Samantha Seneviratne was born and raised in Connecticut, and grew up with all the American classics: brownies, sticky buns, and the rest. But, she says, being a baker isn’t quite as easy these days.
The reason? Worries about sugar.
"You hear about it in the news everyday — it's the next thing that's going to kill is. Which is really disheartening for a baker because it's your main ingredient, it's what you base your recipes on," says Seneviratne, the author of a new cookbook, "The New Sugar and Spice."
"So I wanted to figure out a way that I could make sweet things that were basically more in line with my taste: I find things to be overly sweet. You think of the cinnamon bun you get from the mall and that thing will make your jaw hurt it's so sweet. But there's an opportunity to take your desserts in a different direction. You can sort of put desserts back in balance.
"It took me a long time to figure out how I was going to achieve this goal. But then I realized: My parents are from Sri Lanka and I was always very proud of the fact that there was something called Ceylon cinnamon, because that — to everybody who'd never heard of the country — said that there was this important ingredient that came from Sri Lanka.
"And so as I started thinking about Ceylon cinnamon and how much it means to our family, I started to realize that a lot of things grow in Sri Lanka and tie back to my history — and maybe spices were the way I could make more desserts that suit me," says Seneviratne, who lives and works in New York.
"I have clear memories of seeing a nutmeg tree that grew on our family's property. And to see the fruit itself and then to open it up in my hand and see the pit, and then inside that the nutmeg kernel, to see that come from a tree as a kid is pretty meaningful."
"I am in love with cardamom. I could put cardamom in everything — it's probably in my blood. I think it's one of the most beautiful spices: I love it in bread, and I love it in custard and it's so beyond delicious! It's fragrant, it's got a little bit of menthol edge but still really floral ... I don't know, I just find it to be so special."
"I think dessert is really important to relationships — it's certainly important to my relationships, because it's basically the number one way that I show people how much I love them. There is a traditional dessert in Sri Lanka called Love Cake, and it's made with semolina and cashews and dried fruit, and tons of spices and honey. And it's dense, fruity, nutty encapsulation of all the love you want to put in your cakes."
"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."
3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the pan
1 cup (6 ounces) coarse semolina
4 large eggs, separated, plus 2 large egg yolks
11/3 cups sugar
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon rose water
3/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
11/2 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest (from 1 lemon)
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup (41/2 ounces) finely chopped raw cashews
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.
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.
In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the 6 egg yolks and sugar on medium speed until pale and thick, 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.
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. 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.