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The Piglet2013 / Semifinal Round, 2013

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Deb Perelman

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Bouchon Bakery Cookbook

Bouchon Bakery Cookbook

Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel

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The Judgment

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By Danny Meyer

Our family treasures our home cookbook collection. We tend to turn to and thumb through most of those books not so much as precise manuals for executing dishes, but rather as inspiration for ideas of how we might prepare whatever ingredients we’ve gathered from the Greenmarket or wherever we’ve shopped. We refer most frequently to books whose recipes fit the way our family loves to eat, or those offering techniques to improve how we already cook – and sometimes we turn to those with ideas, photos, and prose that just put us in the mood to cook. With the exception of dessert, bread, and pastry cookbooks, rarely do we follow recipes to the T. In the same way I am nearly incapable of reading a speech, I’m just as ill-at-ease when cooking from a recipe exactly as it is written.

But improvising my way through these two fine books wouldn’t be fair to the authors or to Food52’s readers. And so I enlisted the help of Dan Dilworth, a gifted cook who has worked in the kitchens of USHG places like Gramercy Tavern, Gramercy Terrace, and Union Square Events. The goal was for Dan’s step-by-step execution of these recipes to shed more light on the merits of the books than would my free-wheeling approach.

How it worked: I selected 3 to 4 recipes from each book and Dan cooked them verbatim. I observed his process, sampled the results, and noted the reactions of my official panel of tasters (read: me plus 4 other hungry family members.) I’ll start by saying that each book does exactly what it sets out to do – and either one would find (and will find) an accessible lower-shelf placement in our cookbook collection.

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook is far and away the more casual and approachable of the two books. It will never find a place on your coffee table, and nor does it aspire to be anywhere beyond your kitchen. It is chock-full of the kinds of easy-to-throw-together, winning ideas that any reasonably skilled and confident home cook could execute. Overall, this is the kind of soulful, simple food that I love to eat. Deb Perelman’s “if it sounds good together, then cook it” approach to recipe writing makes everything sound tempting. You feel confident and at ease when you know that the recipes were developed in the tiny Manhattan kitchen that is her workspace. Ingredients are often measured in pinches of sugar and grinds of the pepper mill -- and sometimes not at all. Her relative imprecision is fine by me in terms of how I normally use cookbooks: instinctually, naturally, and personally.  

But if you’re playing by the notes, then following her sometimes imprecise directions precisely can, in some cases, produce varying results. Savory dishes tended to lack that something extra to make them stand up and sing (salt, pepper, lemon, or some other form of acid) and if judged purely on the basis of whether the recipes cooked as written produce incredible results, I’d pause before recommending this book.

Mustard Milanese with Arugula Fennel Salad was the stuff of a solid weeknight dinner -- tasty and simple, yet also innovative (and a drop healthier) as the dredging liquid used egg whites instead of whole eggs. It just lacked moisture and zing, which was easy enough to correct on the spot by drizzling lemon and olive oil atop. Zucchini Ribbons with Almond Pesto is another compelling and easy idea, and this time, the problem was too much garlic -- which couldn’t be removed from the dish once we’d made it. Despite using the smallest clove of garlic we had, it was too garlicky by at least half a clove.

One Smitten Kitchen dish was spectacular as written: the Grapefruit Olive Oil Pound Cake was quick, straightforward, and ethereally good. I would gladly eat it for breakfast and dessert on a regular basis, and in fact, I can’t wait to make it again. Perelman’s tone, as she walks you through each recipe, is flexible, lenient, reassuring, and hospitable. She is there at your side, urging you on, wanting you to feel good about yourself while cooking her food. Out of panko? Ms. Perelman has a recipe for faking it with white bread.

Thomas Keller and Sebastien Rouxel’s Bouchon Bakery is, in many ways, the other side of the coin. Consistent with every stunning restaurant Keller has ever opened or cookbook he has ever written, this is a gorgeous and incredibly ambitious work, awe-inspiring in its painstaking attention to detail. Where Ms. Perelman calls for black pepper -- amount unspecified -- the team at Bouchon writes recipes that stipulate using 1/8th + 1/16th teaspoons. We don’t have a 1/16th teaspoon measure at home, and so we found ourselves concerned that a micro mistake might torpedo the results. Many recipes call for highly specific tools and instruments that the average home cook may have a tough time finding at their local kitchen store, let alone in their home kitchen. We don’t have, for example, any half-sphere silicone molds or 3-inch tart molds in our kitchen, and so we’d probably pass on taking a shot at those kinds of recipes.

Ultra-precise instructions can be exactly what a cook wants when baking, and so for many, Bouchon Bakery will be a godsend. And of the four recipes we cooked, the results, when produced according to exact instructions, ranged from good to breathtaking. The Gougères were very good, and something I could imagine preparing for guests on a home-entertaining occasion calling for Champagne. Bouchon Bakery’s exceptional Chocolate Chunk and Chip Cookies produced “best ever” reactions from just about all of our official tasters. They were that good. But making them was also such a serious undertaking that the experience will likely inspire my whole family to make more trips to Bouchon Bakery to buy them for $2.95 each (an incomparable value now that we know what it takes to bake them) rather than returning to this time- and labor-intensive recipe. Still, the ideas are brilliant: using molasses as a stand-in for vanilla extract, for example, and increasing the number of chocolate chips. These are ideas that’ll stick with us as we bake any new batch, Bouchon or Toll House alike. The Lemon Meringue Tarts were gorgeous to behold, and while they would impress anyone at a dinner party, the process involved cooking four different recipes over the course of nearly two days, and after all that effort, tasters found them a drop too sweet.

So where are we in the match between The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook and Bouchon Bakery? The books are so utterly different with such completely separate aspirations (by and large achieved) that it is almost ludicrous to select a winner. The question rests far more on whether you are a precisionist or an improviser. Whether you have scads of time on your hands, or not. Whether you prefer to play by sheet music or by ear.

Our experience with Bouchon Bakery’s recipes was this: a meticulous and highly arduous process most often leading to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The results induce a sense of accomplishment not unlike what I remember feeling as a kid after constructing a complicated model airplane or completing a 2000-piece jigsaw puzzle: “I did it!” (And I never need to do it again.)

In the case of The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, outcomes were more varied -- and with the exception of that stunningly good Grapefruit Olive Oil Pound Cake (I’d buy the book for that recipe alone), the book is more of a compendium of winning ideas for the home cook than it is a professional guide to creating perfect endings.

In my real life, I would never select a winner between such different books. But a commitment is a commitment, and that’s what I made to the Piglet. My selection comes down to: what do we need more in our home cookbook collection, near perfect desserts or fresh ideas? We are privileged to be surrounded by incredible bakeries and pastry shops (including, happily, Bouchon Bakery itself) and so when the question becomes “of these two books, which will you turn to and use over and over?” or, “if you could only have one of these books, which would it be?” my pick for the Piglet is The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook.

And the winner is…

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

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Do you Agree? (12 comments)

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about 1 year ago Sauertea

You wrote a great review and had a really hard choice! Love the Smitten Kitchen but covet Bouchon Bakery. I have tried the leek fritters which were grata.

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about 1 year ago Inko

I just noticed that the Piglet had begun again and I read all of the reviews that have been written so far. It was addictive reading and I'm sad that I will only get one review a day from now on. The judging for all of them has seemed fair, funny and idiosyncratic. Just right. The cookbook I want to buy now is the Roots book. The one that sounds least appealing is the trendy ice cream book.
All praise the Piglet.

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about 1 year ago Rhonda35

Another well-written review! I like Meyer's methodical testing of the books and the way he came to his conclusion. Thank you, Mr. Meyer, for sharing your thought process, as well as the test cooking results, with us.

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about 1 year ago sunflourbaking

I've always been a fan of the Smitten Kitchen blog, so was anxiously awaiting the arrival of her cookbook. Alas, the recipes that she chose to enclose are uninspiring. The few that I've tried have led to relatively blah results. I will still follow Deb's marvelous blog, but will likely not turn to her book anytime soon. I'm surprised that Danny Meyer didn't chose the clear master in the kitchen as his winner.

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about 1 year ago ElizaB

I just bought both of these cookbooks. I've made one recipe from The Smitten Kitchen cookbook and it came out okay, but needed quite a few notes. But the Bouchon Bakery cookbook is so scary... I'm going to try to make bread this weekend. I think this is a great and balanced review and really showcases the qualities and problems of these cookbooks. Loved it.

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about 1 year ago Beysh

"Our experience with Bouchon Bakery’s recipes was this: a meticulous and highly arduous process most often leading to a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow." This is the beauty of the Bouchon Bakery cookbook. Finally the scone of my fantasies. (Yes, it's embarrassing, I fantasize about scones.) I made perfect peppermint patties for Valentine's Day. The internet is full of more complicated recipes for macaroons and lots of complaints about problems--while my first attempt using their recipe came out great. I appreciate what Meyer says about having to choose between two such different books-but people who love to bake shouldn't miss the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook.

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about 1 year ago Naomi Manygoats

Well, this morning I am eating my words, after eating Smitten's Baked Ranchero Eggs with Blistered Jack Cheese and Lime Crema (Huevos Rancheros are a true weakness of mine). It was delicious, and I am amazed that someone in NYC, not Texas, came up with such a killer way to make the classic dish for a crowd. Well done and I am all in now for Smitten Kitchen! I did alter it somewhat by having the black beans seperate. Crisp up some potatoes to go with it, and you are in a state of bliss. Best yet, it is vegetarian and gluten-free!

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about 1 year ago fldspr

Having cooked some of Deb Perelman's recipes from her blog (her Mushroom Bourguignon is a keeper, BTW), I've been meaning to buy her book. This is a fine review despite different extremes. More Piglet!

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about 1 year ago Batya von Berman

I blogged about that Grapefruit Olive Oil Cake and it is really terrific (it borrows heavily from Ina Garten's Lemon Yogurt Cake -- which is also scrumptious). I'm about to make the Olive Oil Cake from Bouchon. It looks spectacular as well. At the end of the day, I went ahead and bought both cookbooks...because it was too hard to choose just one! Nice review and appreciate the insight.

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about 1 year ago krissi

Interesting, love Danny came to his decision. Thank you.

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about 1 year ago Naomi Manygoats

I have to say I am surprised! Although I can see exactly why you voted as you did. It's just that every tester had issues with several of the recipes turning out well as they were written in Smitten. I love the book too, but always think of how beginning and non-experienced cooks would fare, who don't know how to make corrections. Of course, Bouchon would be out of a beginners league too, but what a valuable tool for the serious bakers in the world! Since I am about as far from their bakery as one you can get in the US, it is comforting to know that with attention to detail and time I can make these treasures at home. I hope that with the success of Smitten, the next book will be well tested before it is in print. It is a lovely book.

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about 1 year ago Chaka

I love how thorough this review is. The only disappointment is that he did not cook the recipes himself, but a fair and honest assessment it is nonetheless. Bravo.