Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Pure Vanilla by Shauna Sever - A Review

Pure Vanilla. More than just a recipe book, this celebrates the heritage and flavour of vanilla, with an interesting history of the vanilla bean from the Totonac Indians in Mexico who first discovered it to its use in the food and cosmetic industries today. It also includes a useful description of the different forms you can find vanilla in - pod, paste, extract - and 'tasting notes': I didn't know that there are different types of vanilla with different tastes and tones

I opened it up and read the introduction. I liked the style of the author, Shauna Sever, and having had a quick look at her blog, 'Piece of Cake' , I established that she was the sort of baker who would happily closet herself away with a cake and a spoon for company. In the blurb about the first actual recipe, she says "This...represents something I feel deeply about, that is to say, dessert disguised as breakfast". My kind of woman, I thought.

From breakfast (including a savoury recipe for bacon), we proceed through cake & pies and cookies & bars to candies & confections, custards & creams and finally drinks, including a vanilla mojito. I like vanilla and there are plenty of recipes that make me go "mmmm" from the title alone - Slow Cooked Vanilla Spiced Oatmeal, Cherry Vanilla Shortbread Cake Squares, Lemon Vanilla Dream bars, that mojito I mentioned - All good.

The book itself is very 'pretty' in a pale - I guess, 'vanilla' - type of way. Muted tones of cream, brown and blue. If you flick through it, there's not much that stands out to make you stick your finger in the pages and start to drool. so you do have to pay attention. There's also not as much photography as I'd like - you can go from page to tastefully designed pastel page with not so much as a doodle of a cake or a biscuit cookie. May be it's just me - but I do like to see what I'm aspiring to, but that's not the reason why I'm not leaping up and down with enthusiasm for this book.

No, not that. Here is the 'but' for me about this book: All the recipes are written in American measurements, and use the odd ingredient that doesn't fall easily into the shopping trolley in the UK. That's fair enough, the writer is American, but then the book doesn't have an easy conversion table for the measurements. Nor is there an explanation of the ingredients that might not be as familiar to the UK audience as they are in the US - such as corn syrup - and what a substitute might be. There is a conversion table in the back of the book, but it converts 'cups' and 'spoons' into a volume measurement. Call me picky, but I don't want to measure my butter in ml - I want it in grams, I'm afraid. I do have cups, but after a brief flirtation, I'm back to grams. And I have never been able to work out what a 'stick' of butter is. Even if the conversion table did the job I'd want it to do, flicking back and forward to the table is a little annoying in the first place. In Baked in America, probably my favourite American baking book so far, all the recipes have the ingredients in cups and grams, thus avoiding the need for flicking. It's a much more satisfactory way of approaching things. I'm sorry to say that this did put me off actually baking anything from the book at the weekend, when I had intended to.
If you can get over the recipe conversion issue - I'm sure I will at some point - and the lack of photos, it's a lovely book. There is a wealth of recipes to be explored, and fans of American baking won't be disappointed.  

If you're feeling like something a little less challenging to convert, rather than a whole cake or cookie recipe, the book has recipes to make vanilla extract and vanilla sugar, and I thought I'd share those here - they both have the potential to make good last minute Christmas presents for the foodie in your life (or, if that's you, then for your own purposes!)

Both these recipes and the photo are taken directly from the book, and I'm copying them with permission of the publisher.

Homemade Vanilla Sugar

Fill a lidded container with about 2 cups* of granulated sugar. Bury a vanilla bean** (or two, for more intense flavor), split lengthwise, in the sugar. Tighten the lid and shake the container like you’re competing in a dance contest at a dive bar. Store in a cool, dark place for 2 days and then open the container, take a deep whiff, and die a little from the glorious fragrance of homemade vanilla sugar, It’s that easy! You don’t even need a whole unscraped pod-use the empty scraped vanilla beans from recipes that call for just the caviar. Store the empty pods in the sugar; when your supply runs low, replenish by adding more fresh sugar on top.

Use vanilla sugar the same way you use the granulated stuff. It adds a bit more oomph to baked goods and is a delicious addition to coffee and tea. If you’re making vanilla-forward recipes like the ones in this book, vanilla sugar is yet another simple way to add that irresistibly ambrosial flavor.

To turn this recipe into a gift, pack the vanilla sugar in a decorative container-like a vintage Mason jar-topped with a scrap of fabric and festive ribbon. For an even fancier version, use raw turbinado*** sugar instead of granulated sugar.

Homemade Vanilla Extract
And it couldn’t be simpler. All you need is a clean jar or bottle with a tight-fitting lid, whole vanilla beans, and a clear neutral-tasting liquor (vodka is my top choice). For an 8-ounce**** jar, 2 split beans should do, but you can add more if you like. Let the sealed jar sit in a cool, dark place for about 2 months before using. I also add scraped seedpods to the extract jar after I’ve used them in recipes, unless they land in my container of Vanilla Sugar first. As you use the extract, top off the jar with more of the same type of liquor for a nearly never-ending supply.

Aside from being a great way to save money on a pricey ingredient, making your own extract is an excellent opportunity to use some of the more exotic flavors of whole beans in liquid form, since store-bought extracts rarely come in such varieties. Magical! You can also combine several different varieties of vanilla in one batch of extract, creating your own special blends. Few things make a more fabulous edible gift than homemade vanilla extract in a vintage bottle decorated with a darling handmade tag. Martha’s got nuthin’ on you. 

 *OK don't say I never do anything for you - 2 cups of sugar is about up to the 500ml mark on a measuring jug. **A vanilla bean is what I would call a pod, and ***'turbinado' sugar appears to be very similar to demerara, but has hints of honey****An 8ounce jar is, I believe, 250ml. 
I was asked to provide a review and received a copy of Pure Vanilla for the purposes of carrying out the review. I was not required to provide a positive review. The views expressed are my own


  1. Good review RJ, I like photographs of the food too at least just to see what my effort was supposed to look like!

    1. exactly that for me too. otherwise, it's worth a look. I might make some of the cookies at the weekend


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