The scent of vanilla always evokes for me memories of my childhood; guzzling ice cream cornets on the beach at Barry Island. I seem to use vanilla so often though, these days, that it has become an essential part of my own kitchen. So when I was recently offered the opportunity by the folks at Quirk Books to review Shauna Sever's latest book, Pure Vanilla, I jumped at it. Shauna is a blogger-come-cookbook-writer, blogging at Piece Of Cake, whose first offering, Marshmallow Madness, was one I snapped up after reading some very delicious sounding blog posts about it. Pure Vanilla is her second book, and explores the beautiful and complex spice 'from orchid to extract'.
It's a fascinating insight into something I must admit, have grown complacent over, as it's fairly easy to obtain good quality vanilla extract on your supermarket shelves, even if the price can make you wince. But when you discover just how vanilla is produced, from the pollination of the orchids - which can only be grown in certain specific conditions - through to the processing of the pods for six to eight months, it makes you realise just why it is one of the world's most expensive spices.
Shauna's book provides a guide to all things vanilla. She identifies the different forms and varieties of vanilla (yes varieties - I didn't realise that there were different varieties with their own, complex tastes until reading this book). The book then continues on through over 85 recipes, each featuring vanilla. These are arranged into sections: Breakfasts, Cakes and Pies, Cookies and Bars, Candies and Confections, Custards and Creams, and finally, Drinks. There are many recipes I have bookmarked to try, including the wonderfully named Dutch Baby ( a mahoosive breakfast pancake similar to a sweet Yorkshire Pudding), Waffles, Biscotti, Cheesecake with a sweet and salty crust, Heirloom Vanilla Sugar Cookies, Salted Vanilla Chip Oatmeal Cookies (do you sense a theme here?).
Anyway, the one I wanted to try for this review was the Vanilla Cloud Cake (otherwise similar to an Angel Food Cake or, the nemesis of this year's Great British Bake Off final, a Chiffon Cake). I've wanted to try my hand at making one of these ever since watching that final. This seemed as good a time as any. The photo above shows the finished cake as represented in Shauna's book. Mine isn't perhaps as pretty (as I got to the frosting at the end of a looong day), but I bet it tastes as great.
The book, being a US publication, has some measurements in cups. There is a conversion chart in the back of the book, but it doesn't convert your dry weight cups into grams or ounces. That's not necessarily a problem, as there are some great guides out there on the net, including this one at American Cupcake in London. The other option is to acquire a set of measuring cups - but you need to be careful as US sizes are slightly different to the cups you get in the UK. See my post here on Using American Recipes for more detail. I bought a couple of sets on holiday in Florida.
Anyway, the recipe itself is fairly straightforward. You beat what seems an insane amount of egg whites with cream of tartar and salt until soft peaks form, then add in caster sugar and beat to a glossy, stiff peak stage adding some vanilla bean paste towards the end.
You then fold in a mix of flour, with some more sugar, and then pour, gently, into an Angel Food cake pan. The cake pan is ungreased so that it offers some support in the oven to the rising egg whites.
Once baked, the cake needs to be cooled upside down or it will collapse. An empty bottle comes in handy for this, as it helps hold the tin aloft with plenty of room for air to circulate.
After it's completely cold, you can turn it out of the tin by gently running a spatula around the inside.
The frosting is a yummy concoction of melted white chocolate, cream cheese, vanilla bean paste and vanilla extract, and whipped cream. The cream cheese stops it being overly sweet. I could eat this all by itself. Spread on the cake though ... seriously yum!
The texture of the cake is incredibly light and fluffy - you can see, or rather taste, why it's called a cloud cake. The only thing I noticed was that there were some large holes in the bottom - you can see in one of the pictures above - and I think this was because I rather gingerly tapped the cake tin on the counter after filling. I think it needs a good rap, but I wasn't sure how hard to do it and didn't want the egg whites to collapse. This, by the way, is not in the instructions in the book, but is something that the finalists did on GBBO.
That aside, Shauna's recipe was clear and easy to follow and with some good tips. There was one typo within the recipe, but this was not on a crucial point and did not affect the ingredients or methodology. I'm looking forward to trying some of the other recipes in the book.
If, like me, you are a cook book addict, then I suspect the 'feel' of a book will be important to you. This has a lovely feel to it, with gorgeous pictures spread throughout the book to reference certain recipes. I much prefer this to the layout on some of my other US books, where you only get a few selected photos lumped together in the centre.
This book would be a great present for a baker or someone who just loves vanilla. There is enough in here - through the way to make your own home made vanilla extract and sugar - to help build your knowledge.
I was sent a review copy of Pure Vanilla by PGUK on behalf of Quirk Books. I was not required to write a positive review, and all opinions are my own.