Making it a December to remember - homemade gifting and a vanilla extract recipe to start off the festivities!
I'm this huge fan of December, in case you hadn't yet noticed. I love the shortness of days that characterize this month, I love the bleakness of the scenery, where most trees have lost their leaves and the tarmac always looks slightly darker and damper from the morning dew, speckled by glistening russets and yellows and browns of the wet fallen leaves, where the sky is a crescendo of greys, and the light is darker, but more pristine. I love the scenery of quietness, of sleepiness, as if the world has hybernated and is expecting us to counter the gloom with acts of our own. It makes me want to get my home fully decked with fairy lights and bright, cheery vignettes.
I think I love December even more because it allows me to go all out in my decorating. I mean, it's the month for Christmas and so 'tis the season to pull out all the stops, I think. The bleakness of December days just beg for festive nooks all around our homes. And I am particularly proud of what we manage to achieve in our own home every December. I feel we have come to a perfect balance in our Christmas decor, between traditional and classic, homely and quirky, cheery and unexpected, shop bought and home made. I always feel that we are able to turn this house into a home, filled with magic, magic that calls to the imagination, forcing it to make up stories in one's head.
I'm a sucker for Christmas, as well, for all that leads up to the big night and the following morning. I love seeing the look on people's faces as they open up the gifts, the surprise in their eyes, and the joy as well, when you manage to get it right and your gift is spot on. Since becoming a mother I have to be honest, that joy has been mostly kept for my son. I sincerely love, love watching him open his presents on Christmas morning, I love the joy in his face and the thrill of finding exactly something he had been dreaming of for a while, or the surprise in his eyes as he comes upon a gift that he did not see coming, something so unexpected he hadn't even thought of it. I confess I have blundered, sometimes. I remember talking my hubby into giving the boy a certain thingee, that I was certain he would be thrilled, to have him look at it as he opened the packet and discard it immediately because he was not into it all that much...
Another thing I love so much about this month is the sheer amount of cooking and baking one ends up doing. It is probably highly costly - although we do try to keep a reign in, and lemme tell you we are mighty successful at it, it's a question of knowing what and where to buy! - but cost aside, it is the one month where we get to experience a lot with new ideas and recipes, and where we also fall back on those old favourites. I am so full of ideas for cooking up a storm you cannot imagine! If only last week I could feel myself at a rut - where I felt I was getting nowhere, and I still feel that, but this week, I seem not to care about destinations, only the travels - this weekend felt like a turning point of sorts. We cooked a lot and I photographed a lot for the blog, and if my photography seemed somewhat amiss on my latest atempts, this time it was as if I had been touched by genius on my styling and shooting. I am very proud of what I achieved last weekend and I couldn't wait to start sharing with you guys the results.
I know some people do not like homemade gifts to fill their Christmas stockings, but I find that something someone has made with care and love is always a beautiful thought and a treasureable gift, something that can be cherished and appreciated much more for the hidden meaning than the cost value. I like handmaking gifts, I particularly like to make little hampers with goodies, edible, of course! Some homemade cookies, some seasoning mixes with herbs and salts for cooking, some perfumed sugars for baking, some extracts, maybe bonbons and cupcakes as well. I love the idea of a good hamper filled with these lovingly made gifts that are so much more meaningful than the things one can buy at a store. These can be personalized to a degree store bought stuff cannot.
I'll tell you what, my mind is reeling with ideas, for Christmas gifts as well as for Christmas dinner treats, and as usual I cannot get down to decide what we will be cooking this year - as usual, we still do not know what our Christmas Eve will be like, I always find that I am less and less in control of my own life at this season, with every year that passes, but to be bluntly honest, though I complain about it, it does render some sort of adventurous feel to life, know what I mean? I can say I'm in the mood for pies, I am dreaming of a Christmas Eve table ladden with pies, turkey, duck, chicken, veggie, tuna... I might be going slightly unhinged at this, especially if it turns out we will only be three of four around the table this year, but I cannot prevent myself from dreaming of numerous, pretty, lovingly confeccioned pies!!
I'm also thinkin this will be the year we will tackle the Panetone!! I'm of two minds, coming to this, because I so wish for a repeat on last year's mince pies, and I am also kind of craving the cinammon rolls we had three or four Christmas ago, but it's been on the backburner for so long, the panetone, that I feel this has to be the year for it. We have just stocked up on lovely, golden sultanas, we have plenty of orange, and we have a batch of redolently flavourful, homemade vanilla extract! Now, if you're unfamiliar with vanilla extract, you need to make it's aquaintance straight away. If you have ben cooking with vanilla aromas all your life - like I did, for such a long time, I could not afford vanilla extract nor vanilla beans until a certain chain started selling them at an affordable price! - you must try this. It will change your life, and the way you view the flavours of vanilla.
If you're worried about the pricetag, there are stores in Portugal where you can buy two vanilla pods for 0,99€. Look, it's not cheap, no, it isn't. But it's not that expensive either, because you can get a lot out of one vanilla pod. Once you scrape the seeds, you're left with the shell, so to speak, and that outer casing is perfect for infusing milk to make puddings or custards - infuse the milk you're going to use on a bread and butter pudding and you'll get a high note in taste as you take that first bite that will hit all the right spots! - it can be used to scent sugars, and it can be used to make your own vanilla extract. And vanilla extract is such a good holiday gift! Pour it into a pretty vial, stopper it and add a tag with the name and the date, wrap it up nicely, add it to a hamper, it will not go amiss. Vanilla extract can be used to substitute vanilla beans in any recipe that asks for them, and goes a long way. Plus, the scent of it is to die for. It really is!
In order to make it, I advise you to divide it into batches, but you can make a whole bottle of it in one go. You'll need:
- 1 bottle of rum - I prefer using dark rum, but feel free to use the clear one
- half a dozen vanilla pods that have been scraped off beans