The Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Samantha Seneviratne is a recipe developer, cookbook author, food stylist, and web-series host known for spice-forward desserts; her first cookbook, The New Sugar and Spice, was organized by spice-based chapters. We met up with Samantha at her Brooklyn home to talk about her passion for desserts while baking a butter cake with chai caramel sauce.
I started cooking when I was really little. My mom is a hilariously terrible baker, and I was so interested in it, so she just let me do whatever I want, which was really, really supportive and wonderful. She wouldn't let me get an Easy-Bake Oven, which is all I wanted in the whole world; she said, “Why don't you just bake in the regular oven?”
My mom said, “Why don't you just bake in the regular oven?”
She wanted me to just do it, and she told me she’d get me what I need and support me. So I took on big baking projects when I was pretty small, and I can remember making éclairs and big layer cakes when I was 10. I was into it for a long time, but I didn't figure out how to make it a career. I didn't even know you could make it a career, besides cooking in restaurants, which is really important and beautiful work, but it's so hard. I have immense respect for people who do it, but I knew I wasn't going to do that. It took me a while to figure out how to make it my job, and how to make, you know, a living doing it.
I worked in public television while I was going to school at night at the French Culinary Institute, and then I got an internship in the test kitchen at Saveur magazine. Running the magazine test kitchen really excited me, and that was how I knew I wanted to direct my culinary work. I got a job at Good Housekeeping in their test kitchen, then Fine Cooking magazine, and then Martha Stewart for a while. I left that job to start writing my own cookbooks and work as a freelance food stylist.
There were too many mistakes to count. It's a lifetime of trial and error. When you make éclairs, you have to bake the choux at a very high temp, and it has to dry out — and it took me a long time to know that. I had many batches of éclairs that were soggy and limp. I still ate them, and they tasted good. That’s a fun thing about baking: Even when it goes wrong, it's often not terrible. It’s still fun to eat something sweet, even if it's not the perfect texture. Baking is something we do for fun; it’s there for pleasure, so you can still find pleasure in the mistakes.
With baking, even when it goes wrong, it's often not terrible. It’s still fun to eat something sweet.
My parents are from Sri Lanka, and my mom and dad both make delicious curry — but I've never really wanted to cook it myself. I think a lot of kids feel that way about their “home food”: t was delicious, but it wasn't dazzling, you know? It was not the kind of food I wanted to learn how to make. I just wanted to eat it and enjoy it, but not cook it. We’d take trips back to Sri Lanka, and I’d spend a lot of time in the kitchen with my grandmothers. I just wanted to experience it; I never wanted to cook it myself. In culinary school, I had to cook more than I baked, and even now I cook all the time. But I always just wanted to make dough and cake.
The flavors of Sri Lanka made it into my baking.
But the flavors of Sri Lanka made it into my baking. The recipes in my first cookbook, The New Sugar and Spice, were divided into chapters for each spice, so a lot of cinnamon, cardamom, saffron, and black peppercorns — things that grow in my grandmothers’ gardens in Sri Lanka. I wanted them to be the focal point of a recipe of a dessert, which is the way people typically cook. I always use spices to enhance the general flavor — they can work as the background flavor, but I like to make the spice the boldest flavor of a dish. That probably comes from my mom's curries and home cooking.
It’s so satisfying to make something out of nothing.
I've always found comfort in baking. Like everybody, I’ve had a lot of ups and downs in life, and I always gravitate toward baking. It’s so satisfying to make something out of nothing. You take flour and then all of a sudden you have this beautiful dough, and you put it in the oven. There’s this faith that — even though you don’t know what’s going to happen in the world tomorrow — this bread is going to bake and make my house smell nice. There's supreme comfort in knowing what you're doing and being good at it, and then being able to eat it.
I love to watch other people eat my desserts — there's no comparison. It's so satisfying to see other people enjoy what you make, though it almost feels like cheating with sweets. I was out of town with friends recently, and I baked some cookies and left them on the counter. Before I knew it, there was only one left, and it was so satisfying. It’s so corny to say, but it totally is my love language.
It's so satisfying to see other people enjoy what you make. It totally is my love language.
This cake is a really moist, simple butter cake. It's a beautiful, tender slice that isn't too sweet, and it really sings when topped with some unsweetened whipped cream and plenty of spiced caramel sauce. I would bake her any time of year, as it's customizable and delicious.
My sweet parents still don't fully understand how I make a living.
I love developing recipes at home because I can fit it in around my kid’s schedule. As a freelancer, you get to do a lot of different jobs: I food style, I develop recipes, I host shows sometimes. There are a lot of different ways to apply my food skills, which is really fun, and it makes for a fun career. I don't think I could just do one of those things full-time. I mean, who knows what the future is going to be? But I really love that I get to do different things. My sweet parents still don't fully understand how I make a living.
I always want to be learning, so if there's a way that I can do that, I’m happy.
I do miss working on a team, though. It always makes food better to get feedback and collaborate on dishes. But I get to work with different teams, so I'm always trying to learn new skills — if I’m food styling someone else’s cookbook, it gives me fresh ideas and new inspiration, and I can learn some new techniques. I always want to be learning, so if there's a way that I can do that, I’m happy.
Photos by Vincent Tullo.