I'll take any excuse to throw a party. If you know me well, you know how much I love to entertain. I think it's a combination of being my mother's daughter (her holiday dessert party has made her a legend on the West Coast of Florida) and also the fact that I just love entertaining people in our home. Something about sharing a good meal, some good wine and good company is one of those things that makes a house feel like a home.
So this month, when three of my girlfriends all had birthdays, I put together a cookie swap so all of the ladies could get together and celebrate (and who doesn't need more cookies after the holidays, right?). Now the cookie swap I can't take credit for - this awesome tradition was started by our friend Kate few years back and when she and her family moved to Portland last August, it left a huge void in our group of friends here in SF. So in honor of Kate, we decided to keep the cookie party alive and hold it in honor of our January birthday gals (in the past it's been a holiday cookie swap in December). Kate was of course missed but we did manage to get her on the phone with us for part of the party. All around a good time and everyone left with full bellies and lots of treats to take home, including some homemade vanilla extract.
Something else I also love about hosting a get together - the party favors! And this particular was not only delicious, but also super easy to make. Instead of using vanilla beans, I used Nielsen Massey Vanilla Bean Paste, which you can find at most gourmet specialty shops (I got mine at Sur La Table). Its cold processed and is concentrated enough to make a large jar of extract (and at about $10 a bottle, it's alot less expensive than the beans!). To make it, I just dumped the whole jar of paste into a large jug and then put in about a liter of vodka (I went for the cheap stuff since I would be cooking with it and not drinking it). I then sealed off the jar and left it to sit in a dark place for 3 months, shaking every so often to get things good and mixed up.
I wasn't quite sure how it would compare to doing this same process with the beans but I was happy to find that it's not only delightfully fragrant but it's also delicious (none of that overly alcohol smell that extract sometimes has). I used a few teaspoons (yes, I kept one of the party favors for myself! :) to make some lemon buttermilk cookies and it worked beautifully! For the packaging, I found the darling labels here and used small glass jars with the tops wrapped in washi tape, just to make them a bit more colorful. I plan on making another batch of the extract soon but next time I am going to try it with bourbon...um, yum! :)