I'm used to getting promotional emails, asking me to take part in competitions, add my blog to other sites, give space to aspiring writers and so on, or offering books or sample ingredients. Most of these are rejected, as I don't want to change the nature of my blog - I write for my own satisfaction, not to gain recognition, make money or further a career (mine or anyone elses!). Occasionally I'm offered a book or a baking ingredient which I think I can use, without compromising that point of view - in the case of books, I always make it clear that I will give an honest opinion, whether it be positive or not so enthusiastic. If I accept a book, I will always try to find a recipe which I can make, so as to get a real feel for how well the book is written and how good the cook is. This is a review of one of the books which has tempted me recently!
It was fascinating reading and sent me to the kitchen to discover the origins of my vanilla products. My pods, produced by Ndali, come from Uganda, so have a "sweet, winey, raisinlike fragrance and flavour ..... perfect for rich desserts, especially ones containing chocolate" (so that's OK then!). The organic vanilla bean paste was from an Australian company, so may have been produced in Papua New Guinea from Tahitian Vanilla. The bottle of vanilla extract, from one of the leading brands, doesn't state the origins of the beans at all.
Reading about how difficult it is to produce a vanilla bean, and how long the subsequent processing takes, makes it easier to understand why vanilla is one of the most expensive spices on the market, second only to saffron.
After the comprehensive introduction to all aspects of vanilla we come to the recipes. They are not all illustrated, which is always a disappointment, but those that are have beautiful photographs by Leigh Beisch. It can't have been easy to photograph food which is mostly in shades of white, but Leigh has produced some stunning photographs which make all the dishes look very appetising.
In many of the recipes, Shauna uses more than one form of vanilla to produce layers of flavour which are not in competition with other strong flavours. This will probably surprise most cooks, who tend to use vanilla as a background note to other flavours and not as the main feature. As the author is American, the recipes are written in cup measurements, which can be off putting to UK cooks, although cup measures are widely available. I was interested to see that white chocolate is often used to add a vanilla flavour, as I've often said that this is about the only real use for white chocolate!
I was surprised that it was initially quite difficult to actually find recipes which I wanted to make straight away. I wasn't really interested in either breakfast foods (although many could double as desserts), drinks or candies and confections which ruled out three of the six recipe chapters. In the other chapters, covering cakes and pies, cookies and bars, and custards and creams, some of the recipes seemed quite complicated, expensive (16 egg whites!) or used ingredients not easily obtained in the UK (marshmallow creme!). Some of the recipes just weren't suitable for the sort of cooking I'm doing at the moment, needing the right occasion to serve them up to a crowd. However, there are enough recipes which I would like to make, when the time is right, to keep me interested in the book, and any cook past the beginnners stage would find some of the more difficult recipes appealing and challenging.
All in all, this is a book which would be a good addition to any cook's library and which challenges our perception that vanilla is synonymous with plain and ordinary!