The Piglet2015 / Final Round, 2015

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts vs. My Paris Kitchen

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

Brooks Headley

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My Paris Kitchen

David Lebovitz

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Judged by: Bill Buford

Bill Buford left his position as a fiction editor at The New Yorker to work along Mario Batali at his restaurant, Babbo, in 2005. This experience prompted him to write Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany, and to write The New Yorker column, "Notes of a Gastronome." Since then, he has collaborated with Daniel Boulud on his 2013 cookbook, Daniel: My French Cuisine.

The Judgment

David Lebovitz is a cook and a baker and a veteran of Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, who discovered his writerly voice ten years ago when he began blogging culinary dispatches from Paris on his website. You hear that voice in My Paris Kitchen. It is personal, accessible, chatty, and the book is as much an autobiography as a collection of recipes. It is also, on just about every page, a happy hymn to the City of Light. There are some inspired shorter versions of bistro classics (like slow roasting duck legs in the oven rather than laboriously cooking them in gallons of fat), and some clever insider tricks (substituting cocoa powder for blood in coq au vin, adding an egg or two to a crêpe batter to keep it from running away from you, and bourbon, beer, and ketchup in the sour-sweet French version of pork ribs).  

It also does to me what any good cookbook does to most of us who like reading good cookbooks: They make us want to make food.

In this, reading a good cookbook is different from other reading experiences. Not only does it transport you to another place (for instance, to a condition of wanting to eat food now, please), it transports you into your kitchen. 

The salt cod fritters with tartar sauce, for instance. I love salt cod (brandade de morue); why have I never fried them as fritters? Lebovitz's are killer, especially garnished with a proper tartar (mayonnaise, with equal parts chopped up cornichons, shallots, and capers). I made my mayonnaise, mainly because I will never stop being thrilled at watching what happens to egg yolks and oil when whisked together in a state of panic and fear. With the leftover mayonnaise, I made a celeriac salad. In France, I had discovered that that is what everyone does with their leftover mayonnaise: They mix it with grated celeriac. Lebovitz adds mustard, which makes the dish sing. 

I read his preparation of guinea hen and figs -- the bird cooked in a Dutch oven with wine and stock and root vegetables (with a little flour to make a roux, an old-fashioned and surprisingly happy touch). And I thought: This is what I want to eat right now. Lebovitz’s recipe assumes one guinea hen for four people, which struck me as perfectly sound, as long as everyone is skinny and doesn’t like food and you have five other courses to go with it, plus three desserts. But since I am lucky enough to have a large casserole pot I cooked two birds; and since I was making this in the winter, when there were no figs, I used apples instead, roasting them separately and introducing apple variations (cider, Calvados, cinnamon) to my pot. 

This is the kind of thing a good cookbook does. It makes you make stuff. You feel creative. And you’re not. (Even the apple variations in my pot came from another book.) And yet you are: After all, when you finish a novel -- say, something by Jonathan Franzen -- you don’t get out of your chair and make a family, do you? No. But with a good cookbook you get out of your chair and make food. 

The book is anyone’s winner, unless, like me, you happen to read Fancy Desserts afterwards. 

Wow! Where did this guy come from? And can I make sure that I follow him wherever he goes next?

Since 2008, Brooks Headley has been the pastry chef of Del Posto. Until recently, I was living in France since 2008. (Thus my insider track on what to do with leftover mayonnaise.) My not being in America is not necessarily a reason for my not knowing anything about Brooks Headley (James Beard winner, much celebrated, etc.), but it is a possible one. The fact is: I did know nothing, and had heard nothing, and therefore came to this book as a completely ignorant, uninformed, clueless reader.

And the book is wonderful.

Is it a cookbook? Yes; mainly; sometimes. The photography sucks, deliberately. The color is washed out, deliberately. It’s the opposite of food porn. It’s what you go to if you just wasted an afternoon watching the Food Network.

But is it a cookbook? There is no chapter of pastry kitchen basics -- which is curious in a dessert book -- except that here, there is no basic anything.

The recipes come at you every which way. They are sometimes complete. Some of them probably work. They are all nothing less than very idiosyncratic. And yet they are also, somehow, not arty. 

Maybe it’s not a cookbook.

From it, you might learn how to pickle strawberries (always useful). Or to search out ugly fruit (a relief). Or how to candy fennel, or to smoke your applesauce (who knew?), or to make a gelato from celery or cashews or yeast (!), and to use only with frozen peas (not fresh).

It will deepen your love for vinegar. 

But did I, could I, would I, would you, would anyone actually cook from it? 

Well, a little. I tried the Coca-Cola sauce, which doesn’t actually use Coca-Cola, but simulates it and cites no less an authority than the great Ferran Adrià of El Bulli fame to celebrate the American love of sweet and savory: A burger with ketchup and a Coca-Cola is our national treasure. "Coke is it, man. Coke is it."

I didn’t try to make the brown butter panna cotta and not merely because it would have taken three days. (Okay, maybe that was the reason, but I love the idea of it, and will try to make it, I’m sure of it, probably.) And I also liked the riffing on gelatin. Headley once hated gelatin: "Why do so many pastry chefs use so much gelatin? They rely on the stuff. They worship it! Is it all about control? I prefer being slightly out of control." (He then rediscovers gelatin, and thus the panna cotta. I love gelatin.)

I am, as I write, making the book’s version of the red pepper sauce inspired by the demon Dario Cecchini, the Satanic butcher in Tuscany.

But is this a cookbook? 

I am cooking from it. So, maybe? 

It has a lot of jokes. It has anecdotes about working with Mark Ladner, one of the genius chefs in New York -- and you can never get enough Mark Ladner. It has essays by the Headley’s friends (on sugar, or taste buds, or chocolate). 

It is humble. It is brave. It is extreme. It is wacky. It is by far and away the best anti-cookbook cookbook I have ever read. I will be reading it again and again. It is genius. Bravo, Brooks Headley!

And the winner is…

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

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Do you Agree?


Pat T. February 18, 2017
Wow - what a surprise. First that the winner made the finals and second that it won! The review shouts that it isn't well written or a cook book. I don't understand. I have to look at the other years and hope that there is more logic and significance to the decision for the "best" of the year.
beejay45 February 29, 2016
He liked Fancy Desserts? Really? Buford, in spite of his reputation, has a real knack for turning me off of whatever his subject may be, rather than enticing. Likewise, based on this review I would NEVER buy Headley's book. And that's probably a shame, because it's got a lot going for it -- Buford's lame comments to the contrary.
Elisa March 11, 2016
Agreed. 100%.
loubaby December 24, 2015
I agree with the below comments; David Lebovitz's cookbook should have surprised by your decision:????
Mary October 1, 2015
Mr. Lebovitz's book should have won...hands DOWN...NO CONTEST!
Mary October 1, 2015
Have you ever added Pernot to homemade mayonnaise and had with cold lobster and or crab? Add a little lemon juice to the fish before dipping into the mayo and it is AMAZING!! (This is another way the french use their mayonnaise). I detest store bought mayonnaise and refused to try the french version. Someone talked me into tasting it with this catch phrase, "Homemade french mayonnaise is NO WAY LIKE STORE BOUGHT!" I fell for it, and I AM SO GLAD I DID! I LOVE french food; it's my favorite. And this book is as fun to read as Julia Childs, another food artisan who writes as if you were in her kitchen, too. They BOTH write, and it's as if I CAN SMELL what they are cooking in their own kitchens. BUY THIS BOOK NOW!
cpc June 25, 2015
NO!!!! My Paris Kitchen has been a staple in my kitchen since I received it at Christmas. I rarely "read" cookbooks, I just make the recipes. This book is just so well written, that I I've read each chapter. Every recipe I've made has been outstanding. Some of these are now my favorite go to's (mustard chicken, buckwheat polenta, steak frites...). There are so many fantastic recipes that it's hard to pick a favorite.
Janet M. March 19, 2015
Based on the reviewer's description alone of the two books, it sounds like David Lebovitz's book should have been the winner. The reviewer's explanation of why he chose Brooks Headley's as the winner, does not get the message across. The reviewer liked the way Mr. Headley's book read, but did not like the photos and was not sufficiently inspired to try the recipes. However, he said that he both loved Mr. Lebovitz's voice and his recipes. Then why wasn't Mr. Lebovitz the winner?
kasia S. March 19, 2015
I bet that Lebovitz would have a better chance here if he used Buford's Coca Cola sauce in his cookbook, which then Buford would pretend to "cook".
Elisa March 11, 2016
Lol. ?
Jodi March 17, 2015
The tipsy baker almost fell off her treadmill desk and I almost fell out of my bed. That was wrong, wrong, wrong.
lalala March 17, 2015
Buford is a very talented writer and he knows a tremendous amount about cooking? So what. His review with regard to Headley's book seems rushed and does not explain very well his decision. He certainly did not cook much from the book that he chose. One coca-cola sauce and one sauce from his own book, recipe borrowed by Headley. And he should have mentioned this association.
Remember Piglet 2013 when April Bloomfield's book was to be judged by Fergus Henderson? To avoid controversy decision was made by a voice cast of other judges and Henderson only wrote what makes a good cookbook. Why not this time?
Margit V. March 17, 2015
Nyborg--maybe a mention of his past association would have been appropriate.
Diana March 16, 2015
This does not explain the win! I'd be interested in knowing how many of those who have expressed dissatisfaction with the judgement for Fancy Desserts have ever picked it up and read it. If you haven't, and you are only basing it on its dust jacket (it has none, btw), or what you've read about it, pick it up and read it. That will explain the win. Bill Buford is a very talented writer and he knows a tremendous amount about cooking and fully commits him self to a project when he takes one on, so I am sure he fully considered both books before coming to judgement.
Naomi M. March 16, 2015
kasia- wow! That sure does explain a lot, great find!
Nyborg March 16, 2015
For those who haven't written any kind of criticism professionally, it would be hard to know that a good critic stands behind what they believe no matter who they're friends with. Sometimes friends get the positive criticism, and sometimes they don't. The only time that such an independent critic compromises themselves, is when they support someone they know or have previously written about in an instance when they are not worthy. For me, that wasn't the case here.
kasia S. March 16, 2015
Well this explains the win -

pbdailey March 16, 2015
I wish the judge for this round hadn't written a whole book about working in Batali's kitchen. It just kind of makes it feel a little non-full-disclosureish.
Nyborg March 14, 2015
Loved Buford's review. Rules, even implied ones, are made to be broken.
lakelurelady March 13, 2015
I don't get it. But then I would have chosen Mimi Thorisson's "A Kitchen in France" in the first round with "Fancy Desserts". I must be out of touch with what is currently hip.
Juliebell March 13, 2015
I think this was my least favorite review. I guess all of the reviews are somewhat emotional and subjective but there seemed to be little other consideration with this one. I love cooking from DL's book and while I'm curious about Headley's book I'm not sure it will be actually used in the kitchen.
Margit V. March 13, 2015
Antonia James, you brought the whole brou-ha-ha to its core with your comment. Your wisdom is duly noted and much appreciated. Where did our collective sense of humor hide?
THEToughCookie March 12, 2015
Henry Alford's review made me want to buy Brooks Headley's book. Bill Buford's review had me slipping my credit card back into my wallet.
Chocolate B. March 13, 2015
Jennifer Reese made an interesting discovery about Buford and Headley:
hobbit2nd March 15, 2015
Wow. That's something that Mr Buford should have been upfront about. Disappointing!