Cookbook Review: Pure Vanilla

Pure Vanilla by Shauna Sever

Cookbook Review: Pure Vanilla

It's been said that there are two kinds of people in the world -- chocolate or lemon lovers.  But like the yin-yang of a New York black-and-white cookie, you can also divide the world into chocolate versus vanilla.  Speaking as a vanilla lover, i think this flavor dyad isn't really fair since chocolate usually grabs the spotlight and the bigger space at the dessert table, leaving vanilla to suffer such indignities as being a metaphor for plainness and boredom. 

Despite chocolate's charisma, vanilla is in fact our most popular flavor -- vanilla ice cream is four times more popular than chocolate.  And there is nothing plain about its allure, history, complexity, aroma, and of course, its taste.  Without it, so many of our favorite things -- caramels, cheesecake, meringues, French toast, eggnog, donuts, and even Twinkies -- would be so less interesting.

To help us better appreciate, buy, and cook with vanilla is Shauna Sever's irresistible new book, Pure Vanilla (Quirk Books, hardcover, 4-color photography, 160 pages, $22.95).

Shauna Sever is a San Francisco-based food writer and owner of a dessert catering company whose expert knowledge of vanilla goes past cooking and baking with it to encompasses the spice's botany and geography.  

In her beautifully produced book that combines a light blue, pale lilac, and creamy white design with tempting color photographs taken by Leigh Beisch, Ms. Sever gives us a history of this precious spice that adds complexity to things both sweet and savory.  Her book's introduction includes a history that begins with the Aztecs and includes some unexpected details such as how we can credit Thomas Jefferson (is there anything that man didn't do?) with introducing vanilla to America.

In the spirit of Julia Child's axiom of how we should always know where our food comes from, there are details about how vanilla is harvested from flowering orchids whose some 150 varieties Ms. Sever compares to winemaking grapes (you will better appreciate vanilla's cost once you read what it takes to harvest and process the stuff).  She encourages the use of vanilla beans and paste instead of extract, but also gives instructions for how to make substitutions.

When asked about the many different kinds of vanilla and the option of using regular supermarket vanilla instead of those she calls "high quality brands," she had some specific advice:

"Supermarket vanillas might not be as full-flavored as some of the more premium brands, but it's still good stuff, as long as you look for the phrase 'pure vanilla extract' and avoid anything with 'imitation' on the label.  Then think about storage -- keep it in a cool, dark place to retain as much flavor and fragrance as possible.  And with inexpensive brands of vanilla extract, I almost always double the amount called for in a recipe.  For me, when it comes to vanilla, more is more."

80 Sweet and Tempting Recipes

There's more good advice in the book but best of all are the recipes that are all crafted with Ms. Sever's skilled baker's touch.  Starting with a primer on how to use extract versus beans, paste, and powder -- and why where your vanilla comes from makes a difference in how it tastes -- the recipes start with breakfast and finish with cocktails.  

Eighty recipes are organized in six chapters:


Recipes include Vanilla Bean Bread Pudding, Buttery Baked Vanilla Bean French Toast, and Vanilla-Stewed Fruit for breakfast.  Cakes and pies include Vanilla Cream Pie, Ultimate Vanilla Cupcakes, and for those Hostess addicts out there, a Twinkie Bundt Cake.

The cookies and bars include Vanilla Biscotti, Vanilla Snaps, and Vanilla Sugar Puffs for which we've been given permission to share the recipe.  See our link.  Vanilla Bean Marshmallows, Vanilla Butter Mints, and Opera Fudge are among the dozen Candies and Confections, the Custards and Creams include such classics as Crème Anglaise and Floating Islands, and the drinks range from Egg Creams to vanilla Martinis and Mojitos.

There are also instructions for making your own vanilla extract and vanilla sugar, which for some home cooks and bakers may make this the best reason to buy this book.

If the creamy, fragrant flavor of vanilla is one of your constant cravings, this cookbook belongs in your permanent collection.

Pure Vanilla: Irresistible Recipes and Essential Techniques

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