Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 25, 2011

Foodie With Family: Feeding DIY spirit

Local columnist

---- — It is no secret that I am a big proponent of making things that many folks buy at the store. From the common (potato chips, bread, ice cream, laundry detergent) to the hard-or-impossible-to-find (furikake, candied jalapenos, game stock), home kitchen alchemy can do it if it's worth having or doing.

Sometimes my efforts earn me admiration, but just as often it gets me a resounding, "Why would you bother when you can easily buy this fill-in-the-blank at the store?"

My motivation for this DIY spirit tends to vary with the project, but here, in no particular order, are a few reasons that pop up frequently.

• To save money: I've said it before and I'll say it again. I'm cheap. I want to stretch every household dollar as far as it can reasonably go without breaking. Starting with basic ingredients prepared at home is almost assuredly gentler on your wallet than pre-fab food.

• To make it taste better: I honestly believe that the best food is never, ever going to come from a box mix or a shelf-stable pre-made package. This is not to say I'm a food snob; I'll eat just about anything you put in front of me. Food should sustain your body, yes, but it should also nourish your soul, so if I'm the one slinging grub, I'm going to make it the best grub I can possibly sling.

• To make it better for you: Soup made at home is, unless you're very heavy handed, certain to contain less sodium than the canned or frozen variety. You can opt to make foods with healthier ingredients (for example, olive oil vs. vegetable oil, butter vs. shortening).

• To avoid certain ingredients: Thankfully, my husband, children and self are free of food allergies, but there are still certain preservatives and ingredients that I choose not to serve to us. Making our own food from scratch is a much easier way to accomplish that than obsessively reading labels.

• To know the source of the item: This is not a star-bellied sneetch issue; I don't care whether something has stars on thars. The problem is that there have been some real problems in the recent past with food, household or health and beauty items that did not meet safety standards. Besides, why pay for something to come from overseas when I can make it here at home, saving goodness-knows-how-much fuel and/or energy for better purposes?

• To prove that I can do it: It's that pioneer spirit, that sisu, that I-don't-know-what. It's the same reason my dad put on his winter kit and walked around the house three times after the meteorologist said that the weather was too bad for anyone to be outside. We do this because we are capable and we are not intimidated. If a machine can make it, I darned well better be able to make it, too. (This is where we pound our chests and do warrior cries, folks.)

Chocolate syrup is a big deal around here. Chocolate syrup is stirred into milk, blended into smoothies, squirted on ice cream, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, poundcake, and -- when I'm not looking -- directly into mouths. We consume it in vast quantities.

A couple years back, I got tired of actively ignoring the ingredient lists (the major brands all have high fructose corn syrup, artificial flavoring, food dyes, and other things on my no-no list) and paying through the nose for the privilege. A little experimentation yielded a vastly superior in taste, higher quality, far-less-expensive chocolate syrup that was simple to make and required nothing more exotic than Dutch-processed cocoa powder.

Bonus: If you are looking for fat-free, this recipe is for you! If you're not looking for fat-free, I suggest making it anyway. This chocolate syrup is mighty good.

Homemade Chocolate Syrup

Gently adapted from a recipe by Alton Brown

1½ c. water

3 c. raw sugar

1½ c. Dutch-processed cocoa powder

1½ T. vanilla extract (preferably homemade)

¼ t. kosher or sea salt

2 T. light corn syrup or mild honey

Bring water and sugar to a boil in a medium-to-large saucepan (this will expand as it boils in later stages of the recipe), stirring until sugar is dissolved. Whisk in the remaining ingredients until the cocoa powder is also dissolved. Return to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer until slightly thickened, about 5-8 minutes. You do not want to boil it until it is very thick, as it will become even more viscous as it cools.

Pour the hot syrup through a fine mesh strainer and let cool to room temperature before transferring into squeeze bottles.

Notes: Dutch-processed cocoa powder is used here because it dissolves more easily in liquids than common (a.k.a. natural) cocoa powder. No matter what its other benefits, a homemade chocolate syrup that is gritty isn't what we want. Dutch-processed cocoa powder is generally easy to find in grocery stores with well-stocked baking sections and in bulk food stores.

I use raw sugar in this recipe because I like the added depth of flavor and touch of caramel it contributes. If you cannot find it easily (it is also sold under the names turbinado, sugar-in-the-raw and demerara) you can substitute white granulated sugar for it.

You can get squeeze bottles at big box stores or in the kitchen notions sections of grocery stores. If you use an opaque ketchup or mustard bottle to store your syrup, remember to label it so you don't forget what's in there at an inopportune moment. While chocolate syrup is good on many things, hot dogs and hamburgers are not among them.

Homemade Never-Ending Vanilla Extract

2 c. (or more) vodka or brandy (use more if necessary to cover the beans)

8 (or more) whole vanilla beans (use more beans for stronger extract)

A clean jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid

Split vanilla beans lengthwise (and again cross-wise if necessary to fit into a jar or bottle with a tight fitting lid.) Put vanilla beans into the jar or bottle and pour the vodka or brandy over the beans to cover. Put the lid firmly in place and shake the bottle for at least one minute. Put in a cool, dark place to infuse for at least 4 weeks prior to using.

To make this extract "endless," top off the liquid with additional vodka or brandy each time you use it.

Depending on how heavily you use vanilla extract, this could last for years. I add another bean every few months to keep it strongly flavored.

For a heartier helping of Foodie With Family, go to or Rebecca's new blog, Write to Rebecca at to share your adventures and favorite recipes.