“The New Sugar & Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking,” by Samantha Seneviratne, photography by Erin Kunkel. Ten Speed Press. $27.50.

Three baking books based on the same intriguing idea came across my desk recently. All take classic western recipes for cakes, cookies and tarts and infuse them with exotic, often Indian, spices and flavors.

Even the titles of two of these books are exceptionally similar: “The New Sugar & Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking” and “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice: Exotic Flavors to Wake up Your Baking”; the third is called “The Cardamom Trail: Chetna Bakes with the Flavors of the East.”

I’m an avid baker who owns a lot of (too many) baking books, yet I couldn’t think of any others that take this approach. Now, apparently, spices are in the air. I snagged all three, and with nutmeg grater and mortar and pestle in hand, decided to give each a try.

First up: “The New Sugar and Spice” by Samantha Seneviratne, a New York-based food writer, recipe developer and food stylist.

If you can judge a book by its cover, this book – with its lovely cover shot of Pistachio and Chocolate Butter Cake – earns an A+. I was seized by a powerful and immediate desire to bake this cake/eat this cake/buy this book. Though I haven’t yet managed to slake my desire – the cake requires hard-to-find pistachio paste – I did bake The New Chocolate Chip Cookie, which adds shredded coconut and pistachios to the classic cookie and swaps out butter for coconut oil. The cookies were reasonably popular among my colleagues, although I found them a tad salty and too virtuous tasting. I intend to stick with The Old Chocolate Chip Cookie.

I followed the cookies with Ricotta Cheesecake with Bourbon-Raisin Jam. It was pretty good, but when it comes to cheesecake I say “pretty good” doesn’t cut it. Worse, I found the directions sloppy in the extreme. Among the problems, I didn’t need the amount of graham cracker crumbs called for in the crust. The instructions shorted the baking time by at least 13 minutes, and the raisin jam used so much liquid, I had to remove 3/4 cup before I could puree the jam. It annoyed me to waste that amount of bourbon.

The third time, thankfully, was the charm. The Blackberry Cuatro Leches cake was easy and delicious.

I’m not sure I would call it “bolder,” as the book title promises, but neither I nor any of those who also devoured the cake cared. It was good enough to persuade me to give “The New Sugar & Spice” another chance. And I was glad I did.

The Black Pepper, Dark Chocolate and Sour Cherry Bread was also excellent, and the intriguing Custard Cake with Chocolate and Prunes was decadent and really scrumptious, though the instructions about swirling in the custard didn’t match my experience in the kitchen.

The chapters in the book are divided by flavors, such as Peppercorn & Chile or Clove & Cardamom. The photos are stunning. I even like the size of the book, though frankly, I think the storytelling recipe headnotes could be trimmed.

Fingers crossed that the many recipes I still have my eye on – among them Pear Tarte Tatin with Anise Seed Caramel and Profiteroles with Coconut Allspice Ice Cream and Hot Fudge – deliver on how very, very good they sound.


The recipe, from “The New Sugar & Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking,” calls for fresh blackberries; I used frozen with no ill effects.

Serves 12

Unsalted butter, for greasing the pan

12 ounces (about 2 1/2 cups) fresh blackberries

1 1/2 cups (6 3/4 ounces) all-purpose flour

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

4 large eggs, separated

3/4 cup sugar

1/3 cup plus 3/4 cup whole milk

1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped

3/4 cup condensed milk

3/4 cup evaporated milk

3/4 cup heavy cream

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 F. Butter the bottom of an 8-inch square baking pan.

Cut 6 ounces of the blackberries in half lengthwise and set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. In a large bowl, with an electric mixer, beat the egg yolks and 1/2 cup of the sugar on medium speed until pale and thick, 3 to 4 minutes. Beat in 1/3 cup of the whole milk and the vanilla seeds. Beat in the flour mixture just until combined.

In a large bowl, with clean beaters, whip the egg whites until foamy and the yellowish hue has disappeared, about 1 minute. Slowly add the remaining 1/4 cup sugar while beating and continue to beat the mixture until you have shiny, medium-stiff peaks, about 2 minutes. Stir one-quarter of the egg white mixture into the flour mixture to loosen it. Use a rubber spatula to gently fold the remaining whites into the batter.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and scatter the halved berries on top. Bake until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes. Let cool on rack for 5 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, combine the remaining 3/4 cup whole milk, the condensed milk, the evaporated milk, the heavy cream, and the vanilla extract. Cut around the edges of the cake. With a toothpick, poke holes all over the cake. Pour about 1 cup of the milk mixture evenly over the cake and let it soak in. Then pour another 1 cup over the cake. Cover and chill the cake for at least 4 hours or up to overnight.

Serve slices of the cake with the remaining milk mixture and remaining blackberries. Store leftovers, well-wrapped, in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.

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