Post-consumer pantry: Not your ordinary vanilla

The vanilla bean is a simple, yet noble beast. Mere millimeters thick, the vanilla bean is a baking powerhouse; it's the flavor that makes cookies and cakes come alive. So why is that little bottle of extract so expensive? And why do I always realize it's empty after I've already cracked the eggs and creamed the butter?

After much grumbling about the price of extract, we realized we could make our own by the cup, not the tablespoon. All it takes is a couple of vanilla beans, some cheap vodka and about a month. The beans are definitely an investment (about $3 per bean), but they last for months, if not years.

If you buy your beans in bulk, you'll have plenty left over for vanilla sugar. These rich, flavorful granules can be substituted for regular sugar in most recipes for an extra punch of flavor. Add it to coffee, sprinkle on sugar cookies or scatter over berries. Most European recipes call for vanilla sugar rather than extract, so brush up on your gram-to-tablespoon ratios and make something truly sophisticated.

Vanilla extract

3 vanilla beans
1 cup cheap vodka

Slice three vanilla beans down the middle, leaving the tips of each bean intact. Place the beans in a large glass jar and top with vodka. Shake well and give it a swirl every few days. Store in a dark cupboard and one month later you'll have homemade vanilla extract. Top off the jar with more vodka as you use it and add another bean if it starts to get weak. Keeps for 1 year.

Vanilla sugar

1 vanilla bean
2 cups of granulated sugar

Slice the vanilla bean down the middle and scrape out the seeds. Place the seeds in a jar of sugar. Cut the bean into one-inch pieces and bury it in the sugar. Shake well and store in a dark place for 1-2 weeks. Keeps for one year.

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