I received an electronic copy of Vanilla Table, for review from Natasha MacAller’s publicist. Nevertheless, all opinions in the following post are my own.
The single subject cookbook is a trend that’s becoming as important as cookbooks focused on a single cuisine. Whether the focus is a dish or an ingredient, a meal or a piece of equipment, home cooks are seeking out cookbooks that will allow them to dig deeper than the generalist cookbooks they started with.
Natasha MacAller’s Vanilla Table is a perfect example of why this trend is taking off. Vanilla is an ingredient most cooks take for granted, adding it to their sweets and baked goods to enhance the flavours that are the real stars of their dishes. As MacAller says in her introduction to the cookbook: “Vanilla is often used to describe something that is just ordinary, nothing special, no extras — however, vanilla is anything but plain.”
MacAller sets out to make vanilla not just the focus of many of the dishes in the book, but also to provide the tools for home cooks to use vanilla, in all its forms, more creatively and daringly. There’s a short “Vanilla 101” at the beginning of the book that guides the reader through the four varieties of vanilla and their characteristics, then discusses the forms of vanilla that are sold, from pods to powder. At the end of the book, she devotes a whole chapter to staple concoctions that are used in recipes throughout the book, but could serve as a jumping off point for your own ideas. The Vanilla Candied Bacon Bits alone could keep me busy finding savoury and sweet uses for them.
The chapters of the book read like the sections of a restaurant menu and the recipes lean toward haute cuisine. Though there are a few homey recipes, this book is perfect for planning dinner party menus. The recipes in the book are MacAller’s own, along with a selection of recipes from well-known chefs and bakers around the world, including Rose Levy Beranbaum, David Lebovitz, Yotam Ottolenghi, and Nancy Silverton.
MacAller herself became a chef after a career as a professional dancer, learning that she loved working with food when she began catering in her dance companies’ off seasons. She became known as The Dancing Chef and her recipes reflect a cosmopolitan and global perspective on food.
What I especially like about this cookbook is the way that its recipes make use of flavour combinations and layering. It’s something that’s often missing from cookbooks and is especially suitable for bringing a sense of fine dining to the home dining room.
The book also introduces a cornucopia of ingredients and a wealth of techniques, making the most of vanilla while tempting the reader to stretch their palates and practices. Huckleberry gastrique, lychee lime relish, fennel vanilla sausage, homemade labneh – the parts and flourishes of these recipes are as interesting as the whole.
Though the recipes and instructions might be challenging for more inexperienced cooks, this book has more than enough to teach cooks who are comfortable in the kitchen and want to extend their skills. I’d recommend it especially to cooks who like to entertain on an elegant scale.
I’m looking forward to working through the sweets and baked goods chapters, but I thought a good test of the book would be to choose recipes from the savoury section. There are classic vanilla pairings like lobster or dishes set off by a fruity sauce, but there are also some surprising combinations.
I was intrigued by the idea of garlic and vanilla, so I’m sharing MacAller’s recipe for a starter that combines the mellow savoury flavour of caramelized garlic with cheeses and a vanilla-infused custard. It’s a sneaky dish, with a strong vanilla aroma that initially reads as dessert. When you taste it, the garlic, ricotta and Parmesan are at the forefront of its flavour, but then the nutmeg and vanilla come through. It’s complex and delicious, a good starter for an adventurous meal or a classically French one. I served it plain, but I suspect it would be even more interesting with a garnish of green pea pesto (from her recipe for Heirloom Tomato Bisque, which pairs tomato and vanilla to good effect).
Caramelized Garlic & Ricotta Custard Cups
- 1 garlic head (recipe needs 6 caramelized cloves)
- 2 tsp (10 mL) oil
- 1 tsp butter, to grease cups
- 1 vanilla pod
- 1 Tbsp (15 mL) apple sauce (or ¼ apple, peeled and grated)
- ½ cup (120 mL) whipping cream
- 1 cup (240 mL) milk
- ½ tsp superfine sugar
- ½ tsp fine sea salt
- ¼ tsp white pepper
- 3 large eggs
- ½ cup (90 g) ricotta
- ¼ cup (20 g) Parmesan, finely grated
- a pinch of ground nutmeg
Preheat oven to 350 F/180 C.
Cut top off garlic head to expose cloves. Peel away just the outer layer of the garlic bulb skin, leaving the skins of the individual cloves. Wrap loosely in foil and drizzle over the oil. Pinch the foil closed at the top, place in a baking pan and cook in oven 30–35 minutes until squishy, caramelized and golden brown.
Butter 6 small (4 fl oz/120 ml) custard cups. Set inside a baking dish large enough to hold the cups.
Cut the vanilla pod in half but don’t split and scrape it, to keep the custard ivory colored. Squeeze 6 caramelized garlic cloves into a saucepan and add apple sauce, vanilla pod, cream, milk, sugar, salt and pepper. Bring just to a simmer, turn off heat and cool about 20 minutes.
Turn the oven to 325 F/160 C.
In a large jug, whisk the eggs well, then add ricotta. Place a sieve over the jug and strain the milk mixture into the eggs, pressing the garlic through with the back of a spoon. Discard the vanilla pod or rinse, dry and save for another use. Add Parmesan, salt, pepper, a pinch of nutmeg and whisk together.
Pour custard into cups. Lift pan into the oven, then fill with very hot water to come halfway up the outside of the cups. Bake for 20 minutes until custard has browned and set but is still jiggly in the center.
Serve warm as is or top with a spoonful of green pea pesto.
Vanilla Table shows just how complex and varied its titular ingredient can be, while proving that limiting cookbooks to a single subject doesn’t limit the scope and breadth of its recipes.
Come back Thursday, May 21st for a discussion of two books I was excited to celebrate.