Cooking and baking are two different things. One is a necessity; the other is a choice.
“No one needs a chocolate cake to survive,” Samantha Seneviratne points out in the introduction to her new book. “Except, sometimes a chocolate cake is exactly what you need to survive.”
With every recipe in “The Joys of Baking” (Running Press, $30), the Brooklyn-based food blogger and former magazine editor reveals the spark that drives her to make it — a memory, a feeling, or both. Chapters are defined by emotion, or as she puts it, “joys, plural:” Courage, Grace, Bliss, Love, Wisdom. A wrinkled Post-it note “smooshed” into the corner of her wallet reminds her of love lost and motivates her to stir a batch of Lemon Curd (“smelling salt for the soul”). The anxiety of sleep-training her infant son prompts her to seek solace in a batch of Mascarpone Gingerbread Bars, made without a mixer so as not to “startle my little dreamer.”
Strolling down Seventh Avenue in New York, she spots a tropical lantana plant, whose vibrant flowers take her back to her grandmother’s vivid garden filled with shades of orange in Sri Lanka. This gives her the bold idea to add an entire pureed orange, rind and all, to the batter of a simple cake topped with a buttery almond-studded streusel. I tried Orange Streusel Cake for myself and it tasted as delicious as the photograph looked.
In the introduction, Seneviratne notes the obvious similarity of her book’s title to a much more famous one. There’s a reason for that. Irma Rombauer, she notes, wrote “The Joy of Cooking” out of necessity and grief, when the stock market crash of 1929 left her poor and widowed. “The Joys of Baking” was also born out of heartbreak: a divorce, the death of a sibling and the struggles of single parenthood.
Unlike Rombauer, who omits her own story from her text, Seneviratne interweaves the personal with the practical, often poetically, to show us how a simple baking project can help us find “joys, plural” even — and perhaps especially — when life gets messy.
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