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Brooks Headley's "Fancy Desserts" are More Italian than Fancy

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You know how some people are obsessed with stamp collections or fantasy football teams? Well, we're obsessed with cookbooks. Here, in Books We Love, we'll talk about our favorites.

Today: Brooks Headley reminds us what Italian desserts really are. And because you should love this book too, we're giving away a copy.  

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Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts  Brooks

At Del Posto, a four-star Italian restaurant in Manhattan where twinkly piano music accompanies swanky wine and some of the best pasta in town, your meal will likely end, dramatically, with someone smashing a cookie on your table. Its jagged bits will spread across white linen like an iceberg that let global warming get the best of it.

It’s wild! It’s crazy! There are cookies everywhere, an intentional mess in an otherwise immaculate setting that somehow makes sense. For this, you have Brooks Headley to thank. 

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Headley, who spent the first half of his professional life playing drums in punk bands, has been Del Posto’s pastry chef for over six years, won a James Beard award for his work there, and, this month, published his first cookbook, Fancy Desserts. Like that cookie-smashing move, Fancy Desserts leads with a bang: startling photos, pictures of bands you’ve never heard of, very little hand holding in its instruction. It hits the ground running, hoping you’ll catch up. 

And then you eat the cookie, and you read the book, and you discover more substance than you expected. You choose your favorite four-letter word to exclaim to yourself how great it all is.

More: Make these Italian almond cookies for All Saints Day.

Italian Almond Cookies

It’s easy to explain away the style and makeup of Fancy Desserts as the result of a punk rock drummer becoming a pastry chef; that’s a fun story to read. But what makes all the weird, fascinating, beautiful parts of this book come together into a shockingly cohesive and valuable whole are Headley’s reverence for Italian cooking (and those who have passed it down), his focus on simplicity and flavor over presentation or pretense, and his desire to make the book a collaboration rather than a self-congratulatory Chef Manifesto.

Headley’s recipes are more Italian than fancy. (The title came in a brainstorming session, when he and his team realized that nobody had ever written a book called Fancy Desserts. They had to claim it. How could they not?) While he does write a recipe for fennel cake garnished with pickled green strawberries (the latter he borrowed from René Redzepi), and he does ask you to use a dehydrator a few times, Headley’s recipes share more DNA with those of an Italian nonna than the sorts of chefs who turn fruit into foam. 

“It’s not about current trends,” he recently told me. “We’re just making this, like, delicious grandma food, even if it’s got olive oil or breadcrumbs or something in it. Lidia [Bastianich, part-owner of Del Posto] encourages vegetables and savory stuff [in desserts] -- not because she’s trying to be avante-garde or weird, but because it’s this Italian thing: Get really good shit and then celebrate it.” 

Fall down the rabbit hole of Fancy Desserts, and it will all begin to make sense: This is what Italian desserts look like. That cookie smashing? It’s an Italian tradition. The weirdo chocolate-eggplant dish that made such a splash a few years back? The concept has been around way longer than tiramisu -- which, you’ll quickly remember, has a whole lot of (mascarpone) cheese in it. An entire chapter dedicated to vegetables now feels a little less insane.

More: Make some gelato, then pour some olive oil over it. You'll feel very Italian.

Olive Oil Affogato

It turns out that Headley is the perfect person to be making Italian desserts. After all, Italians are a little weird (think Fellini) and a little intense (think Marcella); they are the unfussy antidote to France’s frills. 

Headley fills the spaces between recipes with stories and art that read like the inner workings of his mind, and are pulled from a number of friends and collaborators, from musicians to academics to food writers. There are hand-made posters for punk shows, accounts of what Headley ate while touring with the various bands he’s played in, and essays on everything from olive oil to sugar to what punks ate in New York in the ‘80s. 

The book is also peppered with “Profiles in Courage,” rap sheets on chefs (and one musician) like Christina Tosi and Gabrielle Hamilton. There’s a page-long essay titled “Nancy is a Genius,” in praise of Nancy Silverton. In person, he’ll gush to you about his love for Claudia Fleming and her book, The Last Course (“To this day, it’s not dated at all. Even the font [still] looks cool.”) Headley’s obsession for what he does also means a swell of respect for those who have done it well before, or alongside, him. 

Ask him what he likes most about the book, and he’ll rattle on for 20 minutes about the brilliance of Tamara Shopsin and Jason Fulford, who styled and photographed everything. (“Jason can take a normal object and make it look sinister,” he says, a perfect description of the eery, witty starkness of Fulford’s images.) 

Whipped Cream

“I knew I didn’t want to make a really serious book, because -- well, dessert cookbooks are usually kinda cutesy or just kinda straightforward,” Headley explained to me. He has a deep understanding of traditional recipes, but learned them all through cookbooks or in pastry kitchens -- never in culinary school. He taught himself to make Pierre Herme’s chocolate macarons (a recipe written by Dorie Greenspan) while working as the lone pastry chef at an L.A. nightclub. Before he started working in pastry kitchens, cooking was a hobby, and he writes his recipes with a pragmatism that gets straight to the point.

Headley describes Fancy Desserts as his “propaganda against boring desserts.” For those of us who cook, that might be the biggest takeaway from this book: That you can keep your food from being boring without trying to force novelty. 

We're giving away a copy of Fancy Desserts! To enter, tell us a story in the comments. That's all. We'll pick a winner this coming Monday, October 27!

Update: Terry Honsaker is our winner! Enjoy your copy of Fancy Desserts.

Cover images by Jason Fulford and Tamara Shopsin; photo of Brooks by Yunhee Kim; cookie photo by Emiko Davies; all other photos by James Ransom

Tags: books, cookbook, brooks headley, del posto, mario batali, throwing things