Baking Queen Maria Vella has the inside scoop on a new world of sugars

Maria Vella loves to experiment with baking. The 2013 Great Australian Bake Off runner-up has been testing recipes with different sugars from around the world and revelling in the flavours they produce.

“You can taste the true nature of these sugars,” she exclaims. “The aroma and taste are so good you don’t need to keep adding more ingredients to get that beautiful flavour.”

Unrefined sugars in particular have caught Maria’s eye. While sustainability and nutritional value are among the benefits offered by these sugars, support for small producers and artisan production techniques really excite the baker.

Maria’s convinced it is these attributes that give unrefined sugars an ‘X factor’.

“My taste testers at home could tell there was a difference. They couldn’t say what made [my baking] taste different, but there was that little something extra in flavour and they definitely wanted more!”

She quickly put to use the exotic Mexican Agave Sugar in a batch of kourabiedes, the Greek shortbread biscuits Maria grew up with, which are traditionally dusted in icing sugar. She also recommends Mexican Agave for cake decorating patterns and in drinks.

“I don’t drink a lot of alcohol,” she confesses. “But I do like mojitos!” Maria says Mexican Agave Sugar balances the tart lime juice in this summery rum cocktail.

Misconceptions about sugar are quite common, according to Maria.

“Most people have no idea that you can make sugar from a white beet,” she points out.

Maria’s been setting the record straight at the Cake, Bake and Sweets Show where she held baking demonstrations. There she talked about ‘the golden finish’ – the perfect amount of browning on cakes and other baked goods.

“I’ve heard people say they think the golden finish means the sugar [used] has been highly processed, rather than less. Aesthetically, we’ve become used to what baking looks like when we use white sugar, but we’ve forgone taste and aroma for that look.”

The golden finish isn’t an issue for chocolate-based sweet treats, which Maria says pairs well with the entire Sugars of the World range.

Although baking is Maria’s main passion, she finds playing with sugar flavours in other cooking just as fun. She says the Colombian Panela, Sri Lankan Rapadura and Indonesian Coconut Blossom Sugars lent their caramel honey tones to her homemade granola, rice pudding, porridge and biscuits. Savoury chutneys and red meat marinades also benefited, gaining the thick, sticky consistency that makes them so moreish.

Sugar was the ingredient Maria didn’t know she was missing.

“Sometimes you try to recreate things at home that you’ve tried when travelling, and they’re just not the same. Well, the real ingredients are why!” she laughs. “I will always use Coconut Blossom Sugar in my Asian dishes from now on. The dipping sauces for dumplings are just delicious with it.”

Flavour may be Maria’s driving force, but she keeps an eye on the health aspect of sugar too.

“Unrefined sugars don’t make our bodies work so hard to process them,” she says. “We bake to show our love. The cakes need to be good, as well as [their] look, smell and taste – satisfying all the senses.”

Banana and Walnut Cake

85g butter (room temperature)

150g Sri Lankan Rapadura Sugar

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1 egg

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200g ripe bananas, mashed (approximately 2 ripe bananas)

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125g natural Greek yoghurt

30ml rice bran oil

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220g flour

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon bicarbonate powder

1/4 teaspoon salt

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60g walnuts, chopped

1: Preheat oven to 180°C, or if it’s fan-forced, 170°C.

2: Prepare a loaf pan by lining it with baking paper. Set aside for the moment.

3: Combine the butter and sugar in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat for 3 to 4 minutes then add the egg. Don't forget to scrap down the sides.

4: Mix together the mashed banana, yoghurt and oil. With the mixer on low speed, add to the batter. Beat for a further 4 to 6 minutes or until the batter is light and fluffy.

5: Still on low speed, add the dry ingredients to the batter and then the chopped walnuts. Pour the batter into the loaf pan. Give the bottom of the pan a tap to even out the batter and release any large air bubbles. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 25 to 35 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.

6: Leave on a cooling rack for 5 to 10 minutes before removing from the pan.

Make like Maria and try these sugars in your favourite recipes. Discover the new Sugars of the World range in Coles, Woolworths and Independent retailers nationally. www.sugarsoftheworld.com