Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Homemade Vanilla Extract and Vanilla Sugar: Baking in Germany

I'm happy to report that my trials-and-errors making Faschingskrapfen described in last week's post have paid off! I visited with Hilde, my German "mom" who gave me the recipe, the day after my last post. I brought her a sample of the donuts and she gave a smug nod of approval for the taste and texture. I think I even detected a hint of pride behind the eyes!

As we shopped that day, we stopped for coffee at a bakery and I took this photo:
It bears out many ideas in my article last week: Krapfen are also called Berliner, they have a white ring around the middle, Hiffenmark (rose hip jelly) is the traditional filling, and they are made in celebration of Karneval, to name a few.

You may have noticed vanilla sugar as an ingredient in the recipe last week. Now, maybe I just led a sheltered life, but I never even heard of vanilla sugar until I came to Germany for the first time in 1987. And I'd been standing on chairs making cookies since before age 10. In my experience, American recipes usually call for vanilla extract.

For that matter, I've been making my own vanilla extract for years, and it couldn't be easier. Slit a vanilla bean lengthwise with the tip of a knife. Put it in an eight-ounce (250ml) bottle that has an airtight lid. Fill the bottle with clear, neutral liquor, such as vodka. Seal the bottle and put in a dark, cool place for about three months. After this time, the vanilla flavor will have infused the alcohol and will be strong enough to use in recipes. My favorite alcohol to use is Myers Dark Rum - I know, it's not neutral or clear, but the smooth rum flavor really enhances the vanilla. Bourbon and brandy also do the trick nicely.
Despite the penchant for Europeans to make flavored alcohol out of nearly anything by giving it a good soak in alcohol, the tendency is to use vanilla sugar instead of vanilla extract in baking. It is sold in small packets and many recipes that I’ve encountered cite “1 package of vanilla sugar,” so the amount in one package seems to be uniform and understood. Oetker Natural Vanilla Sugar
(photos above are from the Dr. Oetker website) 

I tested some packets in the Komnata Chista Test Kitchens (my kitchen) and each packet contains about ½ tablespoon (9g). I have seen packages of vanilla sugar in the US, but if you can’t find it yourself, it’s easy enough to make it.

Do this:
Slice one whole vanilla bean in half lengthwise. 
Scrape seeds from both halves with the back of a knife. 
Bury the seeds and the bean in two cups of finely granulated white sugar. Let sit in an airtight container for one to two weeks, the longer the better. The more time the vanilla bean rests in the sugar, the more intense the flavor and aroma become.
You can reuse the beans several times.

A wonderful side-effect from making and using vanilla sugar is that your kitchen has the loveliest vanilla aroma whenever you start it or use it. 

Vanilla sugar can be used in place of vanilla extract in most recipes. Substitute one tablespoon vanilla sugar for each 1/4 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Keep in mind that using vanilla sugar will make the recipe sweeter, so adjust other sweet ingredients for that.
Note that commercial vanilla sugar is usually stronger than homemade unless you've let your homemade sugar rest with the vanilla bean for many weeks. Personally I prefer the homemade because I know what's in it - and what's not in it. 
As you should know by now, I'm working on my second A Travel for Taste book in which I tell stories about and describe some German family recipes, mostly Hilde's. In some recipes, like these DELICIOUS vanilla crescent cookies I made this week, vanilla sugar is required. You have to roll the still-warm cookies in vanilla sugar to give them their characteristic vanilla flavor. There is no vanilla flavor in the dough.
A final word of caution if you go in search of commercially prepared vanilla sugar: avoid vanillin sugar. The artificial vanillin flavor is extracted from wood-pulp products and cause some people allergic reactions and other unpleasantness.

So there ya go - a cultural lesson and recipe in one fell swoop. You're welcome. It's what I do.

Photo for No Apparent Reason:

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