The New Sugar and Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking is a gift for spice-o-philes, and is right up the alley of baking adventurers and cookbook enthusiasts alike: Every page of this cookbook is peppered (insert groan, sigh, eye-roll here) with personal stories and anecdotes from the author, Samantha Seneviratne, all based on her Sri Lankan heritage and American upbringing. Samantha also brings legitimate baking cred to the cookbook, including years as a tester at Saveur and as a food editor in the test kitchens of Martha Stewart's Everyday Food. Basically, this makes for a wonderful baking cookbook with creative spice combinations and recipes that work.
I was particularly moved by the memories Samantha shares through anecdotes about her family and Sri Lankan heritage. Much like me, she was born and raised by immigrant parents who shared with her many wonderful and mysterious spice combinations, savory and sweet. One story, about her mother eating Thai chiles with a piece of chocolate while sipping her hot tea, made me chuckle—and gave me a flashback of my own parents putting salt, pepper, and chile on pineapple, grapefruit, and guava. I regarded this as strange for years, not knowing that one day, all grown up, I would discover the sheer genius of salty, savory, spicy, and sweet in a single bite!
Each chapter is dedicated to a specific spice (Peppercorn & Chile, Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Clove & Cardamom, Vanilla, Ginger, and Savory Herbs & Spices) and begins with a lovely description of the origin, history, uses, and storage of each spice, which made this book one I wanted to read just as much as I wanted to cook from it. When Samantha describes her grandfather teaching her father to "hand-pollinate their vanilla orchids with a piece of coconut straw pulled from a broom," I got goosebumps.
Now, down to the real business: the recipes. I admit, I find baking somewhat daunting, mostly because of having to follow the entire recipe so carefully. I have seen some massive disasters when halving or doubling recipes, so, one piece of advice: Stick to the plan. There are some very helpful tips provided, including a briefing on the tools you might need and a review of pantry staples and possibly-hard-to-find recipe ingredients. I also feared that I would find myself buried in baked goods while testing this book, so for that reason, I loved that each recipe ended with some advice on storing the goods, how long they would last in airtight containers, whether to store in the fridge, freezer, or not to bother at all—and then, well, some were gobbled up right away in their entirety.
The recipes using vanilla and cinnamon are expected and seem delicious. But the chapters that really drew me in were Peppercorn & Chile, Ginger, and Savory Herbs & Spices. The first thing I was compelled to make were the salt and pepper brownies, which completely lived up to my expectations (salted caramel!). Hot honeycomb candy was simple in terms of ingredients, but the timing and thermometer usage were a bit tricky; nonetheless, these were sweet, crunchy, spicy, and addictive. Crunchy peanut-pepper cookies are a must, and did not last long at all. The grapefruit curd and poppyseed pie was delicious, and the curd alone was tart and gingery and I recommend using it on its own (I later ate it atop biscuits and a slice of toast).
All the recipes I made were fairly straightforward to follow, but with just the right amount of spice to make a difference. I might even recommend being more liberal with the quantities of spices once you try it the first time. One cautionary tale: Be a bit careful with the bird's eye chile in the chile-chocolate truffles; they can really blow your head off. But this is the only area in the entire book where you need tread lightly. Otherwise, the recipes are fairly moderately spiced and completely enjoyable.
There are enough recipes from The New Sugar and Spice left on my to-do list to keep me busy for many moons. But it's the author's personal stories and descriptions that bring the whole book to life. A especially touching moment for me was in the introduction, wherein Samantha describes keeping her brother, who was living nearby, well-stocked in baked goods prior to his passing. Perhaps it was the way she describes it, but I felt a deep understanding of how baking, cooking, and sharing food are amongst the deepest expressions of our love and affection.
In the end, I laughed, I cried, I baked, and I delighted in everything I made. The New Sugar and Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking now has a prominent place on my kitchen shelf.
What our other testers had to say:
In her introduction, Samantha Seneviratne pens a beautiful tribute to her brother and proposes that baked goods are something special to be shared with loved ones—all while expressing her views on the cloyingly sweet palate that so many of us have become accustomed to. She makes clear that she hopes to bring flavor through spices—not sweetness—to the forefront in her recipes, and encourages readers to share the delicacies with those they love.
Has The New Sugar and Spice gotten you baking yet? Tell us what you've made in the comments.