Sunday, May 15, 2016

Baking discovery...

To say, I've been baking a lot would be an understatement. Since Valentine's Day baking in the kitchen has become my joy almost every weekend.  Not just for the sweet satisfaction it brings to my Sweetheart, my loved ones and friends, but for the fine art of baking and discovering what makes a great cookie recipe. Test, after test, after test proved one thing... not all cookie recipes are created equal and depending on your preference may or may not match your expectations.
 So I put down my mixing spoons and set aside my mixing bowls and did some research starting with what I preferred. For starters, I prefer a buttery cookie that is chewy and just a little firm. Not overly crowded with nuts, dried fruit, chocolate or candy. That's a personal preference ....and a well balanced cookie is not as easy as one would assume. 
Ingredients are key and should be respected from the start. This doesn't mean running to a totally organic store and choose only organic ingredients. Or, by buying some chickens to have the freshest possible eggs on hand... or even milling your own flower. I have to admit I've considered owning chickens, but I'll tell that story another day. Good ingredients mean treating them with care. Fresh eggs for instance, bringing them to room temperature. Or, choosing fresh chocolate rather than rancid. Making sure the baking soda is fresh and not left over from Holiday cooking spree. Taking the time makes a big difference.
During my research I landed on Ina Graten's cookie recipe which I pleasantly found I prefer. It has more flour and sugar in the recipe than most. The end product was very tasty, chewy, moist and flavorful.
With the chosen recipe down making cookies boils down to a few main and staple ingredients.... Eggs, sugar (brown and white), flour, salt, butter and one highly valuable and yet the smallest quantity of all the ingredients ... vanilla. Which is what lead me to my recent discovery.  

Vanilla is a go to ingredient during the holidays, but it's so expensive. Now here comes the good part... what I found out, while watching Southern At Heart, is that vanilla is something that you can actually make at home. For less money and in larger batches than those tiny bottles they sell in the grocery or specialty stores for $6.00 to $25.00.
When they say 'extract" they aren't kidding. To make vanilla extract it's the combination of vanilla beans sliced open and put into a bottle then pouring bourbon or vodka over the vanilla beans.

Over time the alcohol "extracts" the "caviar" from the bean and most everything else  Interesting concept that bourbon or vodka mixed with vanilla beans creates a liquid we predominately use for baking. Once, the liquid is included in the bottle it a 30 day waiting game with a healthy dose of  aggressive shaking. I shake mine at 5:00 amish and found this little act helped wake me up... just a tad.
I bought fresh vanilla beans from my local spice shop ( see previous article on Oakland Spice shop). I choose Madagascar and Vera Cruz vanilla means. Both are very plump and the caviar in both is tightly packed and fragrant. Madagascar is what we are accustomed to seeing on the shelves. By the way ...take the time to read the ingredients on the bottle at your local grocery store. I did and was surprised to find that all of them use plain old ordinary run of the mill tap WATER. How can you extract vanilla beans with water???? I asked my Oakland Spice Shop man and he was as baffled as I was. We concluded that they probably use sugar and boil the beans in water.... which is why the store bought vanilla extract is bitter in taste. Never tasted it straight from the bottle? This was a life lesson my Dad taught me. He thought most life lessons could be learned in the kitchen. This lesson was ...what might smell and look good doesn't taste good to the tongue.... which was a lesson about boys. They might look good and even smell good... but up close ...not so much.

But, back to the beans....I gotta admit the Vera Cruz is becoming my favorite over the past 18 days. Yah, I had to take a quick sniff and found the Vera Cruz to be more intensely "vanilly". It's 30-45 day process of daily shaking, placing in a shaded area and practicing patience and acceptance. Guess my Dad was right... most lessons can be learned in the kitchen.
Once the vanilla extract is done I will be back in the kitchen baking my heart out and making the world I live in just a little sweeter..
Remember cooking with love makes any recipe, ingredients and end product better...
More to come....