So I know that “Bourbon vanilla extract” doesn’t refer to using actual bourbon– it’s referring to vanilla beans from the Bourbon island of Madagascar– but I like bourbon and I like vanilla, so why not combine the two to make an amped-up version of vanilla extract?
The problem is that vanilla beans have skyrocketed in price over the last few years– six or seven years ago I bought a half-pound of beautiful, plump beans for a reasonably low price, and it lasted me ages, but now that I’m in the market for more it was a lot harder to find any reasonably-priced beans. I finally found a source on eBay, but they did give fair warning that the beans are pretty dry and not good for much besides making extract. They turned out exactly as described– thin, shriveled, and dry– and I certainly wouldn’t use these in baking since there’s not much “vanilla caviar” inside at all, but they’re fine for my purposes now.
Vanilla extract really couldn’t be easier to make– you just split your beans in half and plunk them into a bottle of your favorite spirit. Like I said, I like bourbon, and for a 750 ml bottle I used about twenty of these extremely dry, tiny beans. I think with better-quality beans you could use about 10-15 instead.
Anyway, I’ll let these soak for about 3 months before I start using the extract. In my experience you can just leave the beans in there, though some people like to remove them and strain out any bits at the bottom of the bottle. I read that you can pour off the extract into a new bottle and just re-use the beans, maybe adding in some new ones and taking out any particularly soggy ones, for a whole new batch– I may try it eventually.
This past holiday season I found myself in need of a treat to make for our neighbors, who were doing us the favor of cat-sitting while we were away in California. The only problem was that I’d already denuded my refrigerator of standard ingredients for baked goods– no butter, no eggs, and I didn’t even have much chocolate in the house! What to do?
Enter the molasses cookie. Spicy and subtly sweet, it sounded like a perfect holiday-themed treat. I found a recipe that eschewed eggs and used oil instead of butter, which also kept the cookies moist and chewy rather than cakey. (seriously, they stayed moist for over a week!) A hefty dose of ginger, both powdered and crystallized, paired with the dark molasses to keep the flavor profile interesting.
This frosting really is fantastic– it’s light and creamy, silky and smooth, and it has a nicely chocolate-y flavor without being cloying.
Unlike my favorite Vanilla Frosting, which has a thickened flour/cornstarch base sweetened with granulated sugar, this frosting uses powdered sugar for sweetness; however, it avoids the underlying grittiness of powdered sugar frostings by dissolving the powdered sugar in a cocoa slurry made with boiling water. The result is a perfectly smooth frosting without a trace of grit– plus, the water itself cuts the butteriness of the frosting and allows it to whip up into a light and fluffy mass that’s perfect for spreading over a cake. I really just can’t say enough wonderful things about this frosting, so go ahead and make it for your next cake– I promise you won’t be sorry.
So… about the title. I know, the word “mayonnaise” doesn’t exactly inspire confidence when applied to a cake recipe, but using mayonnaise in cakes is actually pretty common, and makes sense– after all, what is mayonnaise but oil, eggs, and a little acid? And when you’re trying to add richness to a cake without adding dairy (sour cream is my usual go-to for stuff like this), it sounds like a great option.
I made a huge batch of cupcakes– half chocolate, half yellow cake– for a joint birthday party this winter, and when I say “huge” I mean “100+ guests HUGE.” And one of the birthday girls was allergic to dairy, so rather than single her out by making her a few “special” cupcakes, I decided to make the chocolate cupcakes dairy-free in their entirety.
I do have a dairy-free chocolate cake recipe that I use for all of my standard chocolate cakes, but honestly, when it came to making several dozen cupcakes I decided that it would actually be easier (if not cheaper) to start with cake mix. Duncan Hines chocolate fudge cake mix is naturally dairy-free, it was on sale at the grocery store, and I didn’t have to worry about measuring out dry ingredients or buying expensive cocoa. Works for me! All I needed to do was doctor it up!
I’m always on the lookout for new and interesting holiday baking recipes– my favorites are desserts that are rich, gooey, highly decorated, or a combination of all three. However, sometimes you just want a break from the elaborate stuff and just need something deliciously simple… something you can idly nibble on between multiple courses of festive holiday food without overdoing things.
Enter the butter cookie. Basic butter cookies are amazingly versatile, and can be flavored with all sorts of things without losing their elegant simplicity. In this case I decided to go with a kick of black pepper to set them apart from the crowd. I know that black pepper isn’t exactly an original idea for holiday cookies– Swedish pepperakor are well-known– but most recipes combine pepper with other warm spices and flavors, like cinnamon and molasses. Here, the butter and vanilla background really lets the floral notes of the black pepper come through– it’s not immediately apparent, but after a moment the flavor fills your mouth and it’s nicely aromatic. The pepper flavor becomes a touch stronger as you store the cookies, so keep that in mind– I thought these were even better on the third day than when freshly baked!
Every year for Thanksgiving, we go to my aunt’s house for Thanksgiving dinner– and every year, I bring some kind of baked good to share. Over the years, I’ve developed some criteria to maximize people’s enjoyment of my creation: It has to keep well at room temperature, because the fridge is full already. It has to be easy and neat to eat, so people don’t have to get out plates or forks to get a piece. And it has to be a cake or loaf of some kind (rather than individually-portioned cookies, etc.) because while people are sometimes reluctant to grab an entire cookie or cupcake between meals, they’re always happy to slice off just a teeny-weeny bit to snack on as they pass by.
This bundt cake is perfect for the occasion– it’s got a dense, fine crumb that lets it hold together well when people pick up a slice, it’s not so sweet or decadent that people feel guilty about grabbing some, and it’s appropriately festive, being chock-full of cranberries and pecans. And yes, the flavor combination may sound familiar from my Cranberry-Orange Walnut Muffin recipe, but this cake is a lot richer and denser than the light, fluffy muffins, making it just the right dessert for a family event.
You know how sometimes you wake up in the morning, with a long day of doing nothing in front of you, and you feel like having an indulgent breakfast? It doesn’t happen very often for me (at least not the “doing nothing” part), but recently I found myself with just such a day, and decided to take advantage of it. But what to make? Pancakes weren’t special enough, I didn’t have any good bread to make french toast, and we didn’t have any good omelette fillings in the fridge. I scrolled through my list of bookmarked breakfast ideas when I came across a recipe for “breakfast puffs.”
Breakfast puffs (also referred to as “french breakfast puffs” or “doughnut muffins”) are basically nutmeg-scented muffins, dipped in melted butter and rolled in cinnamon-sugar while still warm. They supposedly taste just like warm doughnuts, but without the frying. Sounded perfect.