“Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice: Exotic Flavors to Wake Up Your Baking.” By Malika Ameen. Roost Books. $30.

The premise of “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice: Exotic Flavors to Wake Up Your Baking,” a new cookbook by Malika Ameen, is made clear in its title. And as advertised, the book is filled with intriguing recipes, also pretty pictures, that made me excited to get the book off my shelf and into my kitchen: A Winter Citrus Galette is enlivened with cumin; Indian rice pudding is topped with tamarind caramel; Pomegranate-Milk Chocolate Scones (as if that weren’t exotic enough) are sprinkled with rose petal sugar.

The five chapters are divided by flavor profile, such as “Floral & Aromatic” or “Complex & Mysterious.” The top of each recipe, in delicate rose-pink ink, lists the name of the spice, or spices, that Ameen, who is of Pakistani heritage, wants to highlight.

I tested five recipes and was tempted by many more. Golden Semolina Friands were baked in muffin pans greased with tahini, not butter. The idea is brilliant! It gave the edges a haunting, wonderful crunch. The little cakes themselves were dressed up with black sesame seeds and golden raisins and had a winning moist and chewy quality. The Best-Ever Honey-Glazed Corn Muffins may not have been the best ever, but they were pretty darn good, at once moist and fluffy with a spiced glaze – cayenne, cumin and smoked paprika – that lent excellent contrast. I liked the Chocolate-Hazelnut Clouds, too, meringues with cocoa nibs and a hint of cardamom.

But while the Four-Spice Ginger Cookies tasted good, they were flat as newsprint, though I followed the instructions to the letter. And though the Luscious Pineapple and Honey Squares were tasty, they weren’t worth the trouble. They were a lot of trouble.

Which brings me to my two complaints, big complaints, about “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice,” one of three books that came out last fall on a similar theme. (The others, also reviewed by the Portland Press Herald, are “The New Sugar & Spice: A Recipe for Bolder Baking” and “The Cardamom Trail: Chetna Bakes with Flavours of the East.”)

Ameen is a professional chef who cooked at many restaurants and also ran her own. Perhaps she forgot that home cooks lack kitchen staffs and often must wedge baking projects into busy lives. To give just one example, and I could give many, here is her process for making those pineapple and honey squares.

First, the cook must cut a fresh pineapple into 1/2-inch cubes, drain them on paper towels and toss them with sugar. Then she must set a cast-iron pan over high heat for 3 minutes (setting off my smoke alarm), and brown the cubes in two batches, 6 to 7 minutes per batch, individually turning each and every cube to brown on all four sides. Then it’s time to put together the batter, which calls for sifting the dry ingredients and using caramelized honey, which must be made beforehand by boiling honey over high heat for six minutes.

The recipe requires a baking pan, a bowl to hold the raw fruit, a skillet to brown the fruit, a second bowl to hold the browned fruit, a third bowl for the dry ingredients, a fourth bowl to combine spices and coffee, a saucepan to make the caramelized honey, and a fifth bowl for whisking the eggs. By my count that is eight pots and bowls for a single cake.

There was another significant problem with this recipe and more than a few others in “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice.” The pineapple squares called for 70-75 minutes of baking. In my oven, which is calibrated correctly, they took 45 minutes. Likewise, the Golden Semolina Friands: The recipe instructed 35 to 40 minutes baking; mine were done in 20 minutes, plus the yield was off. A recipe for Apricot Almond Financiers told readers to use a mini-muffin pan, but the photograph shows they were baked in boat-shaped barquette molds. The recipe for Sesame Semolina Date Bars refers to the “spiced espresso-date filling.” In fact, the espresso is in the dough, not the filling. The instructions for slicing citrus crosswise are omitted from the Winter Citrus Galette.

These mistakes – and more – made me wary of “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice,” much as I liked its premise as well as some of the recipes I did try and the sounds of many that I didn’t. Baking is expensive and can be laborious. Before I embark on a new recipe, I want some assurance that neither my money nor my time will be wasted.

Where were the recipe testers? Was the editor asleep on the job or just stretched dreadfully thin as the publishing industry reels in the face of grave digital threats? Whichever, it’s a shame. “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice” is a book I’d like to have been able to recommend without reservation.


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Recipe from “Sweet Sugar, Sultry Spice: Exotic Flavors to Wake Up Your Baking” by Malika Ameen. The recipe says it makes 12 friands. When Food Editor Peggy Grodinsky tested it, her yield was 11. Also, though it calls for a baking time of 35 to 40 minutes at 375 degrees F, Grodinsky found they were done after just 20 minutes at 350 degrees F. The recipe below has been amended to reflect those changes. If you do not have fine semolina, you can substitute Cream of Wheat.

2 tablespoons cold tahini

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons black sesame seeds

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

8 tablespoons (4 ounces) unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1 cup fine semolina (not semolina flour)

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

3/4 cup whole milk

2 tablespoons water

1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 cup golden raisins

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brush the tahini evenly onto the bottom and sides of 11 cups of a 12-cup muffin pan and place in the freezer.

In a small bowl, combine 2 tablespoons of the sugar, the sesame seeds, and 1/8 teaspoon of the salt. Remove the pan from the freezer and sprinkle each cup with the sesame sugar, making sure to coat the cups evenly. Return the pan to the freezer until needed.

In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine 2 tablespoons of the butter and the turmeric. Once the butter is melted, stir to combine and cook until foamy, about 1 minute. Add the remaining butter and reduce the heat to low.

Heat until the butter is melted, then transfer the mixture to a medium bowl and allow to cool.

Into a large bowl, sift the semolina, flour, baking powder, the remaining 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, and the remaining 1/8 teaspoon salt. When the butter is cool, add the milk, water, and vanilla and whisk together. Add this mixture to the semolina mixture and whisk until just combined and lump free. Stir in the golden raisins.

Scoop 1/4 cup of batter into each prepared muffin cup. Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown, firm to the touch at the edge but just a bit soft in the center. Place the pan on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes. Run a paring knife around the edges of the muffin cups to loosen the friands, then turn them out onto the wire rack to cool fully.

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