Sunday, March 08, 2015

Confusing, illogical, hilarious, disarming, vulnerable, and intimidating


This post for cookbook geeks only. 

Ferociously smart Eater essay about the Adam Roberts/Mimi Thorisson flap right here. Serious critical intelligence brought to bear on cookbooks. I wish I’d written it, or even thought it. 

And this offers a different perspective on the dispute, lamenting how boring, homogeneous, and uncritical most cooking blogs are and how insular the food community.

Now, to the Piglet.

Thanks to John T. Edge’s rhapsodic Piglet review the other day, I bought Smashing Platesan attractive 200-page collection of Greek recipes by Maria Elia, a British chef of Cypriot heritage. Although I haven’t cooked anything from it yet, I like what I see, starting with honeyed fried feta and some kalamata olive gnocchi. The desserts are especially fetching, which I didn’t expect from a Greek cookbook. Curious about the orange and fennel seed ice cream and the almond, rosewater, and chocolate Mallomar chimneys. I’m hoping this book blows me away because I’m not 100% satisfied with the other candidates to win the Piglet, now down to David Lebovitz’s Paris Kitchen and Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts

We’ve been dining almost exclusively from David L. lately, and dining well. Multigrain bread, tarte tropezienne, lamb tagine, caramel ribs, butternut squash panade, lemon-pistachio couscous.  The last two dishes on that list are my favorites, but all have been strong.  I really, really, really like this book, but it’s The King’s Speech of cookbooks -- impeccably executed, intelligent, enjoyable, unsurprising. My Paris Kitchen could definitely win the big prize and there’s an argument to be made on its behalf, but you won’t hear it from me. It’s far from the most interesting cookbook of 2014.

Fancy Desserts, meanwhile, is without doubt one of the most interesting cookbooks of 2014. Ed Lee served up a powerhouse Piglet review the other day. Ok, it’s a little purple, but I like the energy:

"All of these desserts will alter the rest of your life, if you have the patience to make them. They’re that good.  Fancy Desserts, with its recipes connected like a mystery novel, can be confusing, illogical, hilarious, disarming, vulnerable, and intimidating -- and I could not put it down. Part culinary manifesto, part punk rock tapestry, part New York City folklore, this book is not just a fascinating read, it’s a portrait of a person, of a time, and of a place so unique you feel lucky to live it through the pages of a book. I wish more chefs were this honest about themselves. Hell, I wish more people were too. 
What I will say is this: Don’t attempt to make a recipe until you’ve read the whole book -- every page, cover to cover. . . ."

All of these desserts will alter the rest of your life? All of them? Even the borrowed Good to the Grain chocolate chip cookies reprinted with a fatal mistake?

Whatever. Enthusiasm is nice. 


I’ve made a handful of Headley’s recipes, two of them really splendid. I already wrote about the ricotta gelato (super-easy recipe here) and last week tried his cashew gelato, which was the most velvety ice cream ever scooped out of my machine. It was just as creamy the next night and the next and I dont know about the next because by then it was gone. To make this magical dessert, you roast raw cashews until coffee brown and steep in milk overnight. Remove cashews from milk, combine infused milk with sugar, dextrose powder, honey, milk powder, condensed milk, cream, and raw egg yolks. Blend. Chill. Churn. It’s not going to alter the rest of my life, but it was stupendously delicious.

So what’s wrong with Headley’s book? Nothing, there’s just not enough stuff I want to try here. I don’t want to taste the yeast, sage, parsley, or basil gelatos. I’ll never make the corn-corn huckleberry cookie or the chocolate eggplant confection, sweet pea cake, candied carrots or even that cucumber creamsicle both Lee and Adam Roberts so loved. No interest in the sunchoke or artichoke desserts, nor the strawberries in a pool of avocado puree. I’m sure it’s all wonderful, but I still don’t want to make it.

Maybe that says more about me than it does the book. Maybe Fancy Desserts should win. I’m just saying I personally have trouble getting behind it.

The exciting cookbook I don’t want to cook from vs. the semi-boring cookbook I can’t stop cooking from. This is why I have my hopes pinned on Smashing Plates.

****

A few final words about Mimi Thorisson’s Kitchen in France: it’s very good and I had almost universal success with the recipes. Her garlic soup is delicious, creamy, and simple. The apple tart with orange flower water is tasty, though a bit severe and not something I’d make again. The almond mussels, as I’ve told you, are a knockout. The galette Perougienne is a lovely, bready, rustic dessert, the pear flognarde, a lovely, custardy, rustic dessert. The cocoa meringues worked perfectly and the chicken with creme fraiche was a treat.

Theres some funkiness with her volume-weight conversions, especially when it comes to butter. The recipe for Sarah Bernhardt cakes (very seductive-looking Icelandic cookies) calls for 10 tablespoons//300 g butter. Clearly a mistake, as 10 tablespoons butter = 141 grams. I happened to make Thorisson’s gougeres and her almond mussels for the same meal one night and noticed that while both call for 7 tablespoons of butter, for the gougeres she offers a weight measurement of 80 g and for the mussels 100 g. I spent a few minutes going through the book and in different recipes a tablespoon of butter is weighted at 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 grams. This isn’t a big deal when you’re talking about a couple of tablespoons, but the disparities add up. For instance, in one tart dough Thorisson calls for 14 tablespoons//150 grams of butter. The difference between 14 tablespoons and 150 grams of butter is almost half a stick. Adding a half stick more of butter, or a half stick less, will significantly change a tart dough.

Is this a grave matter? No. All the recipes I made worked, most look sound, and mistakes happen. To any stray Mimi fans who might stumble over here and accuse me of being a frumpy jealous hater for pointing out these errors, put down your flamethrowers. Maybe frumpy, but not jealous, not a hater. I thoroughly enjoyed Mimi Thorisson’s Kitchen in France, will make her mussels again and again, and would recommend the book without hesitation.

On another subject, Id never heard of cruffins, but now I have and need to plan a field trip.

41 comments:

  1. That Eater essay is brilliant - thanks for sharing.

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  2. Thanks for pointing out that essay, it really nails what was bothering me about the whole kerfuffle.

    Also, the cruffin kind of sounds like a morning bun with filling. You have to investigate!

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    Replies
    1. I will have a cruffin within the week.

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  3. I know it generated controversy, but I enjoyed your summation of MT's book in your previous post and your discussion of the images. I hope the results won't stop you from your frank and highly readable reviews in the future.

    Cookbook editing is, in my opinion, becoming increasingly poor, as is testing of recipes, as the pace of publication picks up. A copyeditor should have picked up those errors, if the author hadn't.

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    Replies
    1. I checked my math 15 times on those conversions and still worry I made a mistake. It's so easy for little glitches to get through in a cookbook -- I don't fault Thorisson for that.

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  4. That was a very well written essay. Did you see that Adam Roberts felt the need to add a comment.

    With the conversion errors, would you be more inclined to believe the gram measurements?

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    Replies
    1. I saw that! And I found it super annoying (esp. because he still doesn't seem to get it!)

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    2. I did see Roberts' comment. I was thinking the grams would be more reliable. Don't the French use scales? So the conversions would have been to tablespoons, not the other way.

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  5. I once made sticky buns with croissant dough, and they didn't turn out well. They puffed up high but then collapsed. The cruffins look really good, though.

    I think Mimi was unwise to have responded at all to the review. The more I've read of her blog, the more I like her, but it seemed childish and ungracious to protest the review. She labored the point of how unlikely her husband thought she would be to win, which seemed disingenuous. I haven't seen her book in person, but I find those glamor shots embarrassing. I think they look like Anthropologie photo shoots. I'm trying to put my finger on why that seems inappropriate.

    The cashew ice cream sounds so good. I have no desire to make the yeast ice cream, but could you explain it to me, just so I can wrap my brain around it? I once had some fresh yeast that had been frozen and thawed, and was therefore kind of fluid, and the chef came by and, thinking it was peanut butter, dipped her finger into it and stuck a huge blob of it in her mouth. Oh, boy, she'll never forget that awful moment.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I will make the yeast ice cream, just so I can tell you about it.
      I made a Breton butter cake, btw -- recipe from Prune. Thought of you. She puts orange flower water in hers and it is INCREDIBLE.

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  6. I just bought Fancy Desserts and Smashing Plates. I also got a used copy of Jane Grigson's Good Things-- do you like her? I only have her Fish book and I'm pretty shocked at how interesting she can make the subject matter. I agree regarding that Eater essay. I'm just annoyed that Amateur Gourmet is being taken this seriously.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jane Grigson is so charming! I love her. I've made some dishes from Good Things. I think there's a carrot soup in there with a lot of thyme. I'll have to go look at my copy and see what else I made.

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  7. I'm still laughing at this comment from ma Food52 reader:

    "I enjoyed the review but it made me want to buy Flavor Flour. I'd be content to be a worse person making foolproof and delicious desserts."

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  8. Can I just say that this single entry of yours as a stand-alone piece (not to mention the last few weeks' entries) is a far more comprehensive review of all the books than any one of the reviews in the Piglet? I don't mean to carry on with the Piglet saga or to malign it, because I really have enjoyed it this year, particularly given the controversy and all of it's ensuing ramifications. I really say all this to point out that there is truly excellent stuff here and your opinions are always entertaining and enlightening, even when I disagree with them.

    I hadn't thought of myself as a cookbook geek but apparently I am. So be it.


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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Maggie! I thought on the whole the judges were really good this year. And though it wasn't always pretty, the controversy led to some interesting discussions.

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  9. Thank you for those links!! I liked both articles, especially the Eater.com one. What drove me nuts, and it looks like lolcatgirl already pointed it out, is why in the Adam Roberts would respond? I was on his sides (as much as taking sides in an online food blogger battle exists...) until then.

    The truth about sexism is, that even if your intentions are honest and you did not mean to sound sexist, a comment, an essay, a comic can be sexist. And Helen Rosner does a good job outlining how Roberts was, in fact, however unintentionally, sexist. By chiming in, Roberts suddenly become more defensive and more childish in my eyes.

    Which makes me want to force him to read lottie and doof's essay and to yell that criticism is great. Learn how to look at it and take what you can from it. The moment you are defensive is the moment that you have lost.

    Ok, rant over. Thanks again for the links!

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    Replies
    1. Yes, my view of the situation and players kept changing, too, much as yours did.

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  10. Regarding your comment about conversions: I bought the British version of Nigella Lawson's Domestic Goddess and compared it to the American version. The recipes in the British version worked, the American versions were iffy. Whoever does the conversions (probably not the authors) can make mistakes (who doesn't?), and I bet the American versions are not independently tested.

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    Replies
    1. I sought out the British version of Domestic Goddess as well after throngs of people using the U.S. version complained of inaccuracies. I also bought the U.K. version of Dan Lepard's Short & Sweet (my favorite baking tome) to have weight instead of volume measurements. More expensive for sure, but well worth it.

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    2. I've become a complete convert (ha) to weight measurements, which is why I notice when there's a problem now. (I also have the British Dan Lepard, we're on the same page about him, HC.) It's so easy for these mistakes to happen -- but it would also be easy to catch them. I stumbled across a few mistakes in Thorisson and then just flipping through the book looking for more, found them. Quickly. In a matter of 15 minutes. Yesterday I started making the yeast gelato from Piglet-winner Brooks Headley's book and came across a conversion error there. The second error I've encountered while actually cooking from his book. You can't chalk the Fancy Desserts errors up to international confusion. Based on my experience thus far, the recipes are sloppy.

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