The Joys of Baking

Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life


By Samantha Seneviratne

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Baking Your Way Through a Sweet Life, with Great Recipes … from Samantha Seneviratne of Magnolia Network's "Everyday Cooking.
Cooking is a necessity-everyone needs to eat-but baking is different. No one needs a chocolaty cake or a delectable sweet to survive. That is, until that moment when a chocolate cake is exactly what you need to survive.

Author Samantha Seneviratne believes that every baking project begins with a spark-a desire, a craving, a memory, or a feeling-and through baking that spark is made real. Inspired by the gumption and charm of the classic, bestselling cookbook The Joy of Cooking, this cookbook focuses on the joys that make up everyday life and 75 ways to bake yourself back up when you feel like you've hit the bottom. Each chapter explores one of five themes and provides recipes paired with touching, humorous, and thoughtful essays and beautiful photos throughout.
  • Chocolate Cardamom Swirl Babka
  • Apricot Frangipange Phyllo Tart
  • Nectarine Galette with Sour Cherry Jam
  • Strawberry Rhubarb Cake with Bay and Orange
  • Coffee Crème Bundt Cake
For all the happy and joyous moments, for every stage of love, lovesickness, and everything in between, when you need a moment of comfort and solace, there's always dessert.


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Several years ago, at the worst possible time, my dresser began to fall apart.

The drawers groaned complaints when I pulled at them. Splinters pricked my palms as I grabbed for socks in the middle of the night. The handle of the bottom drawer had come off altogether, so I just left it open, and the legs of my jeans were always trying to sneak out to party on their own. Even though it had seen better days, I didn’t want to let it go.

I didn’t want to let it go because it had seen better days. Fifteen years ago, the dresser was home to my brother’s favorite red sweatshirt, his jeans, sweatpants, button-down shirts, and sweaters. It was dark, handsome, and substantial—the kind of thing a real grown-up would have in his apartment. I was envious. I remember visiting my brother in his tiny studio near Times Square. We would sit on the floor and lean against the dresser—practically his only furniture—while we ate his special mushroom pasta and talked about our plans.

When I inherited it, the dresser became an important landmark in my own life. Instead of filling it with our clothes, my husband, Augustine, thought to turn it into a makeshift hutch. Heavy cookware in the bottom, then stacks of plates, mismatched glassware, and cheap silverware, all the way up. We propped a faux-glitzy mirror on top and set out our alcohol. Not the bar at Balthazar, but nice. It was the beginning of our home together.

But those days were long over when I woke up one sunny summer morning and all of a sudden saw the dresser in a new light. My brother had died. My divorce was looming. Big pieces of veneer were flaking off, exposing the cheap wood underneath. Desperate to start over, I decided to get rid of it right away.

I had the good sense to take out all the drawers, but still the thing felt like an elephant’s casket when I tried to budge it. Big and blocky, but also fragile somehow. It was completely unwilling to help me get on with my life. I think it was actually fighting me. I managed to slide it out the front door of my apartment and into the narrow hallway. I pushed and pulled and shimmied and got it to the edge of the first set of stairs. Six floors down to the curb, Fresh Kills Landfill, and a new start.

I decided to get under it. I would slide the beast down the stairs, guiding from the bottom. I thought my determination would overcome any weakness in my actual muscles.

I wrestled it down one flight, but then something shifted above me. The only thing I hadn’t planned for was gravity. In one quick and heart-stopping motion, I was pinned against the rickety iron railing of my apartment building’s stairway, five flights up.

The sharp wood corners dug into my forearms. The veins in my neck popped out against the strain. The old railing creaked. I thought about yelling for help, but I was still too full of pride. So, I stayed there, quivering and shaking from the strain and the fear, the dam holding back my panic and tears about to burst. No one was coming to help me. There was no one to call. No one was worrying about me. No one would know if I got hurt. Either this thing crushes me or I push back and get out from under—those were my choices.

Somehow, I managed the latter. I battled the thing back into my apartment, closed the door, and sat down on the floor, depleted, sad, and alone. For the better part of an hour I sat staring at the wall, surveying my situation. And then I stood up and reached for the blue and white bag of bread flour.

Cooking is a necessity. Everyone needs to eat. Preparing a special meal can be a joy, of course, but often it feels like a chore, just another item on an endless list of things that must get done.

Baking is different. Baking is a choice. Baking is never a necessity. No one needs a chocolate cake to survive. Except, sometimes, a chocolate cake is exactly what you need to survive. Sometimes, a chocolate cake is the only thing you need in the world. This is a book about and for those times.

Every baking project begins with the imagination of pleasure. Something sparks it. A desire: perfect plums at the market. A craving: salty-sweet. A memory: summer walks with ice cream. A feeling: the dizzy throes of new love. The project takes shape around an idea of sensuous experience. Sometimes, that means the physical satisfaction that comes from the act of creaming butter and sugar, folding pastry dough to create a lattice, or kneading bread. Other times, it means baking and eating and sharing and talking and laughing with a friend. Whatever the pleasure, however it originates and wherever it leads, baking is about making the pleasures you imagine real. Learning to bake is about learning to please yourself.

Yet in this age of Instagram, our baking lives have been hijacked by the hope of pleasing strangers. Seeking approval, we confine ourselves to one emotional register—picture-perfect and happy, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point. Heart emoji, heart emoji, double-heart emoji.

My heart is not an emoji. Picture-perfect would be wonderful, but I also believe that a good, full, rich, and satisfying life contains wilder forms of joy.

The very first recipe in the first edition of The Joy of Cooking is not for an aspic, a consommé, or a cheese soufflé, as I would have guessed. It is not even cooking. It’s a recipe for Gin Cocktail: Two parts gin, two parts orange juice, one part lemon juice, bitters.

The recipe speaks volumes, especially because Irma Rombauer published her book during the middle of Prohibition. Certainly a cocktail is a good way to start a meal. And it’s definitely nice to have a fail-safe drink recipe at the ready for when dinner guests arrive early. But I suspect that in this case, Irma was the one who needed a drink.

Despite its title, Irma Rombauer’s famous cookbook was born from catastrophe. Four months after the stock market crashed in October 1929, her husband killed himself. His death left her not only grieving but poor. Most of their savings had been in stocks, and she had no way to support herself. In the middle of those dire circumstances, Irma saw a need for a cookbook that took economic hard times into account, so she wrote The Joy of Cooking and published it herself with half of what was left of her meager savings. Her first edition, published in 1931, sold three thousand copies.

Since then, The Joy of Cooking has become one of the most popular and influential books in the world. It is authoritative, plucky, and reliable. What it is not is especially joyful—nor is it especially sad. The book’s tragic backstory is nowhere to be found in its pages. According to her somewhat apologetic introduction to the first edition, Irma had no interest in making herself the story, or in writing about feelings, and she was embarrassed by and for those who did. But then, why talk of joy of at all? What exactly is the joy of, and in, cooking?

Perhaps Irma—writer and publisher both—simply made the book she thought she could sell, the book she thought the greatest number of people would like, the book she could use to feed her family. And given the circumstances, fair enough. Yet I can’t help imagining the book that might have been. Irma’s voice is winning. Her sense of humor comes through. She describes tongue in aspic as a “palatable dish.” She defines pot au feu as “ice box soup.” It’s true that there is little uninhibited joy in The Joy of Cooking, but there is moxie. In Irma’s writing, I hear a determined woman fighting back, seizing what chances she could. I see a real person, confronting emotionally complex circumstances, trying to cook her way through. To speak to the economic crisis of her day, Irma included plenty of recipes and tips for leftovers. But what about her recipes and tips for getting through a personal crisis? I bet they would have been pithy classics.

The Joys of Baking is inspired by the book that Irma Rombauer could have written. It’s the story of baking my way through my own heartbreak—of what happened when the parts of my life I thought would be the best turned out to be the worst, and when the things I thought would make me happy almost wrecked me, and why they didn’t. It’s a book about joys, plural, about all the different sources and forms of joy that make up our real baking lives, the complexity of experiences and feelings that shape even our simplest baking projects. The sadness that gives way to strength. The wisdom that can come from loss. The vertigo of new love. The deep happiness of sharing delicious things with beloved people, the happiness so deep it sometimes feels like sadness. This is a book about how, when life gives you lemons, you make a Gin Cocktail, sing along with Lemonade, and put on a pot of curd. The recipes tell the stories of how I fell, how I rose, what I baked, and what it meant.

When I get up off the floor, I need a project that will be soothing, something that will feel good in my hands. One requiring just enough work to be rewarding, but no heavy lifting. Something I can sing to.

In my experience, singing and baking go hand in hand. As chief bread-bakers in our Oberlin co-op, my friend Amy and I spent many college afternoons making our special rosemary onion bread and switching between the lead roles from Jesus Christ Superstar. The whir and thump of the industrial Hobart mixer laid down the percussion for our spirited renditions of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Where the lyrics said “Jesus,” we subbed in the names of our latest love interests. The dank basement kitchen became our sanctuary and our stage. Every bake was another opportunity to rethink our harmonies, our dance moves, and our love lives. We baked and sang until we felt ready to face our not-so-complicated problems.

So, I decide to make bread. Flour is an all-purpose beginning, downy and fine and pure and light—the opposite of homicidal old furniture. I imagine a sweet loaf, enriched with extra eggs, butter, and sugar. Pillowy soft, subtly spiced, and gilded with a decadent swirl of chocolate.

I start with my favorite task. I bash green cardamom pods gently in my mortar, the eucalyptus buzz burning away my tears. I extract the tiny seeds, clean the mortar, and crush them again. They will go into the dough and become the soul of my bread. I find myself singing “I Dreamed a Dream” with earnest clarity, in true Anne Hathaway style. Les Misérables indeed.

I beat together a simple enriched dough. It starts sticky, unkempt, and lumpy. But I talk to my dough, and we work it out together. I take ultimate comfort in the reliability of my ingredients. I know how to do this. I feel it changing in my hands.

I knead the dough and it comes together lusciously. Enriched with extra butter, sugar, and eggs, it turns extra-soft, springy, supple, and taut. By now, my small kitchen countertop is covered in spatters of milk, a dusting of flour, and a broken egg, but I don’t mind. My neighbor’s dog is yipping along with my fudged key changes. Do I sound worse to him than he does to me? When I’m baking, I can tell myself little lies I want to be true. Clumsiness is charming. I have a lovely voice.

I move the dough to a buttered bowl, cover it, and set it aside for the first rise. Usually the tropical climate in my studio apartment drives me nuts, but today it’s just right, a cozy home where my dough baby can grow. While it rises, I melt together butter, sugar, and chocolate to swirl through the middle of the loaf.

When my dough is puffed and ready, I pat it out flat and paint on the chocolate spackle with an offset spatula. I can imagine what it would feel like if my chocolate were actually oil paint, thick and glossy, and I was capturing a turbulent sea, whorls of dark waves covering the surface of my canvas. I roll, cut, and braid the loaf, and set it in a pan for another rise. An hour later, the bread is ready for the oven.

While it bakes, my house smells friendly again. The chocolate, butter, sugar, and cardamom swirl in the air and calm my nerves. Fantine is dead. Eponine is dead. But I’m reaching for those high notes in “A Heart Full of Love.” Not quite getting there, but really going for them. I peek through the oven window for evidence of my competence and am reassured.

I shove the dresser into a corner and forget about it for now. It will have to live with being on the way out for a while. The bread is done. I burn my tongue on the first steaming bite.


BAKING TIMES: Baking times in recipes are a general guide, not an exact science. A number of changing factors determine the length of time something will take to cook. Ovens vary. Ingredients vary. Bakers vary. When determining a bake time, it’s best to consider the visual cues noted in the recipe first and the suggested baking times second: Always set a timer for five minutes sooner than the recommended bake time to check in. Use all of your senses to determine whether something is done and never set it and forget it.

That goes for rising times as well. It’s always better to watch your dough rather than the clock.

BUTTER: Using unsalted butter for baking gives the baker the ability to control the salt in the finished dish, which is why I call for it in my recipes. But if you only have salted butter, go ahead and use it! No need for an extra shopping trip. Simply reduce the amount of kosher salt in the recipe. Room-temperature butter should be soft enough that you can easily press your finger into it, leaving a clear thumbprint, but not so soft that it is wet and greasy. To speed up the softening process, cut your measured butter into pieces.

Creaming butter and sugar is a technique used to add loft to baked goods. As you beat them together, the sugar actually cuts tiny bubbles into the butter. Those bubbles then trap the gas released by leavener and give the final cake a nice, fine texture. Starting with butter at the proper temperature is the best way to achieve this. You’ll know when it’s properly creamed when the mixture is pale yellow in color (not white, which would indicate that the mixture is overcreamed), it has fluffy peaks, and the sugar is mostly dissolved.

To “cut” the butter into a flour mixture means to incorporate it only up to the point where the mixture has an irregular, coarse, sandy texture and with pieces of butter that range from the size of quinoa to the size of peas. Those pieces of butter will melt in the oven and create pockets of steam. This is how we get flakiness in pie pastry and tender scones. A pastry blender makes this job easy, but if you don’t have one, you can use two knives. Start with a knife in either hand and then slice the butter in between the two knives, mimicking the action of a pair of scissors. Repeat this until you have the appropriate consistency.

CARAMEL: People will tell you a million and one ways to prevent crystallization when making caramel, from brushing water on the sides of the pot to adding lemon juice. I haven’t found many of those things to be necessary. I think it comes down to these key factors: Firstly, use a good-quality, heavy pot. Even heat is important and a flimsy pot won’t do you any favors. Second, don’t stir the caramel. Stirring encourages crystallization. Let the mixture simmer away until you start to see it getting darker in spots then gently swirl the pan to make sure it browns evenly. Last, avoid organic sugar or any brown sugars when making caramel. White refined sugar is much more reliable.

If the sugar crystalizes before it browns, don’t panic. Simply add a tablespoon or two of water and swirl it in. The crystals should melt and you can start the process over again.

CHOCOLATE: Melting chocolate: Chocolate can scorch easily if exposed to high temperatures, so melting it takes a bit of care. I think the microwave method is the simplest. Set the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and heat for 10- to 15-second bursts, stirring in between. You can also melt chocolate in a double boiler on the stovetop, but be sure to keep moisture at bay as even a few drops could make it seize. The water should not touch the bottom of the pot containing the chocolate.

Tempering chocolate: Tempering chocolate makes it shiny and snappy versus something softer and meltier that’s better stored in the fridge. It isn’t difficult to do, but it does take a bit of patience. Here is how I temper dark chocolate, should you want to give it a shot.

This is called the “seeding method.” Start with at least 1 pound of chopped semisweet chocolate. Do not use chips. Place 12 ounces of the chocolate in a microwave-safe bowl and melt it in 5- to 25-second bursts, stirring occasionally, until it is melted and the temperature registers between 114° and 118°F on an instant-read thermometer. Try fewer seconds as the temperature starts getting close so that you don’t overshoot the mark. Remove the bowl from the microwave and stir in the remaining 4 ounces of chocolate, a little bit at a time, stirring in between each addition until the temperature has come down to 88° to 89°F. After a bit of practice, you can actually see and feel the chocolate fall into temper. It takes on a slightly looser quality and becomes shinier.

Now you’re ready to coat anything and everything in tempered chocolate! For starters, try the Peppermint Snow Patties (here), the Salted Chocolate-Covered Chocolate Caramels (here), or the Caramel Cookie Bars (here). If the temperature of the chocolate falls below 88°F, rewarm it. If it goes above 91°F, start the process over again. When you are all finished, save any remaining chocolate, well wrapped at room temperature, for another day.

CITRUS: Freshly grated citrus zest adds robust flavor to baked goods. A Microplane makes easy work of grating citrus. Remove only the colored portion of the skin. The white pith is bitter. Once you’ve removed the zest, wrap citrus in plastic wrap to store. Without its protective covering, the fruit tends to dry out very quickly and you don’t want to lose the precious juice inside!

COCONUT: Some recipes call for sweetened coconut and some call for unsweetened coconut. Be sure to take note before shopping.

EGGS: All the recipes in this book were developed with large eggs. Save the jumbo eggs for the Sunday scramble. Eggs should be at room temperature to bake.

FLOUR: Different types of flour are not necessarily interchangeable. Cake flour is finer and has less protein than all-purpose flour, for example. Be sure to read each recipe carefully and note the kind(s) of flour it calls for.

Properly measured flour can be the difference between a dense, sad cake and light, happy one. I’m a big believer in the scoop-and-sweep method to measure flour. Use a big spoon to scoop the flour into the measuring cup, without packing it in, and then use a knife to level it off cleanly. For the most accurate measure, use measuring cups meant for dry ingredients, as opposed to those clear measuring cups meant for liquids. I know this sounds nitpicky, but I promise you that it matters.

HAZELNUTS: Hazelnuts have a bitter, papery skin that must be removed before eating. It’s easy to do. Simply toast the hazelnuts on a dry baking sheet at 350°F until the skins have started to crack and separate from the nut, about 10 minutes. Transfer the warm nuts to a clean dish towel, wrap them up, and rub them around. As they rub against one another, the skins will come off. Repeat the entire process, if necessary. But don’t worry about getting every speck of skin. That could drive you nuts! Aim for about 75 percent clean. Let the nuts cool completely before proceeding with the recipe.

INSTANT ESPRESSO POWDER: Instant espresso powder is an intense form of instant coffee that dissolves easily in water. It makes a terrible espresso but adds wonderful depth to chocolate desserts. Look for it near the instant coffee in the supermarket or online. If you can’t find instant espresso, you can use about double the amount of instant coffee.

LYLE’S GOLDEN SYRUP: Lyle’s is a thick syrup made from sugarcane. I use it in my recipes where corn syrup would normally appear because it tastes excellent! My parents used to bring it back from trips to England when I was little, but it’s much easier to find in the United States now. Look for it near the maple syrup and honey in your local supermarket, or in the British area of the international foods aisle.

PREPARING PANS: Buttering and flouring a baking pan ensures that your lovely cakes release like a dream. To do this properly, first butter the pan well. I like to use a pastry brush and softened butter to evenly coat the pan. Next, add a generous amount of flour to the pan and swirl it around to coat the pan evenly on both the bottom and sides of the pan. Now, flip the pan over and forcefully slam it against your work surface. Work out some of your aggressions. It feels great. The goal is to knock out all the excess flour. Your pan should look like your windshield after the very lightest dusting of snow.

SALT: I use Diamond Crystal kosher salt for my cooking and baking. If you are using Morton’s kosher salt or table salt, you will want to take the salt down.

SPELT: You may have noticed that I use spelt flour quite a bit. While working on Martha Stewart’s book A New Way to Bake, I fell in love with the ancient wheat’s unique sweet, nutty flavor. I find that it adds a little something extra without the bitterness that can accompany other whole-grain flours. All-purpose flour makes a fine substitute for the days when you’re feeling a little less adventurous.

SPICES: Spices contain aromatic oils that begin fade as soon they are ground. For the best flavor, experts will tell you to grind spices fresh every time you use them. I find the difference most pronounced in nutmeg and cardamom. For those two spices, I always call for “freshly ground” in my baking recipes. For ease (and sanity) I think that preground spices are just fine for the rest.

VANILLA: Fresh vanilla beans are a treat to bake with, but they can be pricy. I buy them in bulk online for much less than they are at the supermarket. Stored well wrapped in the freezer, they will last for years. But, if you don’t have any beans handy, a tablespoon of pure vanilla extract is a decent swap for the seeds of one fresh bean.




The sweet smell of imitation butter melting over freshly popped popcorn swirled in the air with the slightly dank reek of the old, red, hard-worn carpet. Stacy Q’s “Two of Hearts” bumped through the sound system on Repeat. It was just the beat I needed to lace up in my roller skates and get out there.

Every Wednesday after school during second grade, I went roller-skating. The rink was one of the only places where I was fearless. For my first few minutes in skates, I always marveled at being so tall. Four wheels added about 3 inches to my height—a confidence boost right from the start. Clanging from the carpet to the shiny wooden floor, I prepared to fling myself into the circling pack. You had to choose a moment when there was just the right opening and go for it without hesitation. Then, lap after lap after cool lap. Taking turns by stretching one leg out to the side because I couldn’t cross my skates over one another. I couldn’t skate backward, either. I couldn’t spin. But I was sturdy and strong. Sometimes my friend Jenny and I would hold hands and cruise for a song or two, but she couldn’t keep up for more that. I could skate forever.

When I knew the words to the song, it was even better. Papa don’t preach. I’m in trouble deep. And I could sing and dance and keep my balance just fine. Weightless with the wind in my bowl cut. Stale indoor breeze on my face. I felt as though I was flying. I was never afraid of falling. I knew I wouldn’t. I was cool in the skating rink, if nowhere else. And I reveled in it.

After thirty minutes or so, it was time for a snack. My braking technique was a quick slam into one of the side walls, grabbing the bar just before irreparable skeletal damage was done, and then I’d glide onto the carpet, where the friction did its job. At the snack bar, infinite junk-food choices were illuminated in rotating cases and shiny displays. Slick, juicy hot dogs, heaped with chili or cheese, glowing pink cotton candy, ice-cream bars of all shapes and sizes. Two dollars could buy enough calories to sustain a small town. I always went right for the snow cones.

Jewel-like shaved ice sparkled in its paper cone. The vendor asked me which flavor I’d like as he pointed to the bottles of sugar syrup. Blood red, electric blue, neon green, traffic cone orange. These were not colors found in nature. But to me, they were beyond gorgeous. “Orange, please!” and he went to work, dousing the ice. Within seconds, it would melt into a saccharine mess without any distinguishable fruit flavor, but I couldn’t resist. Stained-tongue bliss.

Because he knew how much I liked it, my father tried to re-create the fun of the skating rink at home. The glossy-smooth cement floors of our basement made the perfect track. He cleared a path so that I could fly through the three rooms in a circular motion, never stopping, loop after loop.

The only trouble was that I found the basement to be a terrifying place. Boxes piled high hid ghosts and trolls. Invisible spiderwebs brushed my face everywhere. Pipes burped and floorboards creaked. The whole thing was saturated with the damp, dark earth smell of a tomb—far worse than the town rink.


  • The Joys of Baking is a sweet meditation on why we bake, on how what we make with our hands changes us, soothes, comforts and inspires us. Sam's generously personal stories and the collection of recipes she braids into them encourage us to bake, to pay attention as we stir and knead, and to reap each of the many pleasures she describes. The book is a delight.—DorieGreenspan, award-winning author of Everyday Dorie and Dorie's Cookies
  • The Joys of Baking bursts with ripe fruits and berries, dark, bittersweet chocolate, buttery tarts, whole grains, and creamy custards - in short, all of my favorite things to bake... and eat! Sprinkled with personal stories, Samantha Seneviratne's gorgeously photographed cookbook will fill anyone's sweet spot.—David Lebovitz, author of My Paris Kitchen and The Perfect Scoop
  • "It's not just the glorious recipes, it's her personal stories too--Sam shares her passion for baking and the physical and emotional benefits of baking."—
  • "Samantha covers a lot of ground - cookies, cakes, breads, pies - making this a lovely gift for a baker looking to discover new things."—
  • "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."—-The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

On Sale
Oct 8, 2019
Page Count
208 pages
Running Press

Samantha Seneviratne

About the Author

Samantha Seneviratne is the author of The New Sugar and Spice, nominated for a 2016 James Beard Award, and Gluten-Free for Good. A frequent contributor to the New York Times and Food52, she has been an editor at Martha Stewart’s Everyday Food, Fine Cooking, and Good Housekeeping, and her blog Love, Cake was a finalist at the 2015 Saveur Awards. Sam lives in Brooklyn with her son Artie.

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