I'm starting to make kitchen gifts for Christmas -- this one is something I hadn't used before this past summer, but one afternoon I was leafing through Patricia Wells' Bistro Cooking, as one does, and read about sucre vanillé, vanilla-flavored sugar. It's not only delicious -- vanilla and sugar, what's not to love? -- but it is a very simple gift for children to make as well, for teachers, Brownie leaders, and whatnot. Make it a few weeks ahead of time so that it has time to infuse a bit.
Use vanilla sugar in place of regular sugar in cookies, cakes, and puddings, even coffee, or over fresh fruit -- I've just used it in croissant pudding with happy results.
If you don't have a jar big enough for four cups of sugar, simply reduce the amount of ingredients to 1 bean per cup of sugar -- just leave enough head-room in the jar so that you can shake it periodically. You can use the beans whole, broken, or cut and scraped, which will add lovely brown vanilla flecks to the sugar.
4 vanilla beans
4 cups sugar
Combine the vanilla beans and sugar in a clean, dry, 1-quart jar, breaking the beans if you like. Cover with a tight-fitting lid, and store in a cupboard. Shake the jar now and then. As you use the sugar, add new sugar; the beans will last for years, but do replace them when they lose their fragrance and flavor.
Use the vanilla sugar in place of regular sugar in any suitable recipe, omitting the vanilla extract called for.
Makes 4 cups of vanilla sugar. Preparation time, 3 minutes, plus storage time.