Love Comma Cake
Sam has been a food editor at Good Housekeeping, Fine Cooking, and Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food. Today, she’s a freelance recipe developer and food stylist and recently released her first cookbook called The New Sugar and Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking. She was also a Finalist in the 2015 Saveur Blog Awards for Best Baking and Desserts Blog.
I’m so psyched to have Samantha Seneviratne of Love Comma Cake here on the show today.
On Baking and Sweet Things:
I think I knew I was going to be a baker from when I was a really little kid. I told my family that I was going to be a baker and a librarian when I was five. I always loved dough and sugar and butter. I always loved working with those things. So as soon as I knew that people needed jobs to keep afloat, I realized that dough was probably the way I should go. So I think it’s in my blood.
I went to culinary school and I studied both savory and sweet, and I worked as a food editor at different food magazines. So in doing that, I pretty much have to do both sweet and savory, and these days I do some styling and recipe development both sweet and savory. I do both. I love doing the baked goods. That’s what I really want to do all the time.
On Finding Her Career in Food:
Well, it took me a long time to figure how I was going to do it. I went to college. I went to a liberal arts college, and I studied Latin American studies, and Spanish Literature, and then I got a job after school in public television, and then worked for a different non-profit. I had a bunch of other things that I was directing my life towards. Then, all of a sudden, I just realized what I really loved to do is cook, and that I should just go to culinary school and make it happen. But it took me a while to figure out how to do it because I’m not really a restaurant chef. I have great respect for restaurant chefs but that’s not what I do, and I knew that wouldn’t be my path. So it took me awhile to figure out exactly how I was going to make a living cooking. And magazine test kitchens were the place for me for awhile and that worked out well.
I had a friend who worked at the magazine, and she played on a soccer team with an editor at Gourmet magazine. So I told her I was interested in food and she said, “Well, why don’t you meet this guy. He’s a food editor at Gourmet.” And he took me on a tour of the gourmet test kitchen and showed me what he did, and I thought, “That looks like a good job. That looks like exactly where I should be.” So after that visit with him, I went to culinary school and that’s what I did.
On Her Food Heroes and What She’d Make for Them:
I’m really into fried dough. Lately, I’ve been really making donuts and just this morning we made apple fritters and funnel cake. I think fried dough is what I’m really feeling these days. It’s not good for you, but it’s fun to make.
The thing is the difference when you fry it and then eat it right out of the oil, toss it in sugar and then eat it. It’s a whole other ball game. It’s so much more delicious than anything you can ever buy because it’s a timing thing. So I’d probably make some fried dough of some kind.
On Her Blog:
I wanted to get more of an online presence that was just me. I was working at different magazines, and I love working in magazine test kitchens because you’re really part of a team, and you’re all creating this food in this vision and under this brand name.
I wanted to have a body of work that was mine, and that I could contribute to and that was 100% my voice. Just exactly what I wanted to make whenever I wanted to make it and so that’s what I did.
I just was craving a place where I can have complete control over everything I did. So that means any whim that I had I just was able to do it.
On Simple Rules of Thumb for Baking for Greater Success:
I think people are more scared of baking than they need to be. There’s a little more flexibility than people think there is. Things could vary slightly depending on how warm your butter is or something like that, but your disasters are rare, right? So measuring flour is important, temperatures are important. I think measuring flour is number one. Once you’ve learned how to measure flour, things are going to improve greatly, or get a scale, also, a really good way to go.
(On baking with cold eggs.) You can totally warm them up. There are little tricks like you can keep your eggs in some warm water and that’ll heat them up. Or you can even if you crack them into a bowl and then let them warm up that way. That also works. You can warm up your butter by pounding it with a rolling pin or sometimes I even microwave it on a low 20% power, 50% power, you can warm your butter up. Which a lot of people don’t recommend because it’s easy to go from cold butter to melted butter and then you’re kind of screwed. But you can do it. It works. But I think measuring flour is number one.
On Her Cookbook, The New Sugar and Spice:
It was a long process. I probably started a proposal for that book four years ago. It took me a long time to write the proposal. I wrote a proposal for a book I wasn’t that happy with, and then I scrapped it and then wrote a new proposal, and it took a long time to get the proposal in good shape. And then I shopped around with agents. Then she helped me work on the proposal and then we pitched the book. It’s a long process, but I always had the dream of writing cookbook. So just finding the book that felt right and it took me a long time to get there, and I think I did. I like it.
It’s basically a baking book and I use spices and the chapters of the books are all organized by spice. The general idea of the book is that I try to use a little less sugar. I don’t like overly sweet desserts, and I think that it’s easy to fall to that trap. I think sugar can be a crutch. So I try to develop recipes that were a little bit less sweet and used spices to amp up the flavor in a more complex and interesting way. That’s not to say they are low sugar or diet or anything like that, but they seem to me to be a little less sweet and a little more interesting.
I also wrote a lot of history. I got into researching the history of certain spices and how that related a little bit to my family history because my parents are from Sri Lanka. I started digging into the history of cinnamon, I realized that my great grandmother grew clove trees in her yard, and my great grandfather grew vanilla beans. And I learned that my family’s history was intertwined with spices in that fun way, so I wrote a lot about that.
I had fun writing the intros that were all about spice history and my family history and having really personal head notes about my parents, and my brother, and things like that. That felt unique, and fun, and special to me because, as a food editor for a magazine, you don’t ever get to just write about yourself or write about why you like something. You don’t get that opportunity very often and so I took it in the book.
The Pressure Cooker:
Which food shows or cooking shows do you watch?
I don’t have cable television so I don’t watch anyone.
What are some food blogs or food websites we have to know about?
I have a lot of food blogs that I love. It’s going to be hard to list them. I love Brooklyn Supper, and I love Two Red Bowls. And I love The Fauxmartha. Those are three right now I’ll tell you that I love.
Who do you follow on Pinterest, Instagram, or Facebook or Snapchat that make you happy?
The only thing I do out of all those things is Instagram. So I would say, I think David Lebovitz is really funny and his Instagram account makes me laugh.
What is the most unusual or treasured item in your kitchen?
I have a little dowel that I got at a hardware store. I had them cut it down so it’s like a four-inch dowel. I don’t know what they’re for when you buy them at the hardware store, but I use it to roll out little pastries, and I love it. It’s the most useful tool in the world and it was a dollar.
Name one ingredient you used to dislike but now you love.
I’m into anise seeds now and I didn’t think I was into it before. Actually the book, writing that book, I have a couple of recipes for anise seeds in a biscotti and in a pear tart, and I think they’re both delicious. I’ve really come around on anise seed.
I hate liquorice like so many people, but I didn’t realize that if you use anise seeds sparingly and if you pair it with something delicious, it can work in combination with other things. I just hadn’t figured that out yet, but I like it.
What are a few cookbooks that make your life better?
Regan Daley’s In the Sweet Kitchen is one of my all-time favorite books in the whole world. I think that book is super smart. There’s a lot of information at the beginning. It’s a baking companion, and there are glossaries and flavor pairing charts and things like that, that make baking really easy and inspire you to do good things. And then the second half of the book is all these wonderful recipes. I think that book is genius. That book makes my life better.
What song or album just makes you want to cook?