Homemade Vanilla Extract

I love finding recipes for things that I thought you could only buy in a store. I especially love them when they are easy and better than what you can usually find. All you need to make vanilla extract is a few vanilla beans, vodka and a little time to steep.

You can find whole vanilla beans in gourmet or health food stores that have a good spice section. You can also buy them online. I used three Madagascar Vanilla Beans (touted as the world’s best) that our friends Suzanne and Paul gave us.

Here’s how to make it:
-2-3 vanilla beans; slice them down the middle length-wise
-Place them in a jar
-Add 1 to 2 cups of vodka (enough to cover the beans); I also added a half a cup of bourbon (ymmm)
-Cover tightly and store in a dark cabinet
-Shake every couple of days
You will see the color start to change in a day or two. In about two weeks, the extract will be ready to use. Strain if desired, but the longer the beans steep, the better the vanilla. I don’t strain mine.

Simple, right?

You can keep the same vanilla beans going for years. Just keep topping off with more vodka. Pretty cool.

Start a bottle now and have it in time for your holiday baking. Add a pretty ribbon and you got yourself a dandy homemade gift.

Maple Marshmallows

My friend Virginia asked me if I had ever made marshmallows. She was looking for marshmallows without “all that junk” the store- bought varieties have and didn’t want to shell out 10 bucks for the artisanal ones. I hadn’t made them before, but Fairlight, the awe-inspiring baker at Otto’s Market, makes them about every week. She assured me that they were easy, so I decided to give them a whirl.

Even though corn syrup was invented in 1882 (so it falls within my 19th century ingredient criteria), I decided to use maple syrup instead. I also tried a batch substituting honey for the syrup. I thought the honey flavor was over-powering. You can substitute corn syrup or use any combination of syrups. I have some Steen’s cane syrup I want to try next.

Historically, marshmallows were made from the marsh mallow root, which has properties similar to gelatin. I would love to try to make them using the root, but today I’ll keep it simple.

You’ll need a candy thermometer and a stand mixer. You could use a hand mixer but you’ll need to hold it for about 15 minutes. Marshmallows have been being made since before the invention of electricity, so I suppose you could also use a whisk and get a good forearm workout.

I used these sites for references:
Cooking for Engineers (love this site!), Martha Stewart and this nifty blog, Brownie Points (this site has a nice pdf of a recipe).

4 envelopes unflavored gelatin (one box)
3 cups granulated sugar
1 1/4 cups maple syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups cornstarch (or powdered sugar)


1. Line 9-by-13-inch glass baking dish with parchment paper, be sure the sides are covered with the paper. Lightly oil it then generously coat with cornstarch or powdered sugar. Fairlight suggests using cornstarch if you plan to store them for any length of time.

2. Put 3/4 cup of water into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the gelatin into the water and set aside to let soften (this is called blooming the gelatin, which must be named after Mr. Oscar Bloom who invented a device for measuring the rigidity of gelatin).

3. Put sugar, maple syrup, salt, and 3/4 cup water into a saucepan. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar.

4. Once the sugar is dissolved, cook, without stirring, until mixture registers 238º F on a candy thermometer, about 9 minutes.

5. Using a whisk attachment on your mixer, start to mix the blooming gelatin. With the mixer on low, slowly add the hot syrup to the gelatin mixture. Remember that stuff is 238º F so be careful!

6. After you have all of the hot syrup mixed in, gradually raise the speed to high. Beat until the mixture is very stiff, about 11 minutes.

7. Pour into the prepared dish and smooth with a lightly oiled spatula. Leave uncovered until firm (about 3 hours but overnight is ok).

8. Sift cornstarch (or powered sugar) on a cutting board. Turn the marshmallows onto the board. Dust a pizza cutter or knife with cornstarch and cut them into 1 inch squares (bigger or smaller if you want).

9. Toss the squares in cornstarch (or confectioners’ sugar). Be sure they are well coated. They will be very sticky if they aren’t. Store in an airtight container for several weeks.

Hot chocolate anyone?

Papaya Peppercorns

My friend Bill once told me that I would have made a great pioneer; I sometimes like to do things the hard way and I don’t like to see anything go to waste. That’s why I was excited to learn that you can use the seeds from a papaya. You can scoop them out and eat them fresh. They are sort of like a caper (though not pickled, but pickling them is an idea). They are spicy and slightly pungent.

You can also turn them into peppercorns. I thought this was very cool. The ground papaya seeds’ taste is hard to distinguish from regular black pepper. It’s easy to make and is an exotic pepper alternative.

Scoop out the seeds from a fresh papaya.
Place in warm water and work with hands to remove pulp.
Let soak overnight.
Bake for at 170 (or at the lowest temperature your stove will go) for 60 minutes or until the seeds are hard.
Cool, then place in a pepper grinder and use as you would pepper.

Apparently the seeds have the same good enzymes that the fruit has, so grind away!

Homemade Yogurt

Yogurt is the perfect snack food. It has protein, calcium and probably most importantly, probiotics (the “good bacteria” that promote a healthy digestive system). Homemade yogurt is cheap, easy and green. Make your own and think of all those little yogurt containers you won’t have to toss!

You need yogurt to make yogurt. The cool thing is after you make your first batch, you can save some for your next batch. I recommend taking the starter for your next batch out when your yogurt is first made and storing it in a separate container. That way you won’t have to be annoyed when SOMEBODY uses the last of the yogurt and you have to buy more to start your next batch (to be fair, that somebody is more often me than my dear husband).

You don’t need a fancy yogurt maker, but I do recommend a thermometer. You can wing it without, but until you get the hang of it, a thermometer will help give you consistent results.


2 tablespoons plain yogurt (choose a brand with active live cultures)
1 quart milk (I use whole milk)


  • Set out the yogurt so that it is room temperature when added to the milk.
  • Slowly heat up milk in a non-reactive pot, stirring occasionally, until it reaches 180 degrees or until it forms a skin. Don’t let boil.
  • Turn off the heat.
  • Once the temperature drops to 110-115 degrees, stir in the yogurt. You can either just wait for the temperature to drop or if you want to speed up the process, you can set the pot in a sink filled with ice water.
  • Place mixture in a heated glass or ceramic container with a lid (running it under hot water should do the trick). I use Mason jars.
  • Cover and keep in a semi-warm place for 8-12 hours (or up to 24 hours). I pour the yogurt in a heated mason jar and place it in an insulated lunch bag.

That’s it. Easy, right?


Making things is an obsession for me. When I see something, anything, I wonder, can I make that myself? After reading a few influential and inspirational books, The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver and thanks to my friend Jan, Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon, I took this obsession to the kitchen.

When I was 10, my Dad told me that if I knew how to read, then I knew how to cook. I’ve been reading and cooking since. I’ve long been cooking from scratch. I find it easy and not as time consuming as one might think. Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of label reading and wondering if my bread really needs 30 ingredients or if my strawberry jam really needs high-fructose corn syrup. I decided to find out just how many everyday food items I can make myself. My “Neo-19th Century” cooking has become a daily part of life. I use modern tools, but try to make everyday items like they would have been made a century ago.

This blog will show you how to make kitchen staples. Many items require hours and sometimes days to complete, but the hands-on time will be less than an hour. Some recipes take a little planning, but you’ll see how easy it is to incorporate them into your busy life.

Today I’m going to start two items, cream cheese and bread. The hands on time for today will be less than 15 minutes.

Cream Cheese and Whey

Homemade cream cheese from yogurt is the simplest cheese you can make. Actually it’s one of the simplest things you can make period. It has a bit of tartness to it and a more complex taste than store-bought cream cheese. It reminds me a bit of goat cheese.

One reason to make your own cream cheese, aside from the taste, is the by-product it makes—whey. I’ve found that many recipes in Nourishing Traditions require whey. Whey is the liquid that is leftover from making cheese. It’s loaded with all kinds of good stuff for you. Be sure to save it because I will be making many recipes that require it (kimchee and ginger ale to name two).

Click here for the cream cheese recipe.

No-Knead Bread
I’m also going to start a loaf of bread. I bake this bread at least a couple of times a week. When we start to get to the end of one loaf, I start another one. We rarely buy store bought bread anymore. You can get this bread going in the time it would take you to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Total hands-on time is around 15 minutes, IF you move slowly. I can do it in 10.

This bread takes a day to rise, so you have to plan ahead a bit.

The recipe is from Sullivan Street Bakery. You can get the recipe online here.

Click here for my version.

I’ve tried using whole-wheat flour and a mixture of wheat and white. Adding wheat makes the loaf fairly dense, though still delicious. My favorite way to make it is to use unbleached white flour and a cup of mixed grains. I keep a jar with a mixture of millet, oat bran, oats, wheat berries or whatever looks healthy in the bulk food section.