Happy New Year! (and Homemade Vanilla Extract)

Happy New Year!  This is my first post celebrating the beginnings of a new year, and also my first post in over a month.  I’m slacking in the blogging department.  But what a perfect segue to announce my first New Year’s resolution, which is to blog as frequently as I had been before transitioning to my new job.

I had been wondering what my New Year’s post was going to be, and then I realized that I had a picture of our holiday gift give-a-way for friends/family in my blogging queue.  I was supposed to blog about these cute apothecary-looking bottles before heading off to NYC for Christmas, but alas, life just got hectic.  [I hope that my dear Hungry Foodies Pharmacy "patients" (aka, fans) will forgive me for my lack of posts.]

Our “thing” for the Holidays is to make a HUGE batch of salted caramels and saltine toffees, which is always a big hit amongst our family/friends.  Instead, we were inspired to do something different this year.  Err, I mean, last year.  Actually, I think we were still experiencing some PTSD from the previous year of candy wrapping for the Holidays.  PTSD from candy wrapping, you ask?  Well, we stayed up to 2:00 a.m. to finish wrapping our caramels and toffees, while on the brink of breaking up because we were so cranky and tired.  So, to spare our relationship, it was better that we did something that didn’t involve strips of wax paper and anything sweet :)

We really wanted to do something that tied my first year of blogging in with our holiday gift give-a-ways, so what not a better way than with homemade vanilla extract in a “medicine” bottle?

Homemade Vanilla Extract

2 high-quality vanilla beans
1/2 cup vodka
4 ounce amber bottle

Using a sharp knife, cut the vanilla beans in half, and then lengthwise to split them open.

Put the vanilla beans into the amber bottle and add the vodka. Seal bottle with a tight fitting lid. Store in a cool, dark area for for two months. Shake the bottle every once in a while.

Top off with vodka after a few uses to extend the life of the vanilla extract. If you notice it start to weaken, add another split vanilla bean.

Saltine Toffee

My partner graduated with a Master’s Degree in Special Education in June ’10, and I took her to Napa, CA, to celebrate the occasion.  It was something that we had talked about wanting to do for a number of years, and just never got to do it.  So her graduation was the perfect reason!  We stayed at a wonderful and cozy bed and breakfast, Arbor Guest House.  If you like B&Bs, I suggest you check it out.  The food was phenomenal, the happy our wine and appetizers were plentiful, the rooms were spacious and comfortable, and the hosts were exceptionally friendly.

When we arrived in Napa, we immediately checked into our B&B, changed into “date night” clothes, and ready to get our food on!  I had been scoping out restaurants for several months before our trip and decided on Richard Reddington’s Redd for our first night there.  Redd (located in Yountville, CA; about 10-15 minutes north of Napa) is currently featured as a one-star rated restaurant according to the 2011 Bay Area Michelin Guide.  It had gotten lots of really good reviews, so it was something we had to try.  We arrived a few minutes late after our reservation, but were immediately seated.  The restaurant was chic and modern, but not pretentious.  The service was fantastic.  We ordered too much food and devoured all of it.  The food was just exceptional.

We were presented with the dessert menu but just couldn’t bring ourselves to eat more.  We were so full that it was uncomfortable, but a good kind of uncomfortable, if you know what I mean.  So we asked for the check and when the bill arrived, so did a small dish of candy.  Two words… saltine toffee.  What??  Exactly.  We never heard of such a thing either, but leave it to Richard Reddington and his magnificent staff.  It was the perfect combination of sweet from the toffee/chocolate, and saltiness from the old-school saltine crackers.  It was… well, there were just no words to describe how much we enjoyed those small morsels of sweet and savory goodness.

Upon our arrival back to reality, I immediately sought out for saltine toffee recipes.  I actually found a lot of recipes, all with a slight variation of another.  I bookmarked a few for our sweet & savory holiday gift bags, and just now had the opportunity to make them.

Saltine Toffee

1.5 sleeves of saltine crackers
1 cup butter
1 cup packed dark brown sugar
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Line a half sheet pan with parchment paper and coat it with non-stick cooking spray.  Lay the crackers out onto the sheet pan, in an even layer, filling in any gaps with broken pieces. You will have some crackers left over.  Set them aside for now.

Heat the butter and brown sugar in a saucepan, over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the mixture comes to a boil. Pour the toffee over the crackers, then use a spatula to smooth it out over the entire surface.  Transfer to the oven & bake for about 5 minutes, or until the toffee is bubbling all over.

Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the chocolate chips over the hot toffee and let them sit for about five minutes or pop the pan back into the oven for a minute or two, until they have begun to soften and melt. Use a spatula to spread the melted chocolate evenly over the toffee.  Take the reserved crackers and crumble them over the chocolate while it is still soft.

Chill the pan, until the toffee and chocolate are set, which takes about 30 to 45 minutes. Break it up into small pieces and serve.  The toffee can be stored in an airtight container (chilled, or in a cool, dry spot) for up to one week.

Maple Bacon Caramel

Being a first-generation Chinese-American, we never grew up celebrating the western Holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  Our one big holiday of the year was, I’m sure you guessed, Chinese New Year (aka, Lunar New Year).  I can remember only one time in my 31 years where we had a Christmas tree with lots of presents, and that was when my brother and I were 1 and 3 years old, respectively.  From then on, not celebrating Holidays became the norm.  And that was okay for us.  Sure, there was a little bit of envy when my school friends would go on and on about the many gifts that awaited them under their big Christmas tree.  But it only made me look forward to Chinese New Year even more for the endless amounts of dumpling and red envelopes filled with money.  So take that!  However, the one thing that I did look forward to during Christmas was the 24 hour rerun of “A Christmas Story” on Christmas day.

Four years ago, my partner wanted to make mini banana bread loaves to pass out to her friends and coworkers for the Holidays.  She asked if I wanted to some to pass out, but I was shook my head and declined.  In fact, I didn’t understand why she would even go through all that much work.  I think I even suggested getting Holiday bags and stuffing it with Hershey’s kisses to save her some time, money, and energy.  But she only snickered at my recommendation.

The following year, before Christmas, I caught an episode on the Food Network of Ina Garten making her “fleur de sel caramels.”  I couldn’t find a good excuse to make them as a just-because-kind-of-treat, so when time came for my partner to make her Holiday treats, I found the perfect opportunity to make them!  She made chocolate-dipped biscotti, and I made salted caramels for the gift bags.  At that point, I wanted to make the salted caramels not for the gift bags, but because I merely just wanted to try them.  The salted caramels were well received that year, and so, it has become our Holiday gift bag traditions.  So why did I change my mind?  I’ve taken lots of pride in my salted caramels.  In fact, we get requests for them throughout the year, and we would make them if it didn’t take so much time to make and wrap each individual caramel.

Well, this year, I wanted to do something a little different.  Something outside-of-the-box that people won’t expect to find.  I wanted to play up on our savory & sweet treats.  While I was perusing the TasteSpotting website a few months ago, I found a recipe for bacon caramels.  I heart anything that involves pig parts, so I made sure to bookmark this website.

My Sunday was spent as if I were working in a hand-made candy factory.  I felt like Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, standing over the boiling mixture of sugar, cream, and butter to ensure it doesn’t pass the firm-ball stage.  My partner helped wrap some of the candy, and referred to herself as my “oompa loompa.”  I digress.  I spent about 10 hours making and wrapping two types of caramels for our holiday treats gift bags for friends, family, and coworkers.  They turned out perfectly, and I am super excited to pass them out!

These caramels remind me of a few different things… the maple bacon bar from VooDoo Donuts in Portland, OR, and bacon dipped in maple syrup and eaten with a bite of pancake.  I love bacon.

Maple Bacon Caramels (adapted from Not Without Salt)

12 strips of bacon
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup dark brown sugar
1 cup corn syrup
1/2 cup butter
1 cup heavy cream, divided
1/4 cup maple syrup

Bacon fried to a crisp. The amount is up to you. I used 8 strips of thick-cut bacon.  However, next time, I would definitely like to use more as there were some caramels that had little to no bacon at all.  Besides is there ever a time when there’s too much bacon?!

Reserve 1/2 cup of the heavy cream. Combine all the other ingredients in a medium sauce pan. Stir to combine. Set on medium high heat. Stir occasionally and cook until 240. The candy is now at soft-ball stage. Remove from the stove and carefully stir in the remaining 1/2 cup cream. Place back on the heat and continue to cook to 248* (firm-ball stage, which is the desired state for making caramels). Immediately remove from heat and stir in a portion of the crispy bacon. Pour the caramel into a buttered or oiled pan… I used a 9×13 jelly roll pan.  Scatter the remaining bacon on top.  Place the pan into the refrigerator to set for about 60 minutes.  Remove from refrigerator and cut into pieces, and enjoy!

Cooking tip: buy a candy thermometer!  I’m sure most of you will know to do this.  I didn’t when I first starting making caramels a few years ago.  I was using this little dinky thermometer to only went up to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, so I had to wait for it to go all the way around to reach 48 degrees Fahrenheit to equal 248 degrees F.  I finally invested in a candy thermometer (hence, the picture) this year and it has made ALL the difference!  I think this year’s caramels are my best yet :)

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