Review: The New Sugar & Spice

by Samantha Seneviratne
Photographs © Erin Kunkel

Facts: Ten Speed Press, $24.99 (or Amazon Hardcover $15.14; Kindle $14.99)
Recipes: 80
Photos: About 68

Samantha Seneviratne felt the evolution of desserts created “uninspired sugar-bombs, sweetness drowning out everything else that’s good.” She wanted to create more complex and interesting flavors for her desserts, so she harkened to her heritage.

Her parents are from Sri Lanka, a land plentiful with cinnamon and clove; a country where she took part in making curries with herbs and spices from the garden at her grandmother and aunt’s houses during summer trips. With that in mind, she developed the recipes in The New Sugar & Spice with the aim “to make spice an equal partner with sugar.”

The seven chapters of this book are organized by primary spice (there may be more than one spice in a recipe): Peppercorn & Chile, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove & Cardamom, Vanilla, Ginger, and Savory Herbs & Spices. Each chapter begins with a personal (and interesting, if not heartwarming) anecdote of her introduction to the spice. Then she answers the question “What Is (Fill-in-the-Blank spice)?” and she offers practical advice on how to buy and store it.

The recipes I found myself gravitating to lean toward the exotic: Sweet Fig and Black Peppercorn Scones; Inside-Out Fruitcake; Sour Cherry Cheesecake (includes clove and cinnamon), Strawberry Thyme Semifreddo; Parsnip Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting (she knows there’ll be a reaction to parsnips in a cake and reminds the reader we do it with carrots, ergo…).

The True Love Cake (below) is one of the recipes Seneviratne learned from her grandmother. She also includes a New Love Cake recipe, the result of taking liberties with the original Love Cake, essentially making it a layer cake with cream cheese frosting, pineapple and a nut brittle.

I was captured by recipe below when I read in the headnote it reminds her of “…something that would happen if a butter cake and a blondie had a baby…”

But let’s be real, this book is a dessert book and there is plenty of sugar in it. Some recipes have more sugar than others. This particular recipe is, in fact, high in sugar. But instead of being an “uninspired sugar bomb,” it’s a warm, intoxicating, buttery sugar bomb.

Photography © by Erin Kunkel

True Love Cake
From the author: This sticky semolina cake is the first cake I ever made in my grandmother’s kitchen in Sri Lanka. The fragrant, cashew-studded treat is served throughout the country at teatime or whenever guests come calling. The dense crumb and chewy edges remind me of something that would happen if a butter cake and a blondie had a baby−a pleasingly crunchy, tender, and sweet love child. In the oven, the rose water, honey, cardamom, and cinnamon start to bloom. This cake doubles as aromatherapy.
Recipe type: Cake
Cuisine: Dessert
Serves: 16
  • ¾ cup (1½ sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
  • 1 cup (6 ounces) coarse semolina
  • 4 large eggs, separated, plus 2 large egg yolks
  • 1⅓ cups sugar
  • ¼ cup honey
  • 1 tablespoon rose water
  • ¾ teaspoon almond extract
  • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1½ teaspoons freshly ground cardamom
  • 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
  • ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup (4½ ounces) finely chopped raw cashews
  1. Preheat the oven to 300°F. Butter a 9-inch square baking pan. Line the pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang on two sides. Butter the parchment.
  2. In a large skillet, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the semolina and cook, stirring, until it is very lightly toasted, 2 to 3 minutes. Turn the semolina mixture out onto a large plate to cool to room temperature.
  3. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the 6 egg yolks and sugar on medium speed until pale and this, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in the honey, rose water, almond extract, cinnamon, cardamom, lemon zest, and salt. Beat in the cooled semolina mixture and fold in the cashews.
  4. With clean beaters, whip the 4 egg whites to medium-stiff but not dry peaks on medium speed, about 2 minutes. Stir one-quarter of the egg whites into the semolina mixture, then fold the remaining egg whites into the batter. Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth the top. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out with moist crumbs attached, 40 to 50 minutes.
  5. Let cool completely in the pan on a rack. To serve, cut along the edges of the cake to release it from the pan. Using the parchment, transfer the cake to a cutting board and cut into diamonds. Store the cake in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 3 days.


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