mixture back into the fruit, stirring constantly. Continue cooking over low heat until thickened. Serve warm or cold.

[Sarah’s note: May serve over shortbread, pie pastry, or, in warmer months, over ice cream.]

 

Holiday Pastry Crisps

1 pie crust (premade refrigerated crust is fine)

Sugar to sprinkle

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Let the pie crust sit out for a few minutes or take the chill off it by microwaving it for a few seconds. Roll out the pie crust, then cut out shapes with cookie cutters. (I cut out stars and Christmas trees.) Reroll the dough and cut out shapes until it is used up. Place shapes on a cookie sheet, either greased or ungreased. Sprinkle shapes lightly with sugar. Bake approximately 8–10 minutes or until light golden brown. Remove from pan and cool.

Serve crisps with cherry moos or strawberries and cream. Dip the crisps into the fruit mixture like a cracker into soup.

An Evening of Classical Music and French Toast

On Christmas Eve Eve, also known as December 23, Chris had his first night at home after 11 evenings away at various functions with work, church and friends. I had been away for 10 of those 11 nights. The boys had been away half of those nights at Grandma’s or the church Christmas program. So we were all tired and looking forward to an evening home as a family.

That morning we’d discovered that Jonah’s favorite Mozart CD wasn’t working anymore, and he listens to it every night at bedtime. He loves it, and it works like a charm—he falls to sleep within minutes every night. He was sad, and I wasn’t up for a rough bedtime that night, so I promised to find him something new at Barnes & Noble, which across the street from my office. I found a two-CD set called “The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World … Ever!” and brought it home with me.

Jonah was excited about the new CDs, especially the fact that there were 18 tracks on each. The more tracks, the better the CD, in his opinion.

“I’m going to listen to my music,” he said.

“Not in the living room,” I said. “Neeley is already watching Elmo.”

Jonah looked nonplussed.

“You can listen in your bedroom, and when Elmo’s over, I’ll let you know so you can come listen in the living room.”

Meltdown averted, Jonah went in his room and closed the door. As I went back to the kitchen to wash the dishes and feed the dogs, I heard, faintly, the strains of a Bach orchestral suite coming from the back of the house.

A few minutes later, as the Elmo’s World closing credits played, I called to Jonah to tell him he could come listen to his music. There was no response. So I walked to his room and opened the door.

There was Jonah, lying under his covers, one arm thrown above his head, fast asleep. His CD player showed Track 7 of CD 1 of “The Most Relaxing Classical Album in the World.”

Now that’s an aptly named CD.

While Jonah napped, I got ready to make a quick supper. I thought that making something simple would be best, considering all the holiday food we’d be eating over the next couple of days. Also, I wanted to make something that would suit the wintry weather. So I gave Chris two options: (1) macaroni and cheese or (2) French toast.

He picked French toast.

Chris says I make the best French toast. Yeah, of course he has to praise my cooking, but I do have strong feelings about how French toast should look and taste and I think my instincts are right on. In my opinion, many restaurants focus too much on the topping and not enough on making the toast itself taste good. A good piece of French toast would be delicious with no topping at all, and would be heavenly with just a small amount of syrup and possibly a small amount of butter.

French toast was one of the few things I mastered in the kitchen before I got married at age 24. There was very little else that I could make without a recipe—I even had to consult the box each time just to make packaged macaroni and cheese—but French toast I could cook by instinct. My mother taught me her method when I was a kid, I picked up some additional ideas in high school from my best friend Heather’s family, and then I refined my French toast through college and the couple of years after that.

A lot of the French toast out there is soggy, dry, too oily, too egg-y, not egg-y enough, undercooked, or overcooked. People hide this mediocre French toast under giant mounds of butter, blankets of powdered sugar, whipped cream, and syrup so deep you can’t see the toast beneath. I’m sorry if that sounds good to you, because I have to say, there’s no point to French toast like that. That’s a ruined piece of bread covered with a heart attack.

Instead, learn to make French toast so good on its own that it would seem a sacrilege to add powdered sugar, or even a mound of fruit, like some people do. Eat the fruit on the side and let the toast speak for itself.

Of course, my plain tastes don’t suit everyone. You can certainly top your next homemade French toast however you like, but I recommend trying it simple at least once, maybe twice, with just a little butter and syrup (no more than ¼ cup of syrup) to get the feel for how you actually want your toast to taste.

French Toast

Makes 6 slices

2–3 tbsp butter, halved

2–3 eggs (allow approximately one egg per two slices of bread)

2­–3 tbsp skim milk

Pinch of cinnamon

Sliced bread

  1. Melt one tablespoon of butter on a griddle or skillet. Keep an eye on the butter and use a spatula to spread the butter evenly across the griddle.
  2. While the butter is melting, use a fork to stir eggs as for scrambled eggs. Add milk and cinnamon to eggs and stir to combine. Mix well, because your toast will taste best if the egg, yolk, and milk are thoroughly mixed and completely smooth.
  3. When the skillet is hot and the butter melted and sizzling, dip both sides of a slice of bread in the egg mixture, making sure to coat the toast evenly. There should be no dry corners. Do not let the bread soak in the egg mixture or the toast will be soggy. I lay the bread on top of the egg mixture, push it in for just a moment, check to make sure the side I’ve dipped is coated. Then repeat with the other side of the bread. Note that the last pieces of toast you make may have very little cinnamon on them. If you want more cinnamon on them, you may add more cinnamon to the egg mixture before dipping the bread into it or carefully sprinkle cinnamon on the bread while it is toasting on the griddle.
  4. Immediately place the bread on the skillet. Repeat with additional slices.
  5. After a couple of minutes, flip each slice of toast. Do not flip until the bottom side is browned to your liking. After two minutes, you can lift a corner to check for doneness. I like a dark golden brown; my husband likes his lightly toasted. However you like it, do not flip the toast until the first side is completely toasted; it should not be soggy and should be crisp to the touch. When the second side is browned to your liking as well, remove the toast from the griddle and serve with butter and warm syrup.
  6. If you are making more toast than you can complete in the first batch, clean off the skillet with a paper towel after the first batch, then add the remaining butter and begin again at step one. (You can skip step 2 if you made enough egg mixture for all the toast you wish to make.)

Tip: As the toast cooks, you may want to add more butter to the skillet to give the toast the desired buttery, fried look. You can add more butter to the middle of the skillet and, as it melts, spread some around on the skillet under the pieces of toast.

A Perfect Holiday Storm

This Saturday, at some point I was juggling all four of the baking sheets I own, washing multiple bowls and measuring cups so I could use them again immediately, grabbing ingredients from cabinets all around me, getting cups of water for my kids, running outside to give the dogs a break in the yard, sweeping the living room, restarting a “Little People” DVD that Neeley just had to watch but Jonah was loudly announcing he was sick of watching, discussing with Jonah the shapes of a 100-piece cookie cutter set that Jonah went through one by one—several times—repeatedly shouting out the time, which Jonah asked about every two minutes—answering the phone, doing laundry, hunting for wax paper, fending the kids away from the Halloween chocolate, putting away groceries, trying to eat a snack because I didn’t get lunch, hunting down a pen because Neeley has used all mine as drumsticks and has hidden them around the house, and trying to calculate how much time I had before I had to get dressed to meet the babysitter, drop Chris off at a friend’s house to watch a Huskers football game, and pick up a friend for dinner.

Ah, Saturday, my day off––

Wouldn’t that be nice!

To tell the truth, I was busier this Saturday than usual. Any Thanksgiving holiday baking I’ve done in the past has been pretty limited. Usually we go to relatives’ houses where I’m not expected to bring much. I’ve also relied pretty heavily on frozen and deli foods in the past. But this year I had a lot to accomplish the weekend before Thanksgiving. I had three events to bake for: a church-sponsored bake sale, a church Thanksgiving dinner, and a work Thanksgiving potluck lunch.

It – wore – me – out.

I think I finally have some idea of what many, many generations of women before me experienced during the days when there was no convenience food, no sliced bread, so handy resealable package of Oreos. That’s some idea only, because I didn’t actually have to make everything we ate this weekend myself, just a lot of goodies … cookies, zwiebach, and a cranberry side dish. I mean, I was fortunate enough to get, between baking sessions, Little Caesar’s pizza on Friday (some people would call that un-fortunate), an Olive Garden dinner on Saturday, and turkey provided by our church on Sunday evening. Nevertheless, I’ve never made so much in three days. I’m new to this.

Here was my baking schedule:

Thursday Afternoon

No bake cookies

Peanut butter Rice Krispie treats

Cocoa Rice Krispie treats

Dough for Italian ribbon twists

Friday Afternoon

Bake Italian ribbon twists

Saturday

Cranberry compote

French almond wafers

Mennonite zwiebach (double buns)

I’m willing to bet that a lot of women out there have made far more than this in a three-day period. But on top of working full-time, caring for the kids, doing laundry, taking care of the dogs, cleaning up around the house, volunteering at the church bake sale, and grocery shopping at Walmart, it was pretty hard to get everything done!

But I’m not complaining. No way! I’m Super Mom. Hey, I sewed up Jonah’s torn shoe yesterday morning before leaving for church, while serving breakfast, making coffee, changing Neeley’s diaper, putting shoes, socks, and coat on everybody but Chris—who puts on his own coat, usually—and feeding the dogs. But it would be nice to take a break.

In spite of being so tired that I brushed my son’s teeth with my own toothbrush last night, I’m glad I made all the stuff I baked. I made some memories working in the kitchen. And, looking back on how crazy my Saturday was, I think maybe it was more funny than awful. And I believe in the value of hard work, so I don’t think my time was wasted.

All the same, I’m pretty happy that later this week I’ll get to spend some time sitting on the couch, just talking with my family, maybe listening to some music, and cuddling with my little guys.

And announcing that it’s 3:30, 3:32, 3:34, 3:36 …

Yeah, you don’t get to take a break from some things.

Making Your Own Vanilla

I was pricing vanilla extract online yesterday and feeling discouraged about the cost. I’d also priced vanilla at three different grocery chains without finding an affordable option.

Here’s the situation: Pure vanilla extract runs at least two dollars an ounce for smaller bottles, like a miniature two-ounce bottle, and for larger bottles the price hovers around $1.50 per ounce. The best deal I found was a 32-ounce bottle of vanilla for $36 dollars—but I really don’t feel like shelling out that much for vanilla. And I don’t want to go back to using imitation vanilla.

At lunch, I complained about the Vanilla Problem to my co-worker and friend Karalyn, who, with a background in catering and a love of food, is always ready with cooking advice.

“Did you know you can make your own vanilla?” she asked.

I stared at her for a moment, wondering if she was playing a joke on me.

“No …” I said, cautiously.

“Well, let me tell you how to do it,” she said.

The process for making your own vanilla extract, according to Karalyn, is easy. All you need is a bottle of brandy or vodka and two vanilla beans. Slice the beans in half crosswise and slit them lengthwise, then drop them in the bottle of brandy. Let it sit for about six weeks, and you’ll have vanilla extract.

It really did sound easy! And I knew I had to try it—and soon, because six weeks would be just around the start of holiday baking season, and I wanted my homemade vanilla for that. The only difficulty would be getting the ingredients.

First, because I don’t drink alcohol and haven’t ever cooked with it, I have never purchased any. This raised a couple of challenges: I didn’t have the slightest idea what to look for, and I also didn’t want anyone to think I was buying it to drink. Sure, people do drink, but being a non-drinker is part of who I am; and as part of that identity, you just won’t find me browsing the liquor aisles at the local grocery. So I had to check my conscience: as a person who doesn’t drink, should I be buying alcohol for any reason?

If not, I suppose I shouldn’t have ever been buying vanilla extract in the first place. And that seemed a bit absurd. Ultimately, I decided that buying alcohol for the purpose of making vanilla extract was something I could do without compromising my teetotaler values. So buy it I did—feeling pretty out of place, of course. You can believe that was one of the quickest shopping trips I’ve ever made.

Second, where would I find fresh vanilla beans? Karalyn suggested one of her favorite health food markets, and since one of them, the Red Clover Market, is located near my work, I decided to give them a call to make sure they had some beans. They did: Madagascar vanilla beans at $1.14 per bean.

Just in case the closest discount chain grocery to my work had vanilla beans, I thought I’d give Super Saver a call too. They had to send someone to look, but eventually they found a jar with two beans in it on the spice aisle, for $8.00 a bottle. Yes, that’s eight dollars for two beans—three and a half times the cost of the fresh beans at Red Clover.

When I got home from my vanilla extract ingredient shopping run, I laid my Red Clover vanilla beans on a cutting board, sliced them in half crosswise, slit them lengthwise, and dropped them in the bottle of brandy. I made a mental note to change the label to a homemade “Vanilla” label. Then I stored the bottle in the cabinet over the stove to do whatever it is supposed to do.

If this works, in six weeks I will have 750 ml (24 oz) of vanilla extract for $11.50. That’s about 48 cents per ounce—approximately a fourth of the cost of buying vanilla in the store or online.

That’s a good deal.

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