Monday, September 12, 2011

My Secret Ingredient Revealed

Perhaps I just need to get this out of my system so my boyfriend, family, and friends don't have to listen to me obsess over it so much.  But it's just that good, I want to shout it for all of Youngstown to hear, and beyond.

Mexican vanilla is amazing.

I'm just out of school, and with student loans and a car payment, I try to save as much as I can.  I don't always buy the absolute best (read: expensive) ingredients, when I know I should, but I never thought anyone would know the difference.  If I couldn't tell, how could I expect anyone else to?

That was until I bought Mexican vanilla.

Vanilla comes from orchids.  Who knew something so pretty could make something so delicious too!

Until now I'd been buying vanilla extract from Sam's Club, GFS, and local bulk food stores.  When my boyfriend and I went to Cozumel on a cruise this spring, I indulged myself with an enormous bottle of Mexican vanilla (32 amazing ounces).  After all, in Mexico it was only $8 (a steal from the $7 I'd been paying for 16 oz).  (You can buy Mexican vanilla online cheaper than in stores--especially if you're buying in bulk, but it's still more expensive than Tone's or GFS extract.)

I came home and opened it- it smelled like heaven (smelling it felt like vacation- a much more mild smell than any other vanilla extract I've used.  The delicateness of the smell and the fact that the extract did not smell like alcohol let off a complex aroma, and I was hooked). I even considered taking a shot of it just for fun. I started using it here and there, in brownies, cookies...everyone said it was good and I thought it tasted good, but I didn't think it was anything too spectacular.

The first time I really noticed an impact on flavor was when I made my niece's baptism cake.  It was the first cake in which I'd made using Mexican vanilla- a white cake filled with custard and frosted with a rich Italian meringue buttercream frosting.  As I sat down and had a piece of my cake, for the first time I thought, "Damn, I make a great cake!" and marveled in the simple, yet fantastic, flavor I was experiencing.

Mexican vanilla was the little something that my baked goods had been missing.  It's most noticeable in lighter items and those items that rely mainly on vanilla for flavor, such as frostings and vanilla ice cream.  It's a much more complex and not so much bold, bringing simple baked goods to life.

Since Mexican vanilla is more expensive, I recommend using less expensive vanilla extract for items where vanilla is meant to compliment a flavor, such as brownies and chocolate ice cream.  Use Mexican vanilla for delicate items that rely on vanilla for flavor- fillings for clothespin cookies, vanilla frosting, vanilla ice cream.  It's worth it.

What is your secret ingredient?

Monday, September 5, 2011

A Stitch In Time

This past weekend was our county fair, and Saturday I had lots of free time to go around to the arts and crafts exhibits (which I'm sure my boyfriend was glad to get out of this year, as I was equally glad to not be drug on to the next exhibit before I was done gawking at admiring the intricate and beautiful work submitted).

The sheer amount of entries and the quality of the work is absolutely amazing.  To know that there is this much talent in our community is just amazing.  And the work is inspiring, because most of the pictures submitted are by amateurs, and most of the quilts, baked goods, and other crafts are done just as hobbies.

As I strolled through the quilts, I came across the most moving and interesting quilt I've seen yet.  (I apologize that I didn't snap a photo of the quilters' names, so if you recognize the work and know the quilter, by all means please let me know so I can give credit).  These woman really put a new spin on the t-shirt quilts that have been hitting the scene.

The story about the quilt was printed next to it (again I didn't happen to snap a picture so I don't have all the details)- the quilt was made from shirts and the inspirations left by a gentleman who lost his battle to cancer, but not without touching many lives.  A group of women put together this quilt for his son, incorporating t-shirts, button-up shirts, the collars to shirts, and the pockets to shirts.  The quilt was truly inspired by this man's spirit, but the one thing that drew me to the work was the quilting- the women stitched quotes from this gentleman, and (what initially made me notice the quilt and read the story) hands.

These women stitched the hands of people whose lives this man had touched, and sewed the cuffs of his shirts at the wrist.

At the end of the fair I was left inspired by two amazing ideas: fried cookie dough (the best of both worlds- warm, gooey chocolate chips and soft, doughy goodness) and the stitching on this quilt.  I became obsessed with this idea, and after talking about it for the past two days, I came up with another idea, one I'm planning on doing with my sister-in-law for my nieces.  We are going to trace the girls' hands every year (or maybe even using some of the rough tracings they'll make of their own hands in a few years), as well as saving some of their shirts to make a quilt showing them as they've grown.

Unfortunately, we're going to have to wait about 16 years to see the results, but maybe someone out there has copies of traced hands from their own children and would like to do this with them (which I'd love to see).

Another meaningful keepsake would be to stitch several children's/grandchildren's hands, one way to avoid waiting 18 years to make a beautiful quilt.

What are the most meaningful keepsakes have you made or received?