January 24, 2015

We Knead To Bake #24 : Pane Siciliano (Sicilian Sesame Seeded Semolina Bread)

o here we are in the first month of 2015, and the third year of the bread baking group, We Knead To Bake. When I got the group going, my only thought was that it would be nice to bake bread with a group and would keep me motivated to try new breads regularly. I never thought that we would still be going strong three years from then.

Most people are probably recovering from celebrating the festive season and minds naturally turn back towards eating more sensibly. Bread still is a load of carbs but to my mind healthy eating is about eating as balanced a meal as possible and that includes carbs. Of course, it’s another matter entirely that I love bread and don’t need an excuse to make and eat it!
Anyways, what we do in this group is bake bread. So this month we’re baking a simple semolina bread crusted with sesame seeds and called Pan Siciliano. If you really need convincing to bake this bread, then let me assure you it goes very well with soup and a salad.

On the 13th of December every year, feasts are held in Sicily and around the world celebrating the bravery of Santa Lucia. One way is by baking a special bread which is known as Pan Siciliano. What is different about this bread is that it is made with semolina (what we know in India as rava/ sooji). In Sicily (and Italy), the semolina used for this bread is a specific grind of durum wheat called “semola di grano duro rimacinato” or just “rimacinato”, which translates as 'ground again'. This refers to semolina which is ground once more to break the coarser grain into finer flour for bread.

If you can find rimancinato where you live, then go ahead and use that for this Pane Siciliano. Otherwise use the finest grind semolina you can find which is what I did. In India, there’s a variety of semolina that is very fine (but still grainy) that’s used for making laddoos, halwa and batters. Otherwise, just run the regular semolina you have, the kind used to make “upuma”, in the chutney jar of your mixer-grinder or coffee grinder till it’s as fine as you can grind it.

Though there are a lot of recipes out there for making this bread in a shorter time, traditionally this bread is made using a pre-ferment which the Sicilians/ Italians call “cresciuta”. This produces a more flavourful loaf of bread and isn’t all that much more work than a recipe without the pre-ferment. This particular Pan Siciliano recipe calls for gluten which improves the texture of the loaf. If you do not have it, leave it out.

The Pane Siciliano is generally shaped into one of two shapes – the “Occhi di Santa Lucia” meaning the “Eyes of St.Lucia” or the “Mafalda” meaning “Snake”.  I chose to make the “Mafalda” as I had earlier baked St. Lucia rolls in the “occhi” shape, and I had never tried shaping my bread into a snake!

To form the Occhi di Santa Lucia or a scroll shaped loaf of bread, roll the bread dough into a long rope and lay it out straight. Then coil it from each end in opposite directions. (Please see my post on making St. Lucia Buns for a detailed pictorial for this kind of shaping )
The Mafalda produces a rather odd looking bread, but if you’d like to shape your bread like this, then wind the rope of dough back and forth on itself a few times, leaving about 7” for a “tail” to lie over the top.

Pane Siciliano (Sicilian Sesame Seeded Semolina Bread)
(Adapted from Ciao Italia)


For the Cresciuta (Biga/ Pate Fermentee):

1/4 cup lukewarm water

1/4 tsp active dry yeast

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

For the Dough:

1/2 tsp active dry yeast

1 cup lukewarm water (110° to 115°F)

2 tsp honey

All the prepared Cresciuta

2 to 2 1/2 cups fine semolina or durum semolina flour

1/2 tsp vital wheat gluten

1 tsp salt

1 tbsp olive oil

A little water for brushing on the bread

1/8 cup sesame seeds


First make the Cresciuta. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water in a small bowl and stand it aside for about 10 minutes till it is frothy. Stir in the flour with a fork and loosely cover the bowl. This mixture should be a little wet/ stringy.  Leave it in a slightly warm place for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

The next morning, mix the dough for the bread. In a large bowl (or the bowl of your processor), dissolve the yeast in the warm water mixed with the honey. Let it stand for 10 minutes till it is frothy.

Add the cresciuta and mix well. Mix together 2 cups of the semolina, gluten and salt and add it to the bowl with the olive oil. Mix well and then add as much more semolina as is necessary until you have a smooth ball of dough.

Stir the cresciuta into the yeast and water mixture and blend well. Add 2 cups of the semolina flour, wheat gluten and the salt and mix until a pancake like batter forms. Add additional flour a little at a time and knead well until you have a soft and smooth ball of dough that is just short of sticky.

Place the dough in a lightly oiled bowl, turn it to coat well, then loosely cover and let the dough rise till about double in volume. This should take about 1 1/2 hours.
Deflate the dough, and then roll it out into a “rope” that is about 30” long. Place baking parchment on your baking tray, grease it lightly, and then gently lift up the rope of dough and place it on the baking tray. 
Curl the dough back and forth on itself leaving a 6 or 7 inch tail. Roll the tail a little thinner than the rest of the body so that it looks like it’s tapering off. Fold the tail over the shaped loaf. Do not tuck it under the loaf. If you’re making the “occhi”, then shape the rope accordingly.

Loosely cover and let the shaped dough rise for 2 hours till almost double in size. Lightly brush the top of the dough with water and then sprinkle the sesame seeds over this pressing them in lightly with your fingers.

Pre-heat your oven to 190C (375F) with a baking tray placed upside down in it. Place your baking tray with the dough on the hot tray and bake for about 30 minutes until the bread is brown and done, and sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom.
Cool on a rack completely before slicing.

This recipe makes one medium sized loaf. 
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January 20, 2015

Bhagara Baingan (Spicy Stuffed Eggplant/Brinjal/ Aubergine)

must confess that the eggplant is not one of my best loved vegetables. In fact, it is only now that I’m slowly developing a liking for it and even then it’s mostly in dishes that I have cooked because I know how I like it!
As children, one of the rules that got strictly enforced at the table by our father was that we had to eat whatever our mother cooked for the day without refusing it. We did get served smaller helpings of food we didn’t particularly like, but if either my sister or I said we didn’t like something the punishment was an extra helping of it! And we didn’t get excused from the table till we had eaten it all because wasting food was not encouraged.


I was the one who questioned everything and fought being forced to do things I didn’t like and invariably got into trouble by getting the extra second serving while my younger sister was the smart one who kept quiet. She still doesn’t like eggplant while I’m the one who has started liking it somewhat.

As I was saying, I like eggplant certain ways and that includes dishes like Baingan Bhartha or Caponata where it is first roasted/ grilled which gives the vegetable that smokiness. Over the last few years, I have also been discovering that there are a whole lot of varieties of the eggplant and some of them taste much better than others when cooked.


This stuffed version is one that is slowly becoming a favourite with my husband and myself though it’s a something I cook once in a while because it is a preparation that requires a lot more oil than I am comfortable using in my everyday cooking. It’s not the prettiest looking of dishes, but I can assure you that tastes s much better than it looks.
Use purple baby eggplant to make this dish. Otherwise pick the smallest of the small to medium sized purple eggplant, the kind that have very little or no seeds.
Bhagara Baingan (Spicy Stuffed Eggplant/Brinjal/ Aubergine)
(Adapted from The Complete Vegetable Cookbook)


To be roasted and powdered:

1 tsp oil
1 tbsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
2 or 3 dried red chillies
1 tbsp sesame seeds
3 cloves
1” piece of cinnamon
3 tbsp fresh grated coconut


A small marble sized ball of tamarind
1/4 kg small egg-shaped/ round eggplant (about 8 or so)
4 tbsp oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed (optional)
1” piece of ginger

1 or 2 green chillies, slit lengthwise

2 sprigs curry leaves

2 onions, chopped

1/2 tsp turmeric powder

1 tbsp powdered jaggery (or brown sugar)

1 tbsp chopped fresh coriander leaves

Salt to taste


First make the spice mix for stuffing the eggplants. Heat the oil in a pan, and all the spices except the coconut. Roast over low heat until they give off an aroma (don’t let them burn). Transfer to the jar of your mixer/ grinder or spice grinder. In the same pan, toast the coconut until it turns golden brown. Add to the roasted spices and grind to a slightly coarse powder. Add a little salt to this, mix and keep aside.
Soak the tamarind in half a cup of warm water for about 15 to 20 minutes. Extract the pulp and keep aside, discarding the solids.
Now prepare the eggplant for stuffing. Make sure all your eggplant have their stalks intact. Wash and pat dry the eggplant. Then slit them lengthwise into 4 or 8 from the bottom to the stalk keeping them joined at the stalk so the pieces don’t separate completely.
Carefully stuff each eggplant with about a teaspoonful of the spice mixture, making sure it gets into all the crevices. Save the leftover spice mix.
Heat 2 to 3 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan, and place the stuffed eggplant gently in it. Turn the heat to low and let them cook well. Keep turning them gently so that they get cooked on all sides. Cook with the pan covered to ensure the eggplant gets cooked through. When they’re done, remove them carefully from the oil and let them rest on a plate.
Add the remaining oil to the pa. When the oil is hot, add chillies, the garlic and the ginger. Sauté a couple of times and then add the onions and curry leaves. Sauté further until the onion turn soft and golden brown. Add the turmeric powder and the remaining spice mix to the pan, and let it cook till the oil surfaces.
Add the tamarind extract and the jaggery and more salt as required. Cook on medium heat for a few minutes until you have a thick-ish gravy like sauce. Gently place the eggplant in the pan, and let them simmer in the sauce over low heat for about 4 to 5 minutes.
Transfer to a serving dish and garnish with chopped coriander. Serve warm with chapathis or rice. This recipe should serve 3 to 4 as a side dish.

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January 9, 2015

A Vegetarian Croque Madame/ Croque Monsieur Provençal (French Toasted Tomato & Cheese Sandwich With/ Without Egg)

his is my first post for 2015 and I’m starting the year out here with the French Croque sandwich which is a little more than usual sandwich. According to the Larousse Gastronomique, the Croque Monsieur is a "hot sandwich, made of 2 slices of buttered bread with the crusts removed, filled with thin slices of Gruyère cheese and a slice of lean ham”. 
It apparently was first seen in 1910 on the menu of a café on the Boulevard des Capucines in Paris. “Croque” means crunchy and refers to the crispness of the bread that comes from grilling, toasting or pan frying the bread in butter.

While this classic French bistro sandwich is essentially a grilled or toasted ham (or tomato in this case) and cheese sandwich, I discovered it is a little “something” more than an ordinary sandwich. I decided to make a Croque Madame and added a fried egg, though I will say that the absence of an egg doesn’t really matter very much and that a Croque Monsieur is just as good.

A Croque Monsieur with a fried on top becomes a Croque Madame, because the egg supposedly looks like a ladies’ hat! If you add tomatoes to the mix, your French sandwich is now a Croque Provençal. There are many variations depending on what you put in your Croque sandwich and they all have different names.

There is a story, which is probably just that, that attributes the creation of the Croque Monsieur to accident. It seems that way back, some workmen left their ham and cheese sandwiches near a radiator through the morning. When they broke for lunch, they discovered that the bread was crisp and the cheese was all melty and thoroughly enjoyed the result and the sandwich was born. Maybe that’s where the “Monsieur” part of the name came from!

People in the know hold that the bread used for this sandwich should be neither chewy nor crusty so English sandwich bread should work well here. I personally like the idea of slightly thick day old crusty country bread for sandwiches so that’s what I baked and used for my Croque Provençal.  

The cheese must be slightly elastic and melt easily, and typically Gruyère or Emmenthal is used here. I get Kodai Dairy cheeses here which I like and I used their Gruyère. If you can’t find Gruyère or Emmenthal, you could try probably Mozzarella though it wouldn’t be quite the same.

Some people contend that what sets the French version of this toasted/ grilled cheese sandwich apart from any other is that it is served covered with bubbling and golden Mornay sauce. A Mornay sauce is a Béchamel sauce with cheese, usually consisting of half Gruyère and half Parmesan cheese. However, Croque Messieurs or Mesdames are not always accompanied by Mornay sauce. 
I am not really a fan of Béchamel sauce, but I believe that certain cheeses in small amounts can be an improvement in some foods, and I also wanted to see how Mornay sauce makes a difference to this sandwich.

I’m now of the opinion that a little of the sauce will go a long way on the Croque sandwich, and add a certain creaminess to the crunch, but too much of it would probably not be a good thing.

Please note the recipe below is for two Croque Madame Provençal sandwiches. Please feel free to increase the amount of mustard if you like it that way, or even the cheese though I personally prefer less of both. The Croque Monsieur/ Madame can also be served as an open faced sandwich.

Trivia : The Croque Monsieur also has some claim to fame at the movies as the sandwich that Meryl Streep serves Steve Martin in “It’s Complicated”.
A Vegetarian Croque Madame Provençal


For the Mornay (cheese) sauce:

 1 tbsp butter

 1 tbsp all-purpose flour

 1/2 cup milk

 1/2 tsp Dijon or whole grain mustard

 1/2 tsp nutmeg

 2 tbsp grated Gruyère or Emmental

salt and pepper to taste

For the Croque sandwiches:

1 tbsp butter for pan-frying

4 slices of French bread, cut 1/2" thick (with or without the crust, as preferred)

1 tbsp butter

2 tsp Dijon or whole grain mustard

6 to 8 thin slices tomato

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup grated Gruyère cheese

2 eggs cooked sunny-side up or over easy (omit for Croque Monsieur)

Finely chopped chives for garnishing (optional)


Make the Mornay sauce first. Melt the 1 tbsp of butter in a small pan. Add the flour and stir well with a whisk so that the you have a smooth paste. Take the [pan off the heat and add the milk. Keep whisking till smooth. Add the pepper and nutmeg and mix. 

Put the pan back on the stove over medium heat, and let it cook while stirring frequently until it thickens to the consistency of a thick tomato sauce. If the sauce is too thick, add a little milk and whisk. Take it off the heat and add the grated cheese. Whisk well till the cheese melts and the sauce is smooth. Check for salt and adjust to taste.

Now assemble the Croque sandwich. Put the 1 tbsp of butter in a griddle and let it melt. Place the 4 bread slices in it, and let the bread crisp up till golden brown and crunchy. Remove and let it cool slightly.

Spread the other 1 tbsp of butter over the untoasted side of 2 slices of bread, and the mustard on the other untoasted sides of the other 2 slices of bread.
Place3 or 4 tomato slices on the buttered bread slices and season with salt and pepper. (Remember that the Gruyère is salty) Top this with the grated cheese.

Place the open sandwiches under the grill till the cheese had just melted (on medium-high). Cover them with the mustarded slices of bread. Pour a little of the Mornay sauce over the sandwich and put them back under the grill on medium to high till the sauce is golden brown and bubbling.

Serve immediately while still hot. This is the Croque Monsieur Provençal . For the Croque Madame Provençal, place a fried egg on top of the Mornay sauce covered sandwich and garnish with chives, if using.

Mornay sauce recipe adapted from The Little Paris Kitchen: 120 Simple but Classic French Recipes by Rachel Khoo.
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December 24, 2014

We Knead To Bake #23 : Julekake or Julekaga (Norwegian Cardamom Scented Christmas Bread)

t’s the end of yet another year, and I am wondering just where this year ran off to. It really seems like not too long ago that I was at the beginning of the year trying to remember I had to end my dates with “14”! Not that I am complaining, as I would rather live through a year
that galloped along pretty quickly than one that meandered about aimlessly. I must admit that my 2014 was quite eventful in many ways, but I’m not about to do a re-cap of the year that was. I’ll leave that to others who have a better way with words than I do.

Instead I’ll tell you about the bread I chose for the We Knead To Bake group to bake this December. This is a month when most people (and bakers for sure), are busy in the kitchen planning, shopping and cooking up a storm for the festive season so I knew that the last thing the group members wanted was a bread that they needed to spend time and effort on. So I chose a festive Christmas bread that was just what the season demanded in terms of being easy to make but great on taste.
 Julekake (or Julekaka/ Julekaga) is a rich holiday bread flavoured with cardamom, and is traditionally served at Christmas in many Scandinavian countries. It is particularly popular in Norway and Denmark. Incidentally, Julekake means “Yule Bread” in Norwegian. 
This bread is more cake-like in texture because it is made from enriched dough. It is left plain or sometimes is dusted with powdered sugar or glazed with a white sugar icing. If it is not glazed or left plain, then it is usually served warm at breakfast with butter or a Norwegian caramelised brown goat milk cheese called Gjeitost/ Brunost.

In Norway, Julekake traditionally only a lime green citrus peel called sukat is added along with the cardamom. Nowadays many people also add red and green cherries to reflect the colours of Christmas. Other popular additions are raisins, candied orange peel, and coloured candied peel.  Some recipes for Julekake also feature almonds, but the main flavour in this bread comes from cardamom.
I know that many people dislike candied fruit/ peel, so you may leave that out, though I feel it would probably add to the flavour of this bread to substitute that with some lemon/ lime zest. Julekake however, isn’t Julekake unless it features raisins and cardamom.
I chose to leave my Julekake plain, without the glaze or the icing. If you make it this way and have leftovers (not very likely), try using them to make an interesting French toast.
Julekake/ Julekaga

(Partially adapted from The Great Scandinavian Baking Book by Beatrice Ojakangas)


For the dough:

2 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup lukewarm water
1/2 cup lukewarm milk
1 egg
50gm butter, soft at room temperature
1/4 cup sugar*
1/4 tsp salt
4 to 5 pods cardamom, powdered
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup mixed candied fruit or peel
1/4 cup golden or dark raisins

For the glaze:

1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp milk
Pearl sugar or crushed sugar cubes and/ or chopped almonds

For the icing:

1/2 cup icing sugar
1 to 2 tbsp cream or milk
¼ tsp almond extract
1 tbsp chopped almonds (optional)


*If you plan to use the icing, I would suggest reducing the sugar in the bread by half to 1/4 cup so that the bread doesn’t turn out too sweet.

Put the water, milk and 1 tsp sugar (from the 1/4 cup) in a small bowl and add the yeast to it. Mix well and keep aside for 5 to 10 minutes till it becomes “frothy”.
Put this yeast mixture, the egg, butter and sugar and salt in a larger bowl (or bowl of your processor/ machine). Mix well, and then add the flour and the powdered cardamom. Knead well until you have a dough that is soft, smooth and elastic. Add just as much more flour or water to achieve this consistency of dough.
Take the dough out and flatten it into a largish round (shape is not important). Sprinkle the fruit and raisins evenly and then roll it up, swiss roll style. This is a good way to knead in fruit into bread dough. Then just knead the dough lightly by hand and roll it up into a ball.
Place the dough in a well-oiled bowl, cover loosely and let it rise till double in volume, for about an hour or so. 

When done, lightly knead the dough to deflate t slightly and shape it into a ball. Place it on a lined or lightly greased baking sheet (You can also bake it in a cake or loaf tin if you wish). Let it rise for about 45 minutes.
If you’re using the egg wash, then brush it over the top of the dough. Otherwise brush it with milk and sprinkle it with crushed sugar cubes or chopped almonds.  Ignore this step if you’re going to use the icing.


Bake at 180C (350F) for about 30 minutes till the bread is golden brown and done. If you find the bread browning too quickly, cover it with foil after about 15 minutes in the oven to avoid further browning.


Cool it on a rack. Let it cool completely before you slice it or ice it. For the icing, mix together the ingredients for the icing till you have an icing of pouring consistency. Pour over the bread and sprinkle the chopped almonds over this. Let the icing set.
This recipe makes one medium to large loaf that should serve about 4.

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December 18, 2014

Embossed Spiced Brown Sugar Cookies

was not a very “girly girl” as a child and loved climbing trees and was generally happier playing games that didn’t involve dolls and the like. I did however thoroughly enjoy dressing up and trying on all the high heeled shoes our next door neighbour owned (my mother never wore heels). I still love heels though I don’t wear them much but I will still avoid pink, especially candy pink, like the plague.
This morning, I was tempted to take one of those “tests” on Facebook (couldn’t resist it especially as it was posted by and commented on by some very good friends) that asked “Do you think like a man or a woman?” Apparently I think 100% like a man! It was a fun thing to do but I know I do think like a woman a lot of the time.

Like a lot of women, one thing that is I love is hand-made lace. Unfortunately, I don’t own any but I love the intricacy, the detail and the thought of it being handed down in families through generations. One memory that I still have from over 10 years ago during a short stay in Portugal, (as does my daughter, even though she was only 5 then) was of an elderly woman sitting at the one of the entrances to the fort in Obidos and patiently working on a beautiful piece of lace.

Sometime back, I came across a post on the internet where lace-like patterns were created on cookies using knitted or crocheted doilies. I had planned to try my hand at that because one thing I do have at home are crocheted doilies. Unfortunately for me, the doilies look good as they are, but didn’t produce particularly interesting patterns when pressed into dough.

Since the dough for the cookies was already resting in the refrigerator, I was determined to make decent looking embossed cookies but was now without anything to emboss them with! I kept hoping to be struck by inspiration, and then my daughter came up with the idea of using her paper embossing blocks. I looked at them, but they wouldn’t leave deep enough grooves on the dough. That’s when inspiration finally struck, and I went looking for my wooden printing blocks.

In India, one traditional method of printing on cloth is by stamping out patterns with carved wooden blocks dipped in vegetable dye. It is known as block printing and is a method that is still very much in vogue. I have over the years, collected a few of the wooden blocks, and it struck me that I could use them to emboss the dough. If you decide to do this, make sure you use new blocks or else have scrubbed out and cleaned the ones you have thoroughly.
You can use anything that creates a pattern in dough to make embossed cookies. The patterned underside of water glasses, embossing stamps or patterned rolling pins if you have them, even cookie cutters can be used to make patterns on dough. Just make sure that the patterns are pressed well into the dough so they keep even after baking.

One other important thing while making these cookies is to keep the dough refrigerated so that it becomes manageable to work with. This dough is easier to emboss when it is cold.
You can use any other sugar cookie dough of your choice. I liked the idea of using brown sugar (any variety of brown sugar works here, even Demerara sugar) so I made some changes to this sugar cookie recipe to make a Brown Sugar Cookie dough.
Christmas is the season for warm and fragrant spices and one spice mix I like in particular is Speculoos/ Spekulaas spice so that’s what I used in this recipe but feel free to use whatever appeals to you. 
Embossed Spiced Brown Sugar Cookies


 150 gm unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
3 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp ground cinnamon
 1 tsp finely grated nutmeg
 1/2 tsp ground cloves
 3/4 tsp powdered dried ginger
1/2 tsp powdered anise seeds
1/2 tsp finely crushed black pepper 

Not quite an ingredient, but you also need something to emboss these cookies like lace doilies, moulds, water glasses with patterned undersides, etc.


With a hand held electric mixer, cream together the sugar and butter until pale in colour and fluffy. Add the eggs and vanilla extract and mix well. Sieve together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add this to the creamed mixture and beat till just combined. Do not overwork the dough. If the dough feels sticky, add a little more flour. If the dough seems dry, add a tsp or so of milk to get the right consistency.
Shape the dough into a disc, cover it with clingwrap and refrigerate the dough for about a couple of hours (or overnight), to make it easier to handle. Divide the dough into two and work with one portion at a time. Lightly dust your work surface and rolling pin with flour and roll out the dough evenly to 1/4" thickness.
An easier way is to roll the dough out on baking parchment that is cut to the size of your baking sheet. Then press your embossing tool (doilies, mould, rolling pin, etc) evenly into the dough pressing down with enough pressure to leave a somewhat deep imprint on the dough. If the pattern is not deep enough, it will disappear when the cookies puff up while baking. Make sure the pattern completely covers the surface of the rolled out dough.
Now use cookie cutters and cut out shapes leaving about an inch between them. Remove the excess dough and your cookies are already on the baking sheet, so you have no hassles with trying to transfer them! Place the cut out cookie dough in the fridge for about half an hour.
Then bake them at 180C (350F) for 10 to 15 minutes till the edges of the cookies look like they’re browning. You need to watch for this really carefully, as the cookie dough is brown.

Let the cookies cool completely. They will be a bit soft when warm but will crisp up once they cool. Store them in airtight containers.
This recipe makes about 4 dozen cookies (2 1/2" diameter).
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December 11, 2014

Make It At Home : Vanilla Extract

anilla must the most often used flavouring around the world when it comes to baking. Did you know that the vanilla pod is the fruit of an orchid? And that the pods are picked green and the processing of it into the dark brown vanilla bean is time consuming and labour intensive? This is what makes vanilla the second most expensive spice after saffron.
It’s probably bad form for someone who tries to avoid processed foodstuff, and someone who usually cooks from scratch (as much as one can in today’s world), and sis committed to blogging about it to make this admission. I will however, admit to using “fake” vanilla extract/ essence for the longest time, because I just didn’t know any different. I used to buy it off the supermarket shelf because that was all I could find; though I would stick to a particular brand I felt was the best.

I knew that this was not the real thing as it was labelled “Artificial Vanilla Flavouring Agent” and the label further informed me that it contained water, propylene glycol, nature identical flavouring substances, artificial flavouring substances, and caramel colour!! Still, it was all I had and I made do with it.  

I never knew one could easily make this at home and it never occurred to me to search out if I could make it myself. Then a good friend and fellow blogger, Nivedita came visiting from the US and one of the gifts she brought me was a small jar of Nielsen-Massey Vanilla Bean paste. A whiff of that stuff, and I was converted. I stretched the contents of that jar as far as I could, but it did get over one day.
That’s when I went searching the internet and discovered that I could make my Vanilla extract at home and all I needed were a few Vanilla beans, some alcohol to extract the vanilla, and a knife! Vanilla beans are grown in India, and are easy enough to source as was the alcohol, vodka in my case. The quality of Vanilla extract depends on the quality of the beans, so even if you don’t want to spend a lot on the best beans out there, that’s fine as long as you don’t buy the cheapest of the lot.

There are however many different kinds of vanilla beans available , so which ones are the best to use? I guess, for the home bakers, it would come down to affordability. As I understand it, various varieties of Vanilla beans just give different flavour to the extract and it is apparently best to use “extract grade” beans which have a lower moisture content. Me, I just use what I can get!

When it comes to the alcohol, it apparently doesn’t really matter so you can save some money here and buy the cheaper brands. I bought the cheapest I could find, which was 180ml bottles of 75 proof Romanov Vodka. Now, here is the caveat… we don't drink so I don't really know the quality of the vodka I bought vs. the  other kinds, so if you know vodka better you may have more of a preference. Some people use bourbon, brandy or rum as the alcohol base but it really doesn’t matter much, unless you have a preference for one over the other.
If you want to do the math, here’s how it worked for me. The last time I bought the fake Vanilla extract, it cost under Rs.300 for a 500ml bottle (under $5). The vodka cost me about Rs.50 for 180ml (less than $1) and about Rs.100 for a pack of 3 Vanilla beans ($1.50). About 3 to 4 beans should be good for a 180ml bottle of vodka.

That works out to about Rs.450 for 540ml of the real Vanilla extract (about $8) against about Rs.300 (under $5) for the fake stuff! All it takes to make your own Vanilla extract is slitting the vanilla pods, putting them into the bottles of vodka, closing the lids to make it all airtight and then leaving it to sit in a cool dark corner for about a month at least, while the alcohol and the Vanilla beans do their stuff. That’s it! Do you need any more convincing to make your own extract?

Home-made Vanilla extract also makes wonderful gifts to give friends, and not only at Christmas. All you need to do is source some pretty looking brown/ amber bottles and fill them up with extract, and then add pretty labels and bows and you have a gift any of your friends would kill to receive!
If making your own labels is too much of an effort there are any number of nice people who offer the option of printing lovely labels that they have created, for free. Just search the internet and you're sure to find one you like, just like I did.
The recipe below makes one 180ml bottle of vanilla extract.
Home-Made Vanilla Extract

3 to 4 vanilla beans
180ml bottle of plain vodka (cheap is fine)


Using the tip of a sharp knife, slit each vanilla bean lengthwise. Put them into the vodka bottle, such that the beans are completely submerged. If they don’t fit, cut the beans in half and then put them in.
Tighten the lid of the bottle and keep them in a cool and dark place (room temperature) for at least a month. I prefer to let them sit for 2 months. Shake the bottle a couple of times in between.
If you want, you can then strain the extract into another bottle for use. Otherwise use it as it is. Once you have used about 1/3 of the extract in a bottle, you can extend it by topping it up with more plain vodka, so the beans are submerged. Let it sit for another month or so. This will extract the Vanilla further.
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