Aaaaaand, it's naptime again, which means it's time for another blog post written on the fly! (Cue lots of cartoon dust clouds and "peee-ow" acceleration noises as your heroine's fingers fly on the keyboard.)
I don't know about you, but my pantry is full of all sorts of things that routinely stump me when I open the door (here's looking at you, wasabi powder). Hidden among the cans of beans and glass jars of flours (and the wasabi powder) are various sweeteners that have made their home way home with me over the years, like brown rice syrup, two half-empty (what gives?) bottles of agave nectar, and various shades of brown sugar. I never really know what to do with them and I confess that the "clean eating" brigade actually put me off alternative sweeteners for years.
Enter Shauna Sever's Real Sweet, a cookbook about recipes made with all kinds of natural sugars, from coconut sugar to brown rice syrup, from muscovado sugar to maple syrup, from piloncillo to agave. Sort of like Kim Boyce's Good to the Grain, Shauna's emphasis is on teaching you about the different flavors, textures and properties that these sweeteners impart to cakes, cookies and other confections. It's not a healthy or "clean" baking book, just so that we're very clear from the start. It's a fantastic collection of really delicious treats, impeccably tested, written with humor and geared towards both child-friendly treats and sophisticated desserts. The book is organized around these treat categories, rather than the sweeteners, but there's a good index in the back that allows you to choose a sweetener and then see all the related recipes grouped there.
Shauna, who is my sweet and hilarious friend, has two young children, and clearly knows a thing or two about developing Grade A playground treats. But she doesn't dumb down any of her recipes and the book is filled with neat little fillips that elevate all of the recipes into Truly Special territory. The raspberry yogurt popsicles, for example, require lemon peel and vanilla bean, which make them deeply delicious for big and small alike. Shauna's also such a baking pro that the book is stuffed with all kinds of informational gems about baking that I've applied to other recipes with outstanding results. There are lots of hidden tips that will make you a better baker and a more confident one, too. Shauna even managed to develop two recipes for meringue (one soft, one crisp) and a recipe for confectioner's sugar without processed white sugar. Amazing.
I don't know about you, but it's very rare that I end up making more than a handful of things out of any particular cookbook. With this book, though, I can't seem to stop baking from it. I've made everything from tart blueberry fruit leather (agave syrup) to a soulful orange-vanilla pound cake (made with demerara, the batter beaten so long it resembled a gorgeously tan cloud by the end) to a buttery brittle topped with mixed seeds (brown rice syrup - and a candy thermometer, don't try this without one!) to those aforementioned raspberry yogurt popsicles (again, agave syrup) and I have several more recipes bookmarked to make this month alone. (If you must know: the Banana Butterscotch Cream Pie with evaporated cane juice, the Sunflower Seed Nuggets with coconut sugar and the Cracklin' Maple Popcorn with maple syrup, turbinado sugar, plus some molasses.)
The recipes were easy to follow, worked just as written and produced great results. I especially loved that nothing was too sweet or cloying. Shauna got the balance of flavors just right in everything. Shauna really understands the different flavors that these alternative sweeteners provide, as well as the textural things they can achieve (or not) and the recipes reflect it. She didn't just plug in brown sugar for white in a standard recipe. She really developed a whole slew of new recipes around the flavor of each sweetener.
Though I loved everything I made from Real Sweet, my very favorite is actually worth the price of the book (it's also the only thing I don't have a photo for; apologies!): Chocolate Chip Cookie Brittle. This stuff is...well...insane. You make a thin chocolate chip cookie batter, then spread it out all over a baking sheet. Once it has baked and cooled, it hardens into a thin layer that you break apart into rich, buttery shards that taste like a heavenly mashup between the crisp bits of a chocolate chip cookie and a Skor bar (or any chocolate-covered hard toffee). It's delicious. It's ridiculous. You will not be able to stop eating it. ASK ME HOW I KNOW.
Thanks to Shauna, I no longer have any agave syrup in my pantry at all, but I do plan on never being without turbinado or coconut sugar again. And I love that I now have uses for maple syrup and honey beyond our weekend pancakes or Hugo's breakfast yogurt. Best of all, I'm a better baker because of it. Real Sweet will be on my shelves forever.
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Shauna Sever's Chocolate Chip Cookie Brittle
Adapted from Real Sweet
Makes about 3 dozen 3-inch pieces
14 tablespoons/200 grams unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1 cup/200 grams turbinado sugar
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
2 cups/250 grams all-purpose flour
1/2 cup/60 grams finely chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
3/4 cup/130 grams chocolate chips (50-70% cacao)
1. Heat the oven to 350F/180C.
2. In a small saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and sugar together. Don't let the mixture come to a boil. Pour the mixture into a mixing bowl and let cool for 5 minutes. Whisk for 1 minute, until the mixture is thickened and smooth and no longer appears separated. Whisk in the vanilla and salt. Stir in the flour until well incorporated. Stir in half the nuts, if using.
3. Scrape the dough out onto an unlined sheet pan and pat it into a very thin, even layer with your hands. It won't look as if you'll be able to fill the entire pan, but you will; just keep patting and spreading the dough all the way to the edges. Use an offset spatula to give the dough a smooth finish. Sprinkle the chocolate chips and remaining nuts, if using, over the the dough and press them lightly into with your hands.
4. Bake for 22 to 25 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through, until light golden brown and slightly firm to the touch all over. Let cool in the pan for 3 minutes. Line a second sheet pan with parchment paper. Flip the slab of brittle onto the paper and then immediately peel off the parchment and invert it right side up onto a cooling rack. Cool completely. Break into pieces. Store in an airtight container for at least 5 days.