Serendib House at L!VE Cafe, with new products and varieties

Woot! I was running about 30 minutes late, but with the help of Kavi and her friend Emma, Serendib House is finally set up at L!ve Cafe (163 S. Oak Park Ave.) and open for business until 3 p.m. So far, the pomegranate-vanilla soap, Kavi’s lip balms, the sandalwood-rose body butter, the marshmallow gift boxes, and the cookbooks have been popular. 

Come by, say hi!



Little customer

Little customer for Serendib Home, trying out the sandalwood & rose body butter.




Marshmallows in cute little boxes

I was feeling a little bummed that I’d run out of time to make truffles, esp. since I’d bought these cute little boxes for them, and then I realized that in fact, marshmallows fit perfectly into the exact same boxes.  (Selling at L!ve Cafe until 3 today…)




For today’s sale @ L!ve Cafe, I’ve carefully put all the food items to the right of me, and all the body butter (pictured below) to the left of me, and still, many people are tempted to try eating the body butter. It won’t hurt them, since it’s just shea butter + mango butter, with a little color & scent, but it is not particularly tasty.  But SO PRETTY.

(Pictured: Sandalwood & Rose; Mango, Vanilla & Lime)


Sandalwood & rose body butter
Mango, vanilla & lime body butter








Pomegranate & vanilla bath salt

Kavya and Emma agreed that this pomegranate & vanilla bath salt was the prettiest item in the display. It’s fun layering the salts, and I *love* these hex glass jars.



I tried to make the bath products either South Asian-y or Christmas-y — love how this mango, lime, and vanilla soap came out. Like a jello & sherbet dessert. And when you put the mica coloring in with the glycerin, for just a moment, it feels like Holi.





Favorite new mold — dragon eye! (The flying dragon is also cool.) The pomegranate dragon eye is perhaps my coolest holiday soap.  I’m hoping someone is delighted to find this for their fantasy-obsessed partner’s stocking gift…


Mango, vanilla & lime body butter

Glass jars cost about the same as plastic jars, interestingly, so my inclination would normally be to do all glass jars, but of course, for shipping, plastic is safer (and lighter). So I ended up with a mix of them. There are so many little details to a physical product, whether it’s a book of a jar of body butter. Just doing the writing part is, in some ways, simpler. 


Chocolate chai soaps
Melt and pour soap is not so easy to swirl — you need to get the temperatures exactly
right. I gather cold-process soap swirls much more easily; maybe I’ll try experimenting with that next summer. (I’m planning to basically be done with bath product making until AFTER next semester ends.) This batch of chocolate chai soaps didn’t swirl as much as I’d hoped; ah well. They’re still pretty, in a more muted sort of way…

Marshmallow sampler

Now THESE, you can eat.  They went out with the ALMOST-LAST physical Kickstarter orders this week. I have two more orders to hand deliver in Oak Park, and two more people who we’re trying to track them down for addresses, and then I am pretty sure that we’ll just have the digital orders left, that WILL go out by Monday 12/23, come hell or high water.

(Jed, I’m planning to get you that last bit you need by tomorrow; I hope you’ll have time to put that in.)



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The Bath, a gift of self-care

A couple of friends have asked me lately where the sudden rush of bath products has come from — it’s not food, after all, so it doesn’t directly connect to the cookbook. I gave them a simple answer at the time, but I think the real reason is a little more complex.

The simple answer is that making these is a lot like cooking — you’re composing a recipe, of color and scent and consistency, thinking about ingredients. So the process is familiar to me, and easy.

It’s also just fun crafting. Relaxing, creative, something I can do with the kids / friends. I love playing with the colors, thinking of new designs and implementing them — it’s so fast, from thought to finished result, like cooking. (Not like writing!)

I mostly don’t make enough on these to do more than break even on the cost of supplies, since I’m not producing them in sufficient bulk to get cheap ingredients. So it’s more like paying for a hobby, in that sense.

The most popular items today have definitely been the bath products — I’ve sold a lot of little items, especially lip balms (inexpensive, good for stocking stuffers), and body butter (a little pricey, indulgent). People are generally buying them for gifts, often for mothers or mothers-in-law. Sometimes moms buying them for themselves, occasionally with a little mention that they need to do that because no one will think to get them anything.

It’s a huge part of the holidays, gifting scented things: bath items, candles, etc. Which is interesting, because scent is honestly so individual, that you’d think it’d be tricky to try to guess what scent somebody else would like (and some people don’t like or can’t tolerate artificial scents at all).

I think it’s less about the object itself, than about signaling care. A scented bath, a candle — it’s about a quiet moment, taking time for yourself. A lot of us wish that for the women in our lives, I think. Selves included.

For me, I can’t help thinking back to when I had cancer. It was such a tough time, going through treatment, and while I was allowed to, I found myself taking far more baths than normal. Almost every night, I’d draw a bath and disappear into it for an hour. I needed it, in a way that’s hard for me to explain or even quite understand right now. If I had the energy on those nights, I’d light candles too, a forest of them, and use all the bubble bath.

So when I make these bath products, I think that’s a lot of what’s in the back of my head. A hope, a wish, that they’ll bring some comfort to someone, at the end of a hard day. That they’ll signal love and care, even if it’s in a sort of inarticulate “I didn’t know what to get you, but I love you, so here’s some scented soap…” kind of way.


It’s a little bit of joy, selling so many of these today. Helping to send some handmade love and care out into the world.


The Bath

Baths have been forbidden
for ten days. Showers permitted
not long after surgery, but
baths were taboo, proscribed,
verboten. Unsure what to do
with this sudden wealth, first
there was reading. The prose
unremarkable, but the story
gripping. Then, watching
a show, while tending to feet
darkened by chemo (hyper-
pigmentation, it’s called) and
by garden soil that found its way
past flimsy shoe barriers.
Soaking and pumicing and
sugar scrub, and now these
feet are soft and smooth,
ready for kisses, should any
be offered. The bald scalp
has been washed as well,
dried and lotioned, and now
the faint trace of stubble has
a fuzzy halo, inviting touch.
Showers are refreshing, but
baths are seductive. Tonight,
maybe another bath, maybe
with wine and chocolates. I
will wrinkle into a raisin; you
will know me by my wrinkles,
soft and numerous and lush.

Mary Anne Mohanraj
September 27, 2015


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A Colorful Holiday craft fair this weekend!

Spent a little while today getting goodies ready for Pem Hessing‘s holiday fair that I’m selling at this Saturday! It is very delightful, packing up four varieties of homemade marshmallows in these charming boxes, all ready for holiday gifting. Varieties included: honeyed rosewater & saffron, pistachio & rose, tamarind-chili, and chai spice. Mmm….

Locals, last chance to get a signed copy of Feast of Serendib (hardcover or paperback) before Christmas.  I’ll be at L!ve Cafe on Oak Park Ave., 10-3 on Saturday, along with some great jewelers and other artisan makers, all women of color. Come shop!



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Curried Chestnut, Leek, and Carrot Soup, with Fried Prosciutto (or Sautéed Mushrooms)

The semester is over, so I had time to actually come up with a new recipe tonight, for a curried chestnut soup.  So seasonal!

You can roast the chestnuts yourself — a little more effort, but it’s tasty to peel and eat some of that sweet nuttiness while it’s hot. Just be careful when cutting crosses into the chestnuts before you roast, so your knife doesn’t slip. Or you can buy a jar of them already roasted, though you may need to find a specialty shop for that. If you cleverly reserved turkey stock after Thanksgiving, you could pull some out of the freezer and use it for this. That was my plan, but I forgot to freeze the extra stock until it was too late this year. Oh well.

I used Sri Lankan roasted curry powder, but I think any standard South Asian curry powder would be tasty. The complex spicing balances the sweetness of the chestnuts and the saltiness of the prosciutto (or the mushrooms sautéed in butter with salt). Substitute in vegetable oil, vegetable stock, and coconut milk to make this a filling, nutritious, and delicious vegan meal.


Curried Chestnut, Leek, and Carrot Soup, with Fried Prosciutto (or Sautéed Mushrooms)
(serves 4, about 30 minutes (aside from chestnut roasting time))

3 T unsalted butter
2 leeks, white parts sliced thin
2 carrots, peeled and chopped finely
1/2 t. salt
1 t. pepper
about 15 oz. (3 c.) roasted and peeled chestnuts
6 c. chicken stock
1 t. curry powder
1/4 c. heavy cream
additional salt and pepper to taste
1/2 t. lime juice
Optional: either fried prosciutto or mushrooms sautĂ©ed in butter for garnish — make them while the soup is simmering

1. Heat butter in large soup pot and stir in leeks, carrots, salt, and pepper. Sauté, stirring, about 5 minutes.

2. Add chestnuts and chicken stock, bring to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Simmer for 20-30 minutes.

3. Transfer soup carefully to blender — I’d use a large ladle rather than trying to pour a pot of hot soup! (If you have an immersion stick blender, that’s even easier.) PurĂ©e, and return to pot. (It’s fine to leave a cup or so of broth in the pot; just stir it into the purĂ©e when you return it to the pot.) Add cream and stir. Taste and add salt / pepper as desired; if the soup is too thick, add a little more stock. Stir in the lime juice and simmer a few more minutes, until well blended.

4. Serve hot, garnished with prosciutto or mushrooms. (I don’t recommend both together — I tried it, and oddly, they clash.) If you want to make it even prettier, you could drizzle a little cream into the bowl, or add a scattering of chives. Mmm….

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Seeni Sambol buns

Heh — I was cooking in a bit of a rush, so accidentally made the seeni sambol for these buns to Sri Lankan spice levels — some of my guests were scared to try them, as a result. They were pretty darn hot! On the other hand, a friend’s 10-year-old son adored them and had no trouble eating them, so I guess it’s all in what you like / are used to.

Seeni sambol buns are widely available from roadside stands, shops, roving sellers on the train platforms in Sri Lanka, and are a great option for vegetarian travelers (though typically, they would have a bit of dried Maldive fish in the seasoning, so if you’re strictly vegetarian, take note). They’re usually not this hot, either!

You can make the dough from scratch (I have it in the ‘mas paan’ recipe in my Feast cookbook), but it works just fine to use a readymade refrigerated bread dough, which is easier for a party.

We used Pillsbury’s French bread dough for this, just slicing the log of dough into rounds. We spread them out a bit with our fingers and spooned the seeni sambol in, then wrapped it up into a bun (seam side down). Bake a few minutes less than the package suggests, until golden brown, and you’re done!

Seeni sambol buns freeze well, and are also great for taking on the road with you for a long car ride or as plane snacks. And if you just want to make the seeni sambol (easy, but about 30 minutes of slow stirring as the onions caramelize, will keep in fridge for weeks), it’s excellent on buttered toast for your breakfast.

If you have time to make an over-easy egg to go with it, even better. Toast + butter + egg + seeni sambol on top = perfection. Or scramble an egg and put it all in a tortilla (or better, roti!), if you want to turn it into a wrap…

Seeni sambol recipe:

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Texts with Kevin

Texts with Kevin:

K: How many onions did you want me to prep?
– seeni sembol: 4 medium onions, finely sliced
– chicken patties: 2 onions, finely chopped
– rolls: 6 medium onions, finely chopped
– mackerel cutlets: 4 medium onions, finely chopped
– do those first, and we’ll see if we have time for vadai too…


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Gluten-free Sri Lankan Love Cake

Success! Gluten-free Sri Lankan love cake; I substituted 1/2 fine polenta & 1/2 almond flour for the semolina, and it came out great.  Beautifully golden, the way love cake should be.

Honestly, there really isn’t so much flour in this anyway, since it’s mostly cashews, eggs, dried fruit, & sugar, so I suspect many substitution options would work fine; next time, I may try Bob’s Red Mill 1 to 1 gluten-free baking flour (which is mostly rice flour, I think).


Love Cake
(two hours, including baking time; serves dozens)

Some say this Portuguese-derived cake was baked to win the hearts of suitors, while others say it’s because of the labor of love involved in all the cutting, chopping and grinding of the fruits, nuts, and spices (much easier these days with access to a food processor). But regardless, it tastes like love: sweet, tangy, and fragrant. My mother says it doesn’t taste right without the crystallized pumpkin, which you can find at Indian grocery stores, though honestly, I like it just as well with the candied ginger. A perfect accompaniment to a cup of tea.

8 ounces butter, softened, plus more for greasing
16 ounces raw unsalted cashews
10 ounces fine granulated sugar
10 egg yolks
Zest of two limes
Zest of one orange
Juice of two limes
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/4 tsp ground clove
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1/2 cup honey
3 drops rosewater extract (or two teaspoons rosewater)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
6 ounces fine polenta
6 ounces almond flour
3 ounces candied ginger and/or crystallized pumpkin, minced as finely as possible
5 egg whites
Confectioners’ sugar for dusting (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 250. Grease a 9Ă—13 baking dish with butter and line it with two layers of parchment paper. Grease the paper with butter.

2. In food processor, grind cashews to coarse meal.
3. In a standing mixer (paddle attachment), beat 8 oz butter and granulated sugar until creamy. Add egg yolks and mix well. Add zest, juice, spices, honey, rosewater and vanilla; mix well.

4. Add semolina and mix well; add cashews and candied ginger / pumpkin and mix well.

5. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff; fold gently into cake mixture.

6. Spoon batter into prepared pan; bake for 1 hour 15 minutes, until firm to the touch. (Alternatively, spoon into buttered & floured (Baker’s Joy makes this easy) mini tea cake molds (Nordicware made the excellent one I used for this) and bake for about 40 minutes.)

7. Let cool completely in the pan, dust with confectioner’s sugar (optional), cut into squares and serve.

Gluten-free Christmas village love cake.
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Simple comforts: improvising and using what you have

As part of this publishing-a-cookbook thing, I’ve learned a lot more about how people approach food and cooking. It’s made me really sad, learning just how many people never learned how to improvise tasty meals out of what’s in the fridge, or from leftovers. It can be a huge timesaver and moneysaver, letting you use up ingredients efficiently (almost nothing in our fridge ever goes bad), while still keeping plenty of delicious variety in weekly meals. A well-stocked spice cabinet lets you bring in lots of international flavors too!

Pictured below are three dishes we made post-Thanksgiving with the leftover turkey: Thai yellow curry turkey, with plenty of veggies, served with a little rice. Turkey and bacon with broccoli and pasta in a Parmesan-y white sauce, which the kids devoured. Turkey mulligatawny soup with apples, mild enough to feed my in-laws, but with enough South Asian flavor to make me happy.

None of these are difficult, but I didn’t have a recipe for any of them; after many years of cooking, I just know how to take leftovers and make up dishes with them. And this isn’t because I’m some sort of fabulous cook — it’s the kind of basic home-cooking skills that I have to think were common across America a few decades ago, and which seem to have gotten lost a little along the way. I didn’t actually learn how to do this growing up, but picked it up in my 20s and 30s. I started with recipes, but over time, learned enough basic approaches to food to not need recipes most nights.

Take the Thanksgiving turkey, for example. Okay, so you make a turkey, you feed a lot of people for dinner, it’s the end of the night. What next? Well, in my house, we pick the meat off the bones, as much as you can. If you’re fastidious, you can use a knife and fork for this, but it’s easier to do thoroughly with your clean hands. Put all the meat in a storage container in the fridge, wrap up the remaining carcass in foil and throw it in the freezer. Go to sleep, replete.

The next day, turkey sandwiches are classic and so satisfying. There are lots of interesting recipes online, but I’m perfectly happy with some good white bread, mayo, turkey, and cranberry sauce. I’m too tired to cook the day after Thanksgiving, but honestly, I’m mostly just eating stuffing out of the Pyrex, standing in the kitchen with a fork.

By day three, if you’re like me, you’re craving something spicy and also easy, because you don’t really want to do a lot of cooking yet. Thai curry to the rescue — Thai curry paste makes the seasoning part easy (I like Maesri brand), and it’s a one-pot dish. Thai curries kept us going through the infant / toddler years — Kev and I probably made one at least once a week, and managed it through a sleep-deprived haze. Kev actually made this one — he texted me when I was coming home on the train and asked what I wanted for dinner — I requested Thai yellow curry, and thirty minutes later, walked in the door to this.

Add a can of paste and a can of coconut milk to the pot, bring to a boil, add in some turkey, chicken broth, and whatever random veggies you have on hand that you want to use up, bring to a boil, simmer 20 minutes. (Carrots and potatoes and such, put it in with the turkey, since they’ll need longer cooking; bell peppers and green veggies, add near the end, so they don’t get mushy.) Nice additions include a can of bamboo shoots, drained, a little fish sauce, some brown sugar, Thai basil if you can get it, Italian basil if not. Crushed chili peppers if you want it spicier.

Put on some rice (which will also take 20 minutes to cook), or if you really want it one pot, you can add rice noodles directly to the curry in the last few minutes of cooking. The whole thing takes 30 minutes tops. Once you’ve made a Thai curry from a recipe a few times, you can probably do this without a recipe, and without thinking very much; a pot of this will provide several meals, so that should hold you a day or two. We keep several cans of Thai curry paste in our pantry (yellow, red, green, panang, massaman) at all times, and a good supply of Chaokoh coconut milk.

But the kids don’t like Thai curry, you say? No problem — that’s when you boil some pasta — rotini, penne, whatever you like. I always set a timer for the boiling, so I don’t lose track while doing other cooking and end up with mushy noodles, yuck.

In a separate pan, sautĂ© some bacon (because turkey on its own can be a little dry) and add the turkey. Then you make a sort of roux — put a tablespoon or two of flour in the pan, sautĂ© it in the bacon fat (add oil or butter if needed), stirring until it browns a bit, a minute or two, then add enough milk (maybe a cup?) and stir to make a creamy sauce.

I think I was in my 30s before I learned how to do this — ‘roux’ sounded so fancy and sort of intimidating. But it is EASY and the resulting sauce is fabulous for rejuvenating tired pasta, meats, veggies, etc. I am pretty sure this is technically a bĂ©chamel, one of the French mother sauces, which also sounds fancy and intimidating, but don’t let that fanciness get in your way! Fat + flour + milk. That’s all it is. (If you add gruyere cheese or white cheddar, it becomes a Mornay sauce. Extra-fancy.)

Grate in some Parmesan for extra yumminess (you can use the shaker-style Parmesan if you’re tired, but it doesn’t blend quite as well; it stays a little gritty because of additives they use to keep the cheese in the shaker from clumping). If the sauce gets too thick, add more milk and stir it ’til well blended (and maybe turn down the heat).

Taste — add salt / pepper as desired, then stir in the pasta. I had some leftover cooked broccoli, so I added that too — frozen peas are also a standard addition to this kind of thing around here. We make some version of this pretty often with the leftovers from the cooked rotisserie chicken we pick up at the grocery store, maybe every two weeks? It’s a staple in our house.

There are a lot of ways these dishes can go wrong, of course, and that’s the bit where I think people often get frustrated and give up. They put green veggies in too early, and so they come out mushy and flavorless. They cook the dish on too high a heat, or get distracted by the baby or the internet, so the sauce scorches. (Timers are your friend. Also stirring.) They forget the salt (it’s not as good if you just shake it on after cooking is done), or worse, put in too much salt accidentally (hard to recover from).

And when you’re cooking tired, or in a hurry, you’re more likely to make that kind of mistake, and more likely to get really frustrated when you do, so there’s a class-based element to this that I want to highlight. It’s so much easier to become a good cook if you have the time and energy to spare for the learning.

Which is a sort of horrible catch-22, because not knowing how to do this kind of cooking leads so many 20-somethings and 30-somethings to rely on a lot of takeout, which ends up costing them much more money in the long run. I feel like we really did an entire generation a massive disservice when so much of schooling switched over to college prep and cut home ec (and shop!) to make room in the curriculum. I don’t know what it would take to bring all of that back to the public schools, along with basic civics and budgeting, but I’d like to see an effort.

I mean, I teach college, and I do think the students learn something worthwhile in my English classes. But as a parent myself, I want to launch my kids with better-than-basic domestic skills, as well as the ability to write a coherent, well-argued paper utilizing strong critical thinking skills. Do we really not have time to teach both?

The last dish here is the soup, made with turkey stock. That’s for a weekend day, maybe the week after Thanksgiving, maybe months later. That turkey carcass will be good for quite a while! You pull it out of the freezer, throw it in a big pot with plenty of water and some coarsely chopped onions.

Depending on what ethnic direction you’re leaning in for the meals that follow, pick your additions — carrots are often good, or celery. They’ll all basically dissolve, along with the onions, making the stock flavorful, and if you want, you can just fish them out at the end, though I don’t generally bother. I wanted South Asian spicing for my soups, so I went mulligatawny-style: garlic, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, cardamom pods, plenty of black pepper, salt. Bring it to a boil, let it simmer, 3-4 hrs. Now you’ve got a great turkey stock. Portion whatever you’re not using right away out and freeze it for a tired day.

I made the soup just a week or so after Thanksgiving, so we still had some turkey meat left in the fridge. (Some people aren’t comfortable eating meat that’s been in the fridge for a week; our stomachs are fine with it, but use your judgement and experience here!) So this was just the easiest thing to do for my visiting in-laws; heat up some stock, simmer the turkey in it for 15-20 minutes or so, add some quartered apples and cook just until they’re softened, but still have some bite to them. Serve hot; we added some buttered French bread, which felt oddly appropriate for a colonial soup. And very tasty.

There was plenty of stock left for several more soups later in the year, when the nights get long and cold and dark, and all you want is to huddle around a tasty warm bowl of soup.

Simple comforts — at least, they ought to be simple. I wish they were for everyone.

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Chai-Spiced Banana Bread recipe

Chai-Spiced Banana Bread
(serves 12, 45-75 minutes)

(for gluten-free option, use Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free 1 to 1 baking flour; used for snowflake-shaped breads below)

We are perpetually throwing overripe bananas in the freezer around here, and when they start squeezing out the other items, we know it’s time to spend a Saturday morning baking banana bread. This is based on a Cook’s Illustrated recipe. Adding in the spices we’d use for chai, along with dried fruit / ginger, makes for a festive and hearty holiday loaf. Makes 1 loaf, or several mini loaves (nice for gifting).

2 c. flour
3/4 t. baking soda
3 very ripe bananas, mashed well
1/4 c. plain yogurt
2 eggs, beaten lightly
3/4 c. sugar
6 T butter, melted and cooled
1 t. vanilla extract
1 t. cinnamon
1/2 t. salt
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/4 t. cloves
1/4 t. cardamom
1/4 t. black pepper

Optional add-ins (1 c. total): dried cherries, dried cranberries, crystallized ginger, chocolate chips, chopped cashews…

1. Preheat oven to 350. Grease and flour pan(s).

2. Mix flour and baking soda in a large bowl; set aside.

3. Combine remaining ingredients (except for optional add-ins) in medium bowl with a wooden spoon.

4. Fold banana mixture into flour mixture with a spatula until just combined. If adding in dried fruit, ginger, chocolate chips or nuts, fold in now.

5. Scrape batter into prepared pan(s) until loaf is golden brown and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hr for a loaf, 25-35 minutes for mini loaves.

6. Serve hot, slathered with salted butter.

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