Spending time with Momofuku Milk Bar, Christina Tosi's cookbook, is a wild weekend.
At the end of it, you wake up in an overdue rental convertible somewhere in the desert outside of Las Vegas, hungover and trying to remember what you did with your pants and how you got that new stand mixer tattoo on your forearm.
Likely, you will also consider for the first time the efficacy of a juice cleanse. But what a ride, you think. What a ride.
Nigel Slater's Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch, is a more like that sweet, self-effacing guy in a British film. He's the actor whose name you can never remember but who shows up late at night in the rain on the doorstep of his true love.
His simple sauté of celery and chicken, despite that shot of vermouth, seems so boring compared the thrill of Tosi's liquid cheesecake. Trying to enliven mashed potatoes with bay leaf is laughably quaint when you could hang out with Tosi and crush Ritz crackers into a topping for celery root ganache or soak cereal in milk to use as a basis for ice cream — a simple but revolutionary notion that has become her signature.
Both are experiential books based on the author's lives.
Tosi's reflects the creative chaos of her unexpected turn as pastry chef during the rise of the David Chang Momofuku empire. "Resistance to her sugar manifesto is futile," Chang writes in the foreword.
Slater, the prolific author who has mined both British cooking and his own childhood for previous books, takes a much more studied approach, winding the patient reader through life as it grew over the course of a year in 40-foot-long garden in a London suburb.
Tosi's careful and prodigious explanations of ingredients like glucose ("so many glorious things happen through the wonder and beauty of glucose") and Pam ("it's easy and convenient") are informative and just fun to read.
She will have you doing things you never imagined you would, like standing in the aisle of Whole Foods trying to figure out which freeze-dried packet of corn kernels to buy so you can go home and whirl them through the food processor to make a powder essential to the subtle quirks of Crack Pie.
Crack Pie! Even the name thrills.
Working through the recipe, though, you start to wonder if it will ever end. First, you make a huge, puffy oatmeal cookie that will serve as the crust. You crumble up that cookie, and then turn to the filling, which requires a stand mixer set only on the lowest speed. The recipes all have similarly precise bits of technique — this is a baking book, after all. These are sometimes simple but maddening. Regulating the oven temperature for Crack Pie requires opening and shutting the oven door. Pies must then be frozen for at least three hours to condense the filling. And so on.
The instructions from Slater, whose weighty book offers nearly 600 pages of recipes illustrated with simple, strong photography, are a comparative balm.
That's not to say that at first, still panting from my time with Momofuku Milk Bar, I thought Tender quite dull. Tedious, even. "Fava beans," he writes, "are gentle, soothing, calm (particularly so when they have been skinned), a vegetable without the vibrancy of spinach or even peas. Surely we don't always want vegetables to be full of fireworks?"
Instructions, particularly compared to the science-project nature of Momofuku Milk Bar, seemed Panisse simple. But like those recipes, simplicity is deceiving.
Baked Eggplant, Miso Dressing doesn't offer much on the surface. But the technique — scoring slices of slim eggplant and painting them with a mix of miso, mirin, and the ground Japanese seasoning mix called togarashi before baking them so long the flesh nearly melts — is, as the British might say, brilliant.
His understated recipes hold real gems that are thorough and seem well-tested. A Hungary-Inspired Stew Designed For the Depths of Winter (this is the actual recipe title) brings the delightful combination of caraway seeds, porcini, and paprika to a rich stew that is just a touch hot with chili pepper.
More time with Slater's book brings more rewards. You come to appreciate the breadth and depth of his work, and how handsome his book looks on the shelf. You think, in 20 years, will I be glad I took the safer route, the path sure and secure and well-traveled? Or do I want to wake up to another crack pie?
Hell, life is short. Go for the new tattoo.
Kim Severson has been a staff writer for The New York Times since 2004. After six years writing about food for the Dining section, she was named the Atlanta bureau chief in the fall of 2010. Previously, she spent six years writing about cooking and the culture of food for the San Francisco Chronicle. Before that, she had a seven-year stint as an editor and reporter at The Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. She has also covered crime, education, social services and government for daily newspapers on the West Coast.
She has won several regional and national awards for news and feature writing, including the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism for her work on childhood obesity in 2002 and four James Beard awards for food writing. Her memoir, Spoon Fed: How Eight Cooks Saved My Life, (Riverhead) is out in paperback. She has also written The New Alaska Cookbook and The Trans Fat Solution: Cooking and Shopping to Eliminate the Deadliest Fat from Your Diet.
Throughout the Tournament, Tender has distinguished itself by its sheer reliability -- the book delivers, from sauteed kale to winter stew. Keeping things in balance we have Momofuku Milk Bar, turning our notions of dessert upside-down. We see a place for both on our dinner tables.
Inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books, we got together with
our friend Charlotte Druckman and created the Tournament of Cookbooks.
Here on Food52, you can watch the action and weigh in on the results as
the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year vie for the coveted Piglet
trophy. The tournament features top food writers and chefs as judges.
Play will take place over the course of 3 weeks, with a decision
published each weekday.
The 2012 Judges