Rants

This Cookbook Broke Its Promise

by:
May 13, 2016

It pains me to write a negative review of a cookbook.

I love cookbooks. I read Michael Twitty’s beautiful Piglet review this year describing the labor of love that is a cookbook. I recall reading Kristen Miglore’s acknowledgment of #brisketgate (a relatively minor and somewhat humorous cookbook error). I gave out personal cookbooks as favors at my wedding and I remember the distinct, adrenaline-rush feeling of panic and humiliation when I realized we had instructed our guests to throw 2 cups of chopped carrots into the Bolognese instead of 2/3 cup.

Cookbook errors are painful. I hate to be the one to point them out. But my experience cooking a dozen recipes from Heartland: Farm-Forward Dishes from the Great Midwest by Lenny Russo has, unfortunately, been one of identifying and lamenting so many errors that it seems necessary to warn others.

Having eaten many great meals during my 7 years in the Midwest for graduate school, I welcomed a book that’s about “North American Midwestern Regional cuisine.” I looked forward to gaining a better understanding of what that meant.

Heartland is a restaurant cookbook—it’s written by the chef-owner of a beloved farm-to-table restaurant with the same name in St. Paul, Minnesota—and it has all the hallmarks of one. There are complex recipes requiring equipment many don’t have (vegetable juicer), unusual ingredients (wild boar), recipes within recipes, and ludicrous quantities that made me question whether the recipes were intended for a home cook (how often does a home cook need 7 pounds of vegetable slaw?).

But I don’t shy away from restaurant cookbooks—I own and love many. The recipes in this book look and sound refined and creative: Grilled Marinated Quail with Watercress and Pickled Shiitakes, Stone Fruit Catsup, Hazelnut Ravioli with Mint Butter. I was excited to cook them.

Unfortunately, this is where the positivity ends.

Some of the errors were minor. “Crème fraîche” appeared at least twice as “crème fra che.” The Wild Mushroom Farro recipe instructs you to find the recipe for Parmesan broth on another page, when it's on the same page, directly below.

These were just sloppy and made the cookbook seem thrown together. Okay.

Then there were deeply problematic errors in weights for dry ingredients. Have you ever tried folding nearly a dozen beaten egg whites into a large blob of semi-hardened Play Doh? I don’t recommend it. That was my predicament when I realized too late that the weights for the cake flour and the cocoa powder in the Chocolate-Maple Roulade were nearly double what they should've been.

The recipe indicated that 1/2 cup of flour was equivalent to 4 ounces and a 1/2 cup of cocoa powder minus 1 tablespoon was equivalent to 3 1/2 ounces (the King Arthur Flour conversion chart lists 1 cup of cake flour as 4 1/4 ounces and 1 cup of cocoa powder as 3 ounces).

I had already stirred the weighed ingredients into my egg yolk mixture. Curse words were uttered. I took to the mixture violently with a hand mixer and eventually just used my hands to attempt to mash the whites into the rest of the batter. I managed to get it combined and poured it into a pan (size wasn’t specified in the recipe). The resulting cake was dry as you might expect and cracked when I attempted to roll it with the chocolate-maple mousse. The mousse was fine, but after using up nearly a pint of (expensive) maple syrup on this recipe, I was disappointed that the dish didn’t have more maple flavor.

Having been through that experience, I started checking other recipes. The Cranberry Shortcake recipe indicates that 1 1/2 cups of flour is 12 ounces. But 12 ounces of flour is closer 2 2/3 cups. In other places, the weights are correct (Raspberry Linzer Torte), or not listed at all (Classic Buttermilk Flapjacks). Another doesn't list cups at all (Spicy Oatmeal Crackers). It seemed that not only were the recipes not tested as written, but they were not proofread by someone with cooking knowledge.

Nearly every recipe I tried had an issue that would have been solved by better editing—some so minor that I wouldn’t mind them if they weren’t part of an overall pattern. Some were frustrating, but easily overcome. And some were disastrous (see above). I had reached a point where I just didn’t trust the recipes anymore—not a good place for a home cook to be.

The recipes I tried weren’t all disasters, though. When I'm trying a new cookbook, I look for recipes that offer me something I never thought to try: a novel combination of flavors or a method that upgrades similar dishes I’ve tried before.

Of the 12 recipes I tried, two stood out as legitimately special. The Stewed Chicken was reminiscent of a much simpler cider chicken that we make as a weeknight meal that just involves chicken, apple cider, and cream. I wasn’t sure all the extra ingredients and steps in Russo’s recipe would improve it significantly, but I was wrong. I didn't want to stop eating this chicken. The Wild Boar Ragu is pretty standard up until you add a cinnamon stick and finish it with a bunch of grated unsweetened chocolate. This is just the kind of unexpected combination that I love to find in a new cookbook. Served over polenta, it was quite delightful.

Most of the other dishes left me mildly disappointed, however. The Preserved Cranberry Vinaigrette tasted like a more refined version of the balsamic dressing in grocery store salad bars. The Black Pepper-Mint Butter, with only 1 1/2 teaspoons of mint in 1/2 pound of butter, had no detectable mint flavor when it was used as the sauce for the Hazelnut Ravioli and the sautéed wild mushrooms. The flapjacks were perfectly fine, but not better than my usual recipe for pancakes.

Once, I attempted to adapt a recipe so it was more home cook-friendly. I replaced the Crayfish Stock in the Hazelnut-Crusted Lake Cisco with Micro Greens Salad with a high-quality seafood stock purchased at a gourmet shop. I also subbed salmon for the lake cisco. The result was inedible (I should have known better). I don’t blame the book for this one, but the experience left me reluctant to tinker with other recipes.

In the end, this book confirmed the suspicions many home cooks have about restaurant cookbooks. It feels like an afterthought of a too-busy chef. Even the narrative was lacking: The six-page introduction describing Russo’s path to opening the restaurant left me wanting more of the story about the region, the food, and his inspirations. Maybe it’s that the farm-to-table story is familiar now, or it’s Russo’s modesty, but the narrative felt common, and—even with the stories in the headnotes—I’m still not sure I know what makes his story unique.

I have no doubt that Heartland the restaurant is a glorious place to eat a meal. And I have no doubt that Lenny Russo has poured his heart and soul into the food that he cooks and the food community he is a part of in Minnesota. But the cookbook does not feel like a product of his vision. It feels like a rushed side project.

When I first received the book, I was struck by Garrison Keillor’s blurb on the back. He finishes his comment by saying:

“My compliments to the chef and thank goodness it isn’t me.”

This seemed like a particularly odd thing to say about a cookbook. Shouldn’t a cookbook inspire the reader to be the chef? But after cooking from this book, I realized that Garrison Keillor had it right all along. I won’t be cooking from this book anymore. But I would love to eat at Lenny Russo’s restaurant if I am ever in St. Paul.

What has made a cookbook lose its spot on your bookshelf? Tell us in the comments!

20 Comments

Tina May 14, 2016
I'm from the midwest and I have no idea what I'd even consider to be "midwestern cuisine." I'm pretty sure we never ate any wild boar though ;) It's rare for me to find a cookbook that I end up liking more than a handful of recipes out of for whatever reason, which is probably why I get most of my recipes off the internet. The most recent cookbook I read (it was sent to me specifically to review) was actually very well written and formatted, but sadly, the recipes just weren't very good. I noticed a lot of the people writing positive reviews on amazon hadn't actually tried any recipes yet. I find Amazon reviews to be pretty hit and miss. I tend to ignore the overall rating and look for reviews with specific details about what the person did and did not like.
 
cyndi2774 May 14, 2016
I appreciate that you tried so hard to like the book and that you even express sorrow for being forced to give a negative review. It's kind of you to do both.
 
Nancy M. May 13, 2016
I live in St Paul and love Heartland. Lenny Russo is a terrific chef. I'm sorry to hear that his cookbook is so full of problems. That said, I have many cookbooks and the one I threw into the donation bin after three recipes failed is the Food 52 Baking book. To each his or her own, I guess.
 
AntoniaJames May 13, 2016
Wow, Nancy, that's so interesting. Which three recipes failed? (Two of mine are in that book . . . . ) ;o)
 
Mia L. May 14, 2016
This is clearly a friend of the author trying to take revenge ?
 
Honeylishuss May 14, 2016
Sounds like that to me too.
 
SoupLady May 13, 2016
Thanks for this review! If you are looking for a good Midwestern cookbook I recommend Amy Thielen's The New Midwestern Table (although it had a few errors in it too but nothing like what you've described in Heartland). The mistake I find most often in cookbooks is the phantom ingredient - something in the list of ingredients but no mention of what you do with it in the recipe happens and vice versa. Sometimes I can overlook errors because you can kind of McGyver it but with baking you absolutely need those weights to be correct.
 
SoupLady May 13, 2016
Ack. delete 'happens.' Sigh, it's Friday.
 
Charlie S. May 13, 2016
Let somebody else be on the bleeding edge. It's easier to wait until a cookbooks hit Amazon for 99 cents (or a few bucks) plus shipping and a minimum of thirty reviews or so when most of the errors mentioned would have been noted. But yes, used or new this cookbook isn't worth owning. It would be nice for the community of cooks if you'd post a review on Amazon so that people can avoid the expense of ruined ingredients and an evening meal they'll never get back -- both far more expensive than a cookbook (used or new). Cheers.
 
AntoniaJames May 13, 2016
Charlie, I was just going to suggest the same thing. Regardless of the number of Oooh and Aaaah comments that are everywhere when a "hot" new cookbook comes out, I find the Amazon reviews to be most helpful. People who buy books that include recipes that don't work for whatever reason (faulty conversions, incomplete/sloppy/unclear instructions, poor or non-existent professional editing, too many embedded recipes, etc.) often post detailed descriptions of the problems. <br /><br />For example, there was a critical error in "Violet Bakery," which seemed quite favorably received by many readers of the Piglet. The recipe for cinnamon buns called for a bit over one cup of flour, instead of 3 or 4+ cups, due to carelessness (and failure to test using volume measures, obviously) in converting from grams to cups for the U.S. edition. You can imagine how disappointing that was for many U.S. readers who tried to make them, but were not well versed in conversions of that kind. The point came up in several Amazon reviews. <br /><br /> I won't buy any cookbook any more, with occasional, rare exceptions, until it's been out a while and thoroughly vetted and reported on by Amazon users. Actually, I almost always get any cookbook that interests me from the library before even deciding whether I want to own it. The general quality of cookbooks in the past decade, for the reasons mentioned here, has gone into a tailspin. I work too hard to spend what I earn on poorly executed books (or poorly-made anything else, for that matter). ;o)
 
arielleclementine May 14, 2016
Good points all, but I just had to stop to put in a good word for the Violet Bakery Cookbook. The recipe you mention (which I've made and enjoyed) has grams listed as well as cups, so if you're weighing your flour the recipe will still work. It's too bad about the error, but discounting the whole book on the basis of it would be a travesty. There are recipes in this book I'll make the rest of my life. The macaroons are the best of all time (I've been meaning to write to Kristen about them!) and go beautifully with the egg yolk chocolate chip cookies (make one and you have leftover egg yolks/make the other and you have leftover egg whites) and these cookies are my favorite ever chocolate chip cookie. The strawberry ginger poppyseed scones are glorious- the strawberries are jammy and wonderful and the huge amount of ginger doesn't seem like it will work but it's perfect. The quiche fillings didn't wow me, but the crackly crust, which is completed coated in egg wash in the second stage of blind-baking, after the parchment and pie weights are removed, will forever change the way I make quiche. And there are so many more gorgeous recipes I can't wait to try. Yellow peach crumb bun, cherry cobbler, butterscotch bloodied, and a ginger molasses cake. The book is beautiful and inspiring, the recipes straightforward, simple, and mostly successful. give it a go.
 
Honeylishuss May 14, 2016
Wow! You've inspired me
 
mgordon May 13, 2016
Another cookbook editor weighing in: We try to avoid these problems by requiring the author to hire a recipe tester. Even the most seasoned chefs miss things and while our copyeditors are great, they can sometimes miss things that a recipe tester wouldn't. The more sets of eyes on a project, the better. Cookbooks are very expensive to produce, so I understand that some publishers cut corners where they can, sometimes at the expense of the reader.
 
Sara C. May 13, 2016
Where can one get this job of "recipe tester"?? I occasionally test recipes for a magazine I work on, it's my favorite part of my job!
 
mtrelaun May 13, 2016
Unless the publisher has a recipe tester on staff or a test kitchen for trying things out, cookbook editors rely on the author to vet the recipes. Errors in weights and measures, missing oven temperatures or cook times can occasionally be caught by eagle-eyed copy editors and proof-readers. More often that not, problems are discovered by the photographer and stylist during the shoot. When I was designing cookbooks, I remember getting calls like “Uh, remember that chocolate bomba that sounded so fluffy and amazing in the manuscript? It’s flat as a pancake. There’s something wrong with the recipe.” :-( So sorry the Heartland cookbook was disappointing.
 
kpfears May 13, 2016
Thank you, so very much, for your review, no matter how painful it was. I had this cookbook on my wishlist and have now taken it off. I adore cooking and consider it my therapy but this would have ruined it for me. If they have a second printing, I hope they take this review into account. Measuring errors are definitely not a good look in a cookbook!
 
Robbie L. May 13, 2016
This makes me sad. Heartland is one of my favorite restaurant memories and I do hope you will try it if you are ever in the Twin Cities.
 
mungo May 13, 2016
Strangely enough, the cookbook I've had the most disappointment with was also inspired by Midwestern-homesickness after grad school. That book was published by a small, relatively new press and I noticed this one is too. I think we underestimate the importance of an editor and publishing house in turning out a professional, reliable cookbook.
 
Niknud May 13, 2016
I have the worst case of contact embarrassment right now. That being said, I appreciate the time taken to let us know about a product that has serious flaws - I cultivate my cookbook collection with care (on account of my bookshelves not spontaneously expanding) and this would have been a major drag. Not a fun article, but an appreciated one.
 
wisekaren May 13, 2016
You are very persevering! I would have given up sooner. As a cookbook editor, I can tell you that a lot of these issues are the publisher's fault—that is, whoever was hired to do the copyediting and proofreading. When I copyedit, it is my job to make sure that nothing is missing and that everything makes sense. And when I proofread, I am looking for exactly the sorts of things you point out: a missing "î" in "crème fraîche" or an incorrect page reference. These are things that can be checked only once the book is in pages. Some publishers (not sure about this one) forgo the proofreading phase these days as a cost-cutting measure; not surprisingly, their books are often full of errors. A typo in a novel is merely annoying; a typo in a cookbook can result in lots of wasted time and money. I feel your pain.