Sweet Talk with Shauna Sever

Cookbook author, baking blogger, television host, and award-winning baking blog founder Shauna Sever‘s new cook book helps you satisfy your sweet tooth the healthy way. Real Sweet: More Than 80 Crave-Worthy Treats Made with Natural Sugars is packed with dozens of recipes that allow you to indulge without the guilt. To create her delicious desserts, Shauna only uses natural, unrefined, and readily available alternative sweeteners, such as, coconut sugar, Muscovado, Turbinado, honey, maple syrup, and agave nectar. Real Sweet offers a variety of recipes for simple lunchbox treats, candies and confections, bake sale classics like cookies and cakes, and spoonable puddings and flans—all accompanied with beautiful photographs by Leigh Beisch. Shauna, also known as The Next Door Baker, even shared her irresistible Coconut Sugar Banana Sheet Cake with Caramelized Coconut Sugar Frosting recipe from the book with us (below!) Enter to win this book and three other amazing reads in our September/October Books We Are Loving Giveaway before October 13!

Tell us a little about why you wanted to create your book.
I’ve always loved working with standard refined white and brown sugars in baking and candy making, but when I started playing with white sugar alternatives, it really blew my mind, what could be achieved in terms of textures and flavors by swapping out white sugar for less processed alternatives. I think people are moving towards a less processed way of eating in general, and for me, in order to fully enjoy life, that definitely means including dessert! I wanted to write a book that showed that making all your favorite treats without refined white sugar is possible, and most importantly, the great flavors that can be achieved by making the switch.

What is it about specifically? How is it broken into chapters, etc?
Real Sweet is all about baking and sweet treat making without the use of refined white sugar. It’s an exploration of flavor and texture, using all kinds of exciting sugars from various sources, like turbinado sugar, muscovado, honey, maple, coconut sugar, and lots more. To make these somewhat unfamiliar ingredients a little more user-friendly, I decided to forgo the typical “Cookies/Cakes/ Pies and Tarts” chapter breakdown. Instead, I divided up the book by occasion, and how the recipes would most likely be used in real life. Like All Day Snacks and Lunch Box Treats, Bake Sales and Edible Gifts, Picnics and Potlucks, Dinner Party Fancies, etc. I figured we’re already playing with some unfamiliar ingredients, so it might be nice to help put the recipes in context and inspire bakers to use them to celebrate all of life’s little (and big) occasions.

Real-Sweet_COVERWhat was the hardest part?
Aside from finding people to take my kids away so I could actually write the book? Ha! I would probably say sharing information about the sugars without crossing into the territory of sounding like a nutritionist, which I most certainly am not. I think most people are smart enough to know that sugar is sugar no matter how it’s labeled, but I was careful to address that off the top. There are a lot of people out there who are very passionate about the subject of sugar, and have strong feelings about it either way, like either it’s awesome or it’s the devil. I wanted to find a middle ground with these recipes and provide a guide for using all these exciting alternatives to white sugar that are on grocery shelves today, and treat them like specialty ingredients. It’s hard to write a book about any food that falls under the “natural foods” label and not run into controversy. So with that in mind, I really tried to stress over and over again in the book that I’m not trying to call any of these recipes “health food”—to me, any kind of dessert, no matter what sugar its made with, should be enjoyed in moderation.

Easiest part?
Converting some of my favorite family recipes that are usually made with all white sugar (or supermarket brown sugar, which is really just white sugar with a little molasses added back in for color and flavor). Some were actually “easy” to convert, while some took a little tinkering, but even the ones that took many tests to get right with a different sugar were a pleasure, because I started with beloved recipes, like Mrs. Braun’s Oatmeal Cookies, which I have on a handwritten card from my grandma. And I always enjoy writing headnotes—I love sharing little tidbits about the recipes that give a sense of where the recipe came from or helpful tips on how the reader can be successful. Some authors hate writing headnotes, but I adore them, both writing my own and reading headnotes in cookbooks from other authors. For me, that’s where the life of the book really is, and what separates holding a cookbook in your hands, paging through it for inspiration from just Googling something.

What is your favorite thing about the final book?
I love that this book is a mix of new and old recipes—most of the recipes were developed from the ground up, but this book definitely has more family recipes than my previous books. Without sounding too groovy, I also feel like this particular book is a snapshot of who I am as a baker: I was born and raised in the Midwest, so I love all-American, traditional treats, but I’ve spent my entire adult life in California, so I love playing with interesting, alternative, more natural ingredients. I’m also so proud of the photos we created for this book; Leigh Beisch is a brilliant photographer, and Sara Slavin is the best prop stylist and art director in the game. I style all my own food for my books because I love it and also because I’m a glutton for punishment. Leigh and Sara and I have worked together on all three of my books, and it’s always my favorite part of the book-making process. We’re a dream team and have so much fun. I always leave my shoot weeks with them feeling completely inspired and in awe of what they create.

What do you want people to come away with after reading your book?
That’s there’s so much more to the world of baking with less processed and unrefined sugars than granola. Working with these alternative sugars can create so many delicious options that are way more hip than hippie. And nothing gets people talking at a gathering quite like an insanely delicious dessert that’s made without a speck of white sugar. So many of us see these sugars on the shelf and have no way of knowing how to use them, so a primer like this is a great place to start to become comfortable with the ingredients, and then get inspired to convert favorite white sugar recipes to use less refined sweeteners—that’s where the creative fun really begins.

Coconut Sugar Banana Sheet Cake with Caramelized Coconut Sugar Frosting
Makes 1 9x13 inch cake Although it’s not a perfect fit for every baked good, when you find the right recipe to use coconut sugar, it’s as though the heavens open up as you take a bite. Because it’s not derived from sugarcane, the “brown” flavor of coconut sugar doesn’t come from molasses, and so it tastes quite different from other brown sugars like turbinado or muscovado. It’s a decidedly exotic, toasty flavor that pairs wonderfully with other tropical flavors, especially bananas.
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  1. 2 cups (9 ounces/255 grams) unbleached all-purpose flour, spooned and leveled*
  2. 2 teaspoons baking powder
  3. 1⁄2 teaspoon baking soda
  4. 1⁄2 teaspoon fine sea salt
  5. 1 1⁄3 cups (105⁄8 ounces/302 grams) mashed bananas (from about 3 very ripe medium ones)
  6. 2⁄3 cup (5 5⁄8 ounces/151 grams)
  7. 2% Greek yogurt
  8. 1⁄4 cup (2 ounces/57 grams) coconut or canola oil
  9. 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons (6 ounces/170 grams) coconut sugar
  1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 ̊F. Spray a 9 ×13-inch pan with nonstick spray or butter it generously.
  2. Into a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat together the sugar and butter on medium-low speed until the mixture looks like dampened sand, about 1 minute. Add the eggs one at a time, giving the first about 30 seconds to incorporate before adding the second. Increase the speed to medium-high, beating until light in texture and much paler in color; 4 to 5 minutes (don’t skimp on the beating time here—the significant change in color will be your cue that the sugar has begun to dissolve). Beat in the vanilla extract.
  4. Reduce the mixer speed to low. Stir in the dry ingredients and banana-yogurt mixture in five alternating additions, beginning and ending with the dry ingredients, letting each addition fully absorb into the batter before adding to the next. Finish folding the batter gently by hand to ensure it is well blended.
  5. Scrape the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until a toothpick comes out clean, 25 to 30 minutes. Cool the cake completely in the pan on a wire rack. Keeping the cake in the pan for easy transport and storage, slather with the frosting.
  1. Speaking of bananas, one of the tricks of using coconut sugar successfully in baking is to find a recipe that has plenty of tenderizing, moisture-lending ingredients in it—such as mashed bananas or other fruit purees, oils, and buttermilk or yogurt—as coconut sugar tends to dry out baked goods.
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