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

October 24, 2014

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.  

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts  Brooks

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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. 

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

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • LanaVuk
  • Liz LaBrocca
    Liz LaBrocca
  • christina_alexander
  • Renee
  • Terry Honsaker
    Terry Honsaker
Marian Bull

Written by: Marian Bull



LanaVuk October 28, 2014
My Italian mother thought the 4 basic food groups were garlic, olive oil, wine and chocolate ! And she made 'gravy'......... meat, mushroom, thick and yummy... not 'sauce'... gravy. It was a shock when my Grandfather passed; he would hunt mushrooms in the forest and dry them and grow so many vegetables. Red onions, walnuts, mushrooms, basil, apples and tomatoes now had to be found at the grocery store (but the taste is still to be found). I named my company after the little village, a turn in the road above Lake Lugano, that my Italian relatives left to land in New York with a monkey and accordian. Memories and smells spur me on to cook and create (why, oh why did I not pay more attention.... or at least ask for better recipes). Any recipe my mom clipped from a magazine always had 'more butter', 'more garlic' in the margins. Well, I am off for a double espresso (with a syringe please) and then to the grocery store...... I must make those Fave dei Morti for Church. Always a great audience... they HAVE to forgive you any mistakes.
Liz L. October 28, 2014
As a food writer, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I have a patient boyfriend who will wait for me to finish taking photos before he starts eating himself. (He likes to joke that dating a food writer is awesome because he gets to eat all of these delicious things, but they're usually room temperature by then.) I rarely write about baking or dessert because it's so outside my comfort zone. It's something I want to explore more, but time always seems to be find a way to prevent me. If I'm going to make desserts, I want them to be show stoppers - delicious, beautiful, and worth the effort.
Food O. October 28, 2014
Sometimes the real show stopper is simplicity. The perfect brownie with vanilla ice cream in a vintage china bowl.
Liz L. October 28, 2014
As a food writer, I spend a lot of time in the kitchen. I have a patient boyfriend who will wait for me to finish taking photos before he starts eating himself. (He likes to joke that dating a food writer is awesome because he gets to eat all of these delicious things, but they're usually room temperature by then.) I rarely write about baking or dessert because it's so outside my comfort zone. It's something I want to explore more, but time always seems to be find a way to prevent me. If I'm going to make desserts, I want them to be show stoppers - delicious, beautiful, and worth the effort.
christina_alexander October 28, 2014
Whenever I meet a man that I am particularly fond of I have the urge to bake him all sorts of fabulous things. Out come the more complicated cookbooks, trips for the best vanilla and gift boxes only to realize he isn't worthy of the trouble. But it's all good cause now I have quite the supply of ingredients ( you should see my twine collection!) and someday maybe I'll meet someone endearing enough. Or maybe the he will be a she. Ah, who knows.
Renee October 28, 2014
Baking reminds me if my grandmother and the loving smile she always had. I also love how I can show off my creatitvity through food.
Terry H. October 28, 2014
I discovered I loved to bake when my daughter in law asked me to bake her wedding cake!
leighbe October 27, 2014
I love to bake. I love to cook. I love to feed my family and friends!! I'm half Italian, and getting to Italy is on my bucket list!!! Desserts are probably my favorite thing to make!!
Anne H. October 27, 2014
My favorite memory related to italian desserts are making cannoli's with my grandma over the holidays. Can't forget that candied fruit and a dash of grandpa's expensive brandy!
Food O. October 27, 2014
Once upon the time I baked my Aunt Sylvia's Salt Butter Cookies with one (just one) chocolate chip pressed into the marble sized ball of dough. Everyone in the family and beyond loved them and continues, to this very day to debate which way the chocolate chip should go: point up or point down. Please discuss and report back to me.
Angela N. October 27, 2014
Sitting quietly in my pajamas I plan my first trip to Italy almost solely on where I want to eat each and every search of the very best dessert. The mystery continues...
Noble R. October 27, 2014
I love baking. Work at home, anytime i can. Just wish i had more time and money to open my own place.
Lutz W. October 27, 2014
Once upon a time, there was a woman who loved creating complicated desserts. She took a cake design idea, developed her own flavors, and spent 8 hours getting her recipe right. Her family loved it, but it takes so long to make, she only makes it for special occasions. An 8-hour cake is ridiculous. The end.
Liza's K. October 27, 2014
There once was a young woman who loved to bake, but needed her day job to pay the bills. Luckily, that's what small businesses are for! Hello Liza's Kitchen NYC.
Alexandra H. October 27, 2014
My favorite time is baking quietly in my kitchen, in the early morning sun, before holiday guests arrive!
Serena D. October 27, 2014
Once there was a girl who was asked to bake every weekend for her office. They loved everything, but now she is running out of ideas.
eanniejas October 27, 2014
Once there was a family who loved everything about good food. the end.
paninigirl October 27, 2014
Once many years ago I was in between jobs and I set a goal to bake every day. I was really trying to improve my skills with pie and tart doughs but ended up baking more cookies than anything!
Michelle October 27, 2014
Sometimes all you crave is a chewy, melty chocolate chip cookie. But sometimes, you find yourself in living in an East Asian country where ovens are rare and chewy, melty chocolate chip cookies are even more scarce. Then, by chance, while walking in a posh neighborhood with your mom you see a British cookie chain, run in, and devour the best chocolate chip cookie you've had in years. Craving satisfied. I'll be dreaming of the cookies for a long, long time.
notoriousBiC October 26, 2014
I worked a short stint at a Japanese restaurant. The owner wanted to authenticate the business and suggested that I adopt a Japanese name. Memoir of a Geisha had just came out in theaters that year so he suggested that I take the name Sayuri. "No one is going to remember that," I said "How about Midori." I have yet to touch the green melon concoction, but I did sell quite a few drinks.
Glenn H. October 26, 2014
As a punk rocker/industry chef/mentor/food-o-phile/global food and nutrional follower, my interest in the book "Fancy Desserts" is purely academic. Adding another book to my library is a fantastic treat that I seldom regret. By the way, a free book should always be treasured and a free book signed by the author must be truley priceless. Please note that I have never felt entitled to generosity, but rather inspired by it. I wish you many many years of further success and accomplishments.