The Shauna Sever Interview: Her New Book is Real Sweet

Interview with Real Sweet’s Author Shauna Sever

Author Photo_Shauna Sever


Shauna Sever’s new book, Real Sweet, explores the world of alternative sugars, such as coconut sugar, muscovado, agave and more. We love her approach and have had great success with the recipes in the Test Kitchen. If you are looking to use less white sugar, or are just interested in all of the wonderful flavors these sweeteners can provide, then this book is for you. Read to hear her own words about how this book came about and make sure to check out her Coconut Sugar Banana Sheet Cake and Oatmeal Cream Cookie Sandwiches.


Dédé Wilson: Shauna, when it comes to baking I often think of three key ingredients as our building blocks: butter, sugar and flour. Recently Alice Medrich turned to flour as a flavor ingredient – in fact her book is called Flavor Flours – and she explored all of the lesser-used flours like sorghum, teff and buckwheat. In your book Real Sweetyou seem to be taking the same approach with sugars looking beyond white and brown and delving into coconut sugar, muscovado, agave and maple syrup among others. How did it occur to you to write a book on this subject and approach? And by the way, we are so glad you did!

Well, thank you! That is exactly what I want people to know about “Real Sweet”–that there’s a whole world of flavors out there when it comes to sugar. In the U.S. especially, we’re so used to reaching for refined, white granulated sugar for baking and treat making (and standard-issue brown sugar, which is really just white granulated sugar with a little molasses added back in), that we don’t realize that there are alternatives, and ones that taste better and are less processed, too. It started with the treats I make for my kids, which make up most of the first chapter of the book–things like chewy little Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Raisin Treats, which are completely date-sweetened and packed with whole grains, Homemade Fruit Leather with honey, Breakfast Cookies that are perfect for everyday, Blueberry-Maple Oatmeal Muffins. And then once I realized how easy it was to convert white sugar recipes in other categories, like bake sale classics, candies, impressive dinner party desserts, and ice creams, I got really excited about the flavor possibilities by using natural sugars in recipes instead of the more refined white stuff, which is completely void of flavor and character. 
How did you begin to develop recipes? Was there a basic substitution formula that you followed or developed from trial and error?
It was a lot of trial and error. There is a great Sweet Swaps chart in the beginning of the book to help you start by using whatever natural sugars you happen to have on hand, but not every natural sugar makes a great white sugar alternative in every recipe, because they come from different sources. Some start out as sugarcane, while others come from totally different plants and therefore don’t act the same when you apply heat to them. I learned to sort of “respect the sugar”, and use certain ones in particular recipes where they’re mostly like to be successful. For example, don’t expect a crisp cookie when you swap the dry white sugar in it for honey–it might be sweet-tasting, but the crunch is never going to happen. Liquid sweeteners like honey or agave are hygroscopic and pull moisture from the air and just get more moist as they sit. You can’t control science, man. That’s just the way of the sugar. But if you want a nice sticky cake that gets better as it rests on the counter, honey is your best friend.
Which sugar was the easiest to work with and what was the most challenging? How did you handle the one that gave you trouble?
Dark muscovado sugar is a wonder ingredient. It’s like regular dark brown sugar on steroids, and swaps perfectly 1:1 in just about every recipe, and gives fabulous results and huge flavor with little to no tweaks to the original recipe. Coconut sugar, on the other hand, can be a little tricky. That’s why it’s nicknamed “The Femme Fatale” in the book (each chapter has a “sugar one-sheet” which outlines a sugar’s characteristics and best uses), because it can burn at a lower temperature than white cane sugar, and sometimes can dry things out. I tend to give a recipe four tries–if I can’t get it to work by that point and meet the end goal I have in my mind and tastebuds, I shelve it. 
What are some of the recipes in your book that really highlight the individual sugars best? In other words, if someone wants to really explore and taste muscovado or CC, which recipes bring out their best qualities? 
As high maintenance as it can be, when you find a great recipe for coconut sugar, it’s just so fabulous tasting I can’t even tell you. To combat any drying in cakes, recipes with lots of moisture in the forms of fruit purees or mashed banana (like the Coconut Sugar Banana Sheet Cake with Caramelized Coconut Sugar Frosting) are terrific with coconut sugar, as are things that have a bit more butter or oil in them. Dark muscovado and dark maple syrup are both terrific with bittersweet chocolate and warming spices (like the Dark, Fudgy Muscovado Brownies or Spiced, Bruleed Maple Pumpkin Pie). I love using different flavored honeys, too–blueberry honey, lavender, chamomile…they’re all so beautiful with delicate fruits like berries, citrus, and nuts. 
Do you have a favorite sweetener? What is it about this one?
The aforementioned dark muscovado–it adds so much dimension to familiar things like a classic chocolate chip cookie or blondie. That’s so much of what this book is about–taking familiar things and making them other-wordly with these better quality, more natural sugars and sweeteners that might also happen to have a nice little nutrient punch, too. 
What is the most economic way to buy these sugars? Do you have some favorite sources? 
I swear by buying in bulk from natural foods stores, and buying online. Amazon is a treasure trove of natural sugars! Many warehouse stores now have a surprising number of white sugar alternatives these days, too–it was actually a sighting at Costco of a woman scanning a huge bag of coconut sugar with confusion in her eyes that helped inspire this book. I watched her reading the bag and thought “she’s gonna put it in her coffee for a little while and then forget all about that bag, and miss all the great things she could make with it!”. There is a Sources section in the book that has all my favorite go-to stores and brands and what companies offer coupons, etc. It’s totally possible to make using natural sugars affordable if you know where to look!
Tell me about the Fake-Out Caramel Dip. I keep seeing “caramel” recipes using dates and nut butters and I admit I have not tried them yet. 
It’s fantastic! My version has a good hit of salt and some vanilla to round things out. It’s a great way to get your kids to eat pounds and pounds of sliced fruit. As a salted caramel fanatic, I will admit, it will never fully replace my beloved, but it comes freakishly close, and has a lot more nutritional value. 
We are going to feature your Coconut Sugar Banana Sheet Cake and your Oatmeal Cream Cookie Sandwiches. Any specific tips for our home bakers when making those?
The cake only gets better as it sits, so making it a day ahead is a great idea. The cookie part of the oatmeal cookie sandwiches are divine even before they’re sandwiched with the creamy filling, which really just puts them over the top! 
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