If the thought of double chocolate peanut butter fudge or caramel turtle cheesecake sounds like overkill to you, perhaps it’s time to reconsider dessert. That’s precisely the concept behind The New Sugar & Spice: A Recipe for bolder Baking, author Samantha Seneviratne’s new dessert cookbook. In the book, she introduces readers to a new world of sophisticated desserts with unexpected spices and complex flavor profiles that are naturally lower in sugar.
We sat down with her to talk with her about her favorite spice combinations, why spices should play a larger role in dessert, and how she developed unexpected flavor combinations (think parsnip cake!).
In the book, you suggest that sugar is overused in desserts, and that we ought to treat it more like a spice. Why is that?
When I was doing initial research, I realized there was a time hundreds of years ago when sugar was not as ubiquitous, when cinnamon, cloves, and spices like that were even more important than sugar, and more people wanted to get their hands on those. That planted this seed in my brain that maybe we can put them back in balance and create desserts that are a little more interesting by taking down the sugar and amping up the flavor in other ways.
Your ethnic background is Sri Lankan. Did you draw from your culinary experiences there at all?
Absolutely. I was in the kitchen with my grandmother when I was little kid, and we couldn’t really speak the same language, so I would help her gather curry leaves from the garden or grind the coconut meat out of the halves. My parents are both great cooks, but at the time that I was growing up in the eighties, they were more reliant on packaged foods — that was more popular back then — so we ate a lot of things that were not necessarily from scratch. Back in Sri Lanka, everything was completely from scratch. I have a fondness for both things. I will always choose boxed brownie mix — always! — but I also love homemade cakes that take hours to make.
Are there any specific translations, certain combos of spices you ate growing up?
There are a couple traditional recipes, like the love cake. I call it true love cake; the “true” is my addition. Love cake is a traditional recipe in Sri Lanka. I have another recipe in the book that’s sort of an adaptation of those flavors that I changed into another cake, so that one I call new love cake, just to distinguish between the two of them.
Do you have a favorite recipe from the book?
Everybody keeps asking me that, and it’s so hard to choose. I really love that cover cake, the pistachio, chocolate, cardamom cake. Cardamom is definitely my favorite spice, so anything with cardamom basically wins.
You also have everything from saffron currant braids to blackberry lavender clafouti in the book. Where else did you find inspiration?
I went to French culinary school, and I love French pastry. Those are the things that I gravitate towards most. I have a girlfriend who lives in Sweden, so there are some Swedish-inspired stuff in there from my trips there. I like to take inspiration from everywhere I go; a lot of it comes from traveling. I think Swedish, Danish, Scandinavian desserts are pretty special.
They don’t get enough airtime. They’re really good: saffron, and cardamom, and cinnamon. It’s good stuff up there.
Why did you want to organize the book by spice?
The whole idea of the idea of taking sugar down a little bit and bringing up spice is sort of to introduce new cravings, get your palate thinking about other ways to crave sweets that are not just sugar. If you do that and you start to think I really love cinnamon then maybe you start to think, ‘I want to do some baking. I think I want to use cinnamon.’ The whole idea is to reframe your focus and how you’re going to attack baking projects in a different way.
There are also some really unusual pairings, like parsnip cake with cream cheese frosting and ginger and cardamom, or an apple danish with caraway cream. What did your recipe development process look like?
I just walk around the supermarket and brainstorm. Apples and caraway is actually a very classic mix; it’s probably a German-Austrian sort of vibe. Parsnips have an earthy sweetness: people love carrot cake, and parsnips fall into that same family, so they actually go really beautifully in cake. I love carrot cake, but I think parsnips have more of an earthy depth that go well with ginger.
Parts of the book are very sentimental; in your intro, you write about showing your late brother how much you loved him with dessert. Is there a particular recipe that’s most meaningful to you?
If I had to choose, it would be the love cake. That was something we made when we went back to Sri Lanka on vacation. In Connecticut, where I was raised, we all had school and things to do after school, but in Sri Lanka, we were all together all the time. My grandmother would come into the kitchen and guide the cook on making it. That’s where I was really with family.