Damon Lee Fowler

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In History's Kitchen

26 October 2011: Mexican Vanilla

October 26, 2011

Tags: Mexican Vanilla, Bourbon, Southern Cooking, Classical Southern Cooking, Baking

Bourbon Mexican Vanilla Extract, day one: the liquid is still pale and clear.
One of the most enduringly popular spices in the bakerís pantry is vanilla, the bean or seedpod of a variety subtropical orchid native to the Western hemisphere. So many of our sweets and baked goods contain it that itís hard to imagine what the broad repertory of European and North American baking and desserts would be without it.

It may, in fact, have become a little too popular, thanks to the proliferation of cheap imitation flavorings, which have made vanilla so commonplace that the very word has become a synonym for bland, predictable and boring.

There is nothing bland or boring about real vanilla, and nothing that can equal its heady, fragrant magic. And while its imitations may be had for next to nothing, the real thing is still exotic and expensive.

However, a single bean can be made to go a very long way by infusing it into an extract. There are quality commercial extracts available, but making your own is very simple and gives a lot of satisfaction, not to mention flavor, that money canít buy. All it takes is a couple of first quality vanilla beans, some decent bourbon, and a little patience.

Some people use vodka or brandy, but I prefer the mellowness that bourbon lends. The most fragrant proportion is one bean for every quarter cup of alcohol, about half the alcohol usually called for in these infusions. You simply split the bean lengthwise, halve it, put it into a clean glass jar and cover it with the prescribed amount of booze. Seal and give it a vigorous shake, then put it in a cool dark cupboard that youíll be going into every day. For the first week or two, give it a shake every day.

Homemade extract lasts a lot longer because you leave the beans in the brew, replacing the extract as it is used with the same quantity of alcohol. Itíll last you for a couple of years at the least. Once the flavor starts to weaken, use it up and start a new batch.

Though I have full bottle of bourbon infused with excellent Madagascar vanilla beans, thereís another new batch infusing in my pantry, thanks to friend Colleen Crislip, who came home from her last trip to Mexico with one of the loveliest gifts imaginable: a slim glass tube containing three supple, fragrant Mexican vanilla beans. One of the most aromatic vanillas in the world, they havenít always been available to us north of the Rio Grande. They make the most fragrant extract imaginable, rich with hints of coconut and chocolate.

The photograph was taken yesterday, just after the bourbon was poured over the beans. As it matures during the next couple of weeks, Iíll share its progress.

Comments

  1. November 27, 2011 9:17 AM EST
    Hey Damon! What kind of bourbon did you use?
    - Paige Saussy
  2. November 27, 2011 9:46 AM EST
    Old Weller's is my house brand. Old Weller 7 year old for everyday cooking and occasional sipping; Old Weller's Antique for special occasion sipping.
    - Damon Lee Fowler

Selected Works

Cookbooks
A collection of more than twenty-five years of writing about and teaching the history and techniques of the cooking of my native American South, the collection of cuisines that we loosely call Southern Cooking.
A portrait of Savannah's growing restaurant scene in recipes and stories.
A Celebration of the Cuisine of the Old South, hailed as a modern classic and Bible of Southern Foodways.
A loving portrait of a proud old port city in recipes
Classical Southern Cooking in today's kitchen
Traditional Southern Baking for modern cooks
A sampling of the South's Cookery for the hundreds of regional fruits and vegetables.
Seventy five recipes that were documented to have been used at Mr. Jefferson's Monticello during his lifetime, translated for use in a modern kitchen, with essays by the Foundation's curatorial staff.

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