Homemade Vanilla Extract: Laziest Gift Ever

The easiest, laziest gift everLast year, I asked my food-loving friend Lauren if she’d like to undertake a culinary project with me. When I was small, my family made big-batch gifts all the time—jars and jars of homemade pickles or jam, preserved bounty from our garden, etc.—and often my Papa and Dede make ambitious trios for Christmas presents. One year: chili oil, Worcestershire sauce, raspberry vinegar. Another year: chili powder (Papa smoked the chiles), Herbes de Provence (Dede picked and dried the lavender), curry powder (Papa toasted and ground all the spices). Clearly, this is in my blood, but I live in New York City. Storage space is tight and I live far from at least half the intended recipients. A food gift seemed unmanageable.

Still, the idea of covering all my gifting bases with one project stuck in my craw until I saw a blog post that showed a small child making vanilla extract. You guys, a child. I think we can all agree: I’m not going to be outdone by a four-year-old. Extract is a fantastic project to start out with. It is extremely quick, requires no specialty tools, can be done by small hands (see this blog post to see Annelise, my 4.5-year-old motivator, helping her mom—but don’t store your stash in the window!), requires almost no cleanup, and results in a gift nearly everyone can use in a variety of ways. What’s not to love about vanilla extract? Commercial extract is made by soaking chopped-up vanilla beans in liquid that is at least 35% ABV (usually ethanol). However, sweeteners and colorants are often added, and the quality of the beans is not regulated. Blech. With this project, I could guarantee my friends were getting a quality pantry staple that would make their treats delicious all year long. Even better, when you’ve used about half the bottle, you can add more booze, give it a good shake, and your beans will keep flavoring the extract. It’s like the gift that keeps on giving! Did I mention it was pretty inexpensive? The cost per bottle drops as you make a larger quantity, and if you’re not mailing anything, it’s downright cheap.

Lauren and I set up a date about a month before Christmas (more on that in a minute); in the meantime, I ordered the beans and bottles and whipped up a package design. After quick trips to pick up the booze and buy sticky labels, we were in business. I’d already run all our bottles through the dishwasher to sterilize them, so all we had to do to make the extract is cut up a couple of beans, shove ’em in the bottles, cover them with booze, give ’em a shake, and let ’em sit. That’s it. Really. It took longer to stick our labels on the bottles and tie on the little hang-tags than it did to actually make the goods.

Once you’ve got the bottles sealed, you should shake them every couple of days and let them sit in a cool, dark place for 2 months (I stashed mine in a cardboard box in my closet). Since we’d started a bit late, we just put tags on the bottles that explained both the “don’t use me until” info as well as the “how to replenish the bottle” tip. It worked perfectly! In January, I started getting text messages and emails from friends, saying, “Using the vanilla tonight in some cookies!” Just the other day at work, my executive editor mentioned she’s still enjoying her bottle. I use mine all the time, and every time I do, I get a little flutter of pride that I made it. You, too, can have this distinct pleasure. Even beyond the holidays, it’s great to have a few bottles of extract sitting around so I can give them as impromptu gifts, so I’d recommend tripling the recipe below (at the very least: Lauren and I made 40 bottles). Won’t you give it a try?

Homemade Vanilla Extract

Active time: 10 minutes | Total time: 2 months + 10 minutes | Makes: 8 ounces


4 vanilla beans
8 ounces vodka or Bourbon


  1. Sterilize an 8-ounce glass canning jar and lid (or two 4-ounce glass bottles) by boiling in a large pot of hot water for 10 minutes or running through your dishwasher with the hot-dry setting [see update].
  2. With a sharp knife, split each vanilla bean lengthwise, trying not to cut all the way through. If you’re using short bottles, cut each bean in half to fit.
  3. Stuff beans into jar or divide among bottles (the typical recipe is 2 beans per 8 ounces of booze, but I like to make double-concentrated vanilla).
  4. With a funnel or a small measuring cup, add vodka, making sure to cover beans. Seal jar or bottles. Shake vigorously and let sit in a cool, dark place for 2 months, shaking briefly but vigorously every few days.


  • This recipe can be made in multiples, no problem. We made 40 bottles at once! Just do some basic math to sort out your ingredients. For 40 4-ounce bottles, we bought a 1-pound bag of beans and 4.5 liters of vodka. Note that your number of beans may vary, as produce never weighs the same, universally, due to size, water content, etc. For me, we got about 80 beans in a one-pound bag. You may find you get more/less depending on the variety of beans you buy, the supplier, etc.
  • Some people make the vanilla in one big canning jar (say, a quart or larger) and then, once the beans have released all their delicious flavor after 2 months, they transfer it to smaller bottles for gifting. This works fine, but it means your recipients can’t make more vanilla in their own bottles. You, however, can make another batch using those beans that are still in your big jar. You must do what you think is right, of course.
  • If you take your time to make your vanilla, just include a note on the bottle saying when it’ll be ready to use!
  • UPDATE: My awesome friend Dora just made vanilla based on this post. The lids on her bottle caps had paper liners inside and when she washed the lids, the paper began to peel. She boiled the lids extra long so she could peel out all the paper and glue. I did not sterilize my lids, I think, because I did not encounter this. The paper liners in some tiny bottle lids help them stay watertight, so if you have paper lids in yours you may want to just rinse them briefly and trust they’re clean, since they came from the manufacturer. Sterilize canning jar lids and others without paper liners in the normal way.

Bottles: Amber Boston Round (4 oz.) with Standard Cap from Specialty Bottle
Beans: Madagascar Vanilla Beans from Beanilla
Booze: Vodka, though Bourbon also works well. Note that vodka bakes off cleanly, whereas Bourbon leaves behind its own flavor footprint in your baked good, delicious in its own right. It’s best to avoid the crappiest vodka, but you don’t need to go crazy. We bought Wódka Vodka, which is generally well-reviewed and has a great price point.
Labels: We used these 2.5″ round kraft labels from Avery (22808), but you can use anything you like. One note is that printing them on a photocopier or with a laser printer is better than using an inkjet, because inkjet stickers will bleed if grabbed with wet hands.
A note about shipping: It is illegal to mail alcohol through the USPS. I’m definitely not telling you to do it. But if you mail yours through other carriers (or just break the law), make sure you wrap your vanilla in several layers of bubble wrap and they should survive the trip without worry. These 4x4x6 corrugated boxes from Uline fit those 4-ounce bottles perfectly, once I’d bundled them in several layers of small bubble wrap.

Finger Lime Curd: Quite Literally Bursting with Citrus Flavor

Made with this kooky Australian microcitrus, this sweet treat will be a big hit.

Last year, my Papa sent me a surprise package of goods, unbeknownst to me. He’s the kind of guy who does that, you know? I opened a nondescript box and out tumbled these curious green objects. What on earth were they? I did some googling and figured out he’d sent me finger limes, a microcitrus from Australia (not a true lime at all, actually). This wild fruit has only been cultivated commercially in the last couple decades and only within the last few years have they really come to the U.S. In the last couple years, a farm in California has been growing and selling them from trees they imported. And friends? They are delicious!  They taste a bit like a lemon-lime combo with a slightly floral note. And they’re fun as hell.

I used up my last batch straight away by putting them on Thai food and in yogurt, and then I made a batch of finger lime curd. It’s finger lime season again (typically runs from September through February, in the U.S.), so I told some coworkers about them. We got the fine folks at Shanley Farms to send us a couple packages to review on the blog, and I was positively swimming in these gherkin-lookin’ cuties. After giving away handful after handful for friends to experiment, I still had plenty to make a batch of finger lime curd. I improved on the version I made last time by waiting to add the vesicles till the curd was cool (in the hot curd, they burst). Today, we enjoyed it at the office spread on graham crackers, which makes a snack reminiscent of key lime pie, but I think I prefer the curd spread on a slice of soft baguette so you can really experience those bursty little “citrus caviar.” You can buy packages of finger limes from Shanley Farms online, and though they seem expensive, one small packet is enough to make this curd or garnish several dishes. Food experiments, friends!

Finger Lime Curd

Active time: 30 minutes | Total time: 1 hr 30 minutes | Makes: 10 ounces


200 grams / 7 ounces granulated sugar (just shy of 1 cup)

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 eggs, beaten

3.5 ounces lime juice (from about 3 limes)

1/4 cup finger lime vesicles (from about 12 finger limes)


  1. With a fine microplane grater, grate 1 teaspoon zest from the finger limes.
  2. In a saucepan, whisk together eggs, sugar, zest, and lime juice. Cook over low, whisking frequently, until thickened, 20 to 22 minutes. Stir in butter and transfer to a glass bowl. Cover with plastic, pressing plastic directly against curd. Refrigerate 1 hour.
  3. Stir in finger lime vesicles and refrigerate (up to 1 week). Serve on crackers, baguette, cookies, ice cream, or stirred into yogurt.

Note: You can make this curd with regular limes, too. Just increase the zest to 2 teaspoons and use 4 ounces lime juice.

Beautiful citrus pearls inside this tiny, mysterious fruit!

Thai(ish) Turkey Burgers with Quickle

Salty, Sweet, Hot, Sour...in your mouth.
I was a camp counselor for many years at an amazing summer camp in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. Camp Huston works with an international company that matches young people abroad with camps in the States that want foreign staff members. Huston ends up with a number of amazing exchange counselors each summer (though exchange is a misnomer, as few Americans go abroad for similar reasons, since “summer camp” is an almost uniquely American conceit). The kids love it, the staff love it, and I’ve personally ended up with some amazing friendships as a result (shoutout to my best Dutch pal, Ivo).

One year, we had a lovely young man from Ukraine named Alex. Alex mostly wore too-short nylon running shorts with tank tops and had a real enthusiasm for American culture. We worked together one session and, on a rainy campout, set about making a vegetable stew for supper. I asked one camper to dice the potatoes and toss them in the aluminum cooking pot; Alex fairly flew off his tree-stump stool. “You must peel them first!” he insisted. I shook my head. “No, don’t peel them. We want the peel! The peel is where the nutrients are!” Alex shook his head gravely. “No, the peel is where the radiation is.” Alex had grown up near Chernobyl, I discovered, and his relationship with food from the ground was very, very different from mine. This is my best example of the way “edible” means different things to different people. My uncle eats apple cores. As kids, my brother and I met someone who ate the frilly green tops of strawberries so we took up the practice in what I can only assume was a state of half bravado and half contrariness. Someone once told me that kiwi peel is edible so I learned to rub the fuzz off and eat the whole fruit at once, out of hand. The prospect of all three of these things has horrified countless people in my life.

I think, particularly when we’re young, we’re taught that certain things are not okay to eat, which to Little Heather translated to “poisonous” but which was actually “maybe not that tasty to some people.” Just last month I learned that bay leaves can be consumed. Thirty-two years old and I somehow got by thinking they can be used in a broth but are (I guessed?) deadly if eaten. Foolish girl! Allow me to free your mind if it’s not already been freed: Unless you are using carrots as a garnish, peeling them is a waste of your time and of the carrot’s sweet sweet vitamins. Just scrub them well! And if you cut florets off your heads of broccoli and toss the stems, you’re losing out on a) half of what you paid for and b) a flavorful, crunchy vegetable packed with fiber and protein. Friends, liberate yourselves. Let’s enjoy some carrots (with peel) and broccoli stems by bulking up a turkey burger that’s laced with the flavors of Thailand (that holy quartet of salty, sweet, hot, and sour).

I usually prefer a one-dish meal on a weeknight, but that means I need it to satisfy more than one food group (of chief importance to me at supper are protein and vegetables). This burger sneaks a few vegetables inside the patty and adds a few more on top as garnish. In place of dill pickles or sliced onion, I made a quick pickle (which around here, we call a quickle) to cover both bases. It’s crunchy, sour, and a little sweet, all at once. Some spinach instead of traditional lettuce and a generous dollop of peanut sauce both give you a familiar-looking burger with a very nontraditional taste. Oh, and if you want to use other veggies in this burger, go right ahead. I’ve successfully swapped in bell pepper, snow peas, water chestnuts, and of course broccoli florets. Just make sure whatever you toss in is finely chopped and try to keep the proportions of meat to veg similar (too much veg makes a crumbly burger).

I hope you’ll try this burger and let me know what you think in the comments. And if you eat any part of a vegetable or fruit that other people find strange, do tell!

Thai(ish) Turkey Burgers with Quickle

Active time: 30 minutes  |  Total time: 40 minutes  |  Serves: 4
Adapted from Iowa Girl Eats


For the quickle:

1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced

1/2 English cucumber

2 Tbsp. rice vinegar

1/2 tsp. honey

2 pinches fine salt

For the peanut sauce:

1/4 cup smooth peanut butter

1 Tbsp. rice vinegar

1 Tbsp. soy sauce

1 Tbsp. water

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tsp. toasted sesame oil

1 tsp. chili-garlic sauce (or Sriracha)

1 tsp. honey

1 tsp. minced peeled fresh ginger

1/4 tsp. fish sauce

For the burgers:

1 pound ground turkey (I use white, but dark would be even more delicious)

1 medium carrot, shredded (about 3/4 cup)

1 large broccoli stem, peeled and shredded (about 1/2 cup)

3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

2 green onions, sliced

1/2 tsp. fine salt

1/2 tsp. red-pepper flakes

4 buns (optionally toasted)

1 cup baby spinach


  1. Make the quickle: In a small bowl, toss together onion, vinegar, honey, and salt. Wash cucumber thoroughly to remove any wax and then, using a vegetable peeler, peel thin strips from it. Turn the cuke as you go to maintain thin strips. Stop when you reach the seedy core and discard. Roughly chop pile of shaved cucumber and toss with onion mixture.
  2. Make the peanut sauce: Using an immersion blender or a spoon and some elbow grease, combine peanut butter, rice vinegar, soy sauce, water, garlic, sesame oil, chili-garlic sauce, honey, ginger, and fish sauce.
  3. Make the burgers: Set aside 1/4 cup of peanut sauce and add the rest to a bowl with turkey, carrot, broccoli, green onions, cilantro, salt, and red-pepper flakes. Mix well with your hands and form into 4 patties. Heat a grill, grill pan, or skillet to medium-high. Spray with nonstick spray and add patties; cook for 3-4 minutes per side (with a grill press, cook for 5 to 6 minutes total) until cooked through. Assemble each burger on a bun with a patty, some quickle, a few spinach leaves, and a dollop of reserved peanut sauce.

Roasted Broccoli for Lazy Jerks

roasted broccoli
Sometimes, Heather leaves the apartment for a while during mealtime and I am left to my own devices. Now, I can cook—my mama raised me right—and I enjoy it, but sometimes there are more important things to do like play video games or watch The Dark Knight for the second dozenth time. In times like these, I prefer to prepare a quick and simple meal for myself that is still reasonably delicious and healthy. This usually includes a lean protein like grilled chicken breast or salmon, a simple carb like rice or tater tots, and a green vegetable. Bucking the cliché, broccoli has always been one of my favorites. I used to prefer it simply steamed, served with a little bit of salt and pepper, but recently I have become obsessed with roasting it. Here’s what I do, in five ridiculously simple steps:



You may have noticed that a little web ad now appears in our sidebar. This is a widget from the site Panthera.org, whose mission is “to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action.” Heather and I care a lot about animals—endangered or otherwise—and big cats are a particular passion of mine, so we felt that giving a little web real estate to a good cause was appropriate. Please take a few minutes to read about Panthera’s work and, if you can, get involved in some way. If you can’t dedicate your time or money, at least spread the word. The big cats of the world will thank you (or at least they would if they weren’t so busy being awesome).

We now return you to our regularly scheduled deliciousness.

Restaurant-Style Tomato Salsa

Restaurant-Style Tomato Salsa

Yeah, I know Cinco de Mayo was on Saturday, but really, salsa didn’t become America’s favorite condiment based on one barely-understood holiday’s consumption alone. (According to Jerry Seinfeld, it’s America’s favorite condiment because people like to say “SAAAALSAAA.”) The thing about salsa is that it is, hands down, one of the easiest things to make. I’m not kidding you, screwing up salsa is very, very hard to do. I almost never make it the same way twice, because I’m always playing around with what I have on hand, and salsa really just means “sauce,” so you can have fruity salsas and chunky salsas and very smooth salsas and salsas with cheese in them and oh gosh, some folks even say guacamole is a kind of salsa. My mind is bended! What I’m saying is, your salsa can go in a lot of different directions, and it’s easy to fix mistakes, particularly in a fresh salsa.

I’m mainly a pico de gallo girl—those big chunks of tomato and onion really turn my crank—but a hand-chopped fresh salsa like that is admittedly not the best for chips. And chips, dear friends, are one way to make a casual hangout feel more like a party. My Papa makes a really delicious salsa cruda, and we always had a jar of it in our fridge at home, which I regularly plopped on some super-low-rent nachos and quesadillas when I got home from school. I think I once got in trouble for eating up one batch too quickly. I’ve fallen out of the habit of keeping homemade salsa around, but I think it’s time I bring it back. You can do it with me. This here is our salsa challenge. Let’s make salsa, friends! A mere ten minutes of work yields a vat that’ll feed the teeming millions. Don’t be scared of the yield. You can spoon it over grilled chicken or fish, tuck it into burritos or tacos, stir it into soups or beans, add it to the liquid when cooking rice, plop it on top of eggs or a baked potato…and of course, it pairs beautifully with all kinds of chips. (24 hours after I made this salsa, we had only a cup left.) Since I use canned tomatoes here, it can be made in any season and you’ll escape the menace of mealy, sad, pink tomatoes. Also, heat makes tomatoes even healthier; canned tomatoes give you more lycopene than fresh ones. Eat up!

What’s your favorite way to eat salsa? Are you a purist? Do you use salsa as a way to doctor up a dull meal? Tell me in the comments! I cook with salsa a lot, but if it’s in my fridge, I’m gonna buy a bag of chips because that duo is just too perfect. I have a sort of masochistic fondness for Xochitl chips, which are altogether too expensive and so fragile you’d swear they were made out of spun sugar. They’re lousy for a hearty salsa or guacamole, because they shatter into a thousand pieces, but they make a perfect pairing with a smooth, light one. This recipe is more akin to the not-too-chunky red tomato salsa you get in Mexican restaurants in the States. Make this for a gathering and watch the wave of “holy cow, you made this?” pass over your guests.

Oh, and a warning: Smart cooks wear rubber gloves when they handle hot peppers like jalapeños and poblanos. I’m not a smart cook, so I usually forget, but then I spend the rest of the night reminding myself not to touch my eyes. No matter how many times you wash your hands, those pepper oils’ll getcha. If you’re a contact lens wearer, be smarter than I usually am or get a buddy to do the pepper prep. I promise it’s worth it.

Restaurant-Style Tomato Salsa

Active time: 10 minutes  |  Total time: 20 minutes  |  Yield: 7 cups


1 poblano chile

1/2 medium white onion, peeled and roughly chopped

1 clove garlic, peeled and quartered

1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes

1 10-ounce can Ro-Tel diced tomatoes and green chiles (alternately, use 1 14.5-ounce can Muir Glen fire-roasted diced tomatoes with green chiles)

1 jalapeño, quartered, seeded, roughly chopped

1/4 to 3/4 cup chopped cilantro

1/4 teaspoon sugar

1/4 teaspoon fine salt

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/2 lime, juiced (about 1 tablespoon)


  1. Using long metal tongs, hold poblano over the flame of a gas burner, turning to char evenly on all sides. When pepper is charred (about 5 minutes), place in a glass bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap or a snug-fitting plate. Let rest 10 minutes. Rub charred skin off poblano with your hands or a dry paper towel and discard it. Slice pepper open, discard stems and seeds, and roughly chop flesh.
  2. Place garlic and onion in the bowl of a large food processor. Pulse a few times until no large pieces of garlic remain. Add poblano, tomatoes and juice, Ro-Tel, jalapeño, cilantro, sugar, salt, cumin, and lime juice. Pulse until desired consistency is achieved (about 10 pulses). Refrigerate in an airtight container at least 1 hour, then let come to room temperature before serving. (Store in an airtight container up to 1 week, if it lasts that long.)

Welcome to Heather+Mike!

©Puja Parakh

Well, we finally did it. For more than a year, I have been promising to set up a “family” blog where Heather and I could write about Youngcentric things like cooking, craft projects, our various adventures and, of course, our cats. Anyone else would simply have installed WordPress, selected a stately prebuilt theme, and called it a day. However “anyone else” is not a prideful and persnickety graphic designer. So, for about a year, I tinkered and procrastinated, chasing other interests—video games, comics, freelance projects, my own website—like a puppy chasing butterflies through a meadow. When Heather was forced to publish an amazing how-to about menu planning to her old LiveJournal page a couple months ago, I decided it was finally time to knuckle down and get to work. Welcome to the fruits of our planning, design, and passive-aggressive fights with WordPress!

Heather+Mike is “the official Young family blog.” We’ll write about whatever tickles our fancy, but it will most likely most often take the form of a food and crafting blog with random asides. (Sharing about cooking and crafting might be the only thing Heather loves more than actually cooking and crafting.) There will almost certainly also be a significant number of cat pictures and videos. Because that’s how we roll.

Keep checking back and enjoy!

All content copyright © 2024 Heather and Michael Young. Please do not take or copy anything without permission.