I've never been a vanilla freak. It's nice in cookies and stuff, but I actually stopped using it this past year because my grocery store was charging 2000 yen per teeny bottle. As for a real vanilla bean--well, if I was going to be stingy about a little bottle of extract that could probably contribute toward many, many batches of cookies, I sure as heck was not handing over money for one bean, one skinny black bean, that could only be used once. I guess if I were Jack, I'd have kept Bessie, and after we ate Bessie, we'd all have died of starvation cause I never would have bought "magic beans," nor climbed a beanstalk, or saved some stupid harp.
But...my husband. Now he is a vanilla man. This guy can walk into a Japanese department store basement (which is where the goodies always are), and while I'm still reeling from the sight of all those glorious, gorgeous confections glinting behind case after case, he'll march straight up to the first shop, pick the most vanilla product they've got (like vanilla butter biscuits, for god's sake!), and drag me out again. He hates Japanese department store basements, while I could linger forever.
Anyhow, I had been abruptly placed in charge of cooking Christmas dinner (with only two days' notice) for the two of us, and I knew instantly that dessert should be something vanilla. But not just plain vanilla. Real vanilla. Nothing but the good stuff for my honey--never mind all that talk from America's Test Kitchen about how no one can actually tell the difference in a blind taste test between real and fake vanilla. Yeah, whatever, you.
After some research, I learned that using real vanilla beans is only worthwhile if put into non-baked things, like mousse, where the flavor and aroma will really stand out. Also, you can stretch the worth of a vanilla bean by putting it in a jar of sugar to make vanilla-scented sugar. Or, you can make your own extract. Anyone familiar with my sourdough starter and fruitcake interests will understand where I'm going with this.
Home-made vanilla extract that requires seeping vanilla beans in alchohol for months. Hmmmm...
After further research, I'd discovered that the best extract is actually made with Everclear--95% pure grain alcohol, and illegal in some states in the U.S. because a shot of this stuff might actually kill you. Anyhow, toxic poisoning aside, Everclear has no discernible smell that would compete with the vanilla and its high alcohol content makes it ideal for making extracts. I didn't find Everclear but I did find this:
Polmos Spirytus Rektyfikowany -- Polish vodka (1000 yen from Nissin Azabu-Juban)
which is 96% alcohol, if you can't read the label, and can you believe people actually drink this stuff? My husband had some once, and after he came home, I found him sitting on the floor in the shower, immobile. I am definitely hiding my vanilla extract.
Anyhow, after procuring a small bottle containing two vanilla beans (600 yen--not bad), I used up half for a panna cotta, which was the easiest thing I have ever made in my entire life and tasted quite good, but was a bit too rich for my taste, and thus I maintain my preference for egg custard. I then snipped up the remaining beans into little bits and put them directly into the vodka bottle.
Here is a view of the bottom of the bottle with the bits of vanilla pods:
And here is the developing extract five days later:
I have to keep shaking the bottle from time to time for about four to six months. When I do, the little vanilla seeds go whirling through the alcohol.
It's like having my own snow globe. Except that the snow is black. So it's more like a coal globe, or, bottle.
Although the color has changed drastically in only a few days--and the scent is already quite lovely--I wonder if I should add more beans because most recipes say the formula is about one vanilla bean to 3/4 cup of alcohol.
So how was the flavor? This was, after all, my first taste of real vanilla beans. It was beautiful. As I was scraping the vanilla seeds for the panna cotta, some of those little guys unavoidably got stuck to my fingers. This is not a news flash but the aroma of vanilla beans is soft and flowery. Later, as I was working some brioche dough, the scent of vanilla on my hands mingled with all that butter from the brioche and rose up to make for some very aromatic but tiring dough beating.