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The Piglet2016 / First Round, 2016

The Violet Bakery Cookbook vs. A Girl and Her Greens

The Violet Bakery Cookbook

Claire Ptak

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A Girl and Her Greens

April Bloomfield and J.J. Goode

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Judged by: Julie Klam

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After interning for Late Night with David Letterman, Julie Klam went on to write for such publications as O, The Oprah Magazine, Rolling Stone, Harper's Bazaar, and The New York Times, and for the VH1 television show Pop-Up Video, where she earned an Emmy nomination. The author of four (almost five) books, Julie lives in New York City.

The Judgment

When I got the two cookbooks, A Girl And Her Greens by April Bloomfield and The Violet Bakery Cookbook by Claire Ptak, I noticed that Bloomfield was a Brit working in America, and Ptak was an American working in London. What this means for those of you at home is that you can speak in an English accent when you are cooking from either of these books. The other thing is that—and no offense to my friends across the pond—but English food isn’t really known for being that great; I mean, no one ever says they’re going to England for the food. So if you make something from one of these two cookbooks and it comes out crummy you can be all: “It’s supposed to be, it’s ENGLISH FOOD!”   

I always prepare people for any dishes I make to be unsatisfactory, because I’m a little bit of a nervous chef. But what I lack in skills I make up for with excuses. I have the smallest kitchen in New York City, and because of limited space, I’ve had to rid myself of many of the tools cooks can’t do without (like a Cuisinart, and an oven mitt, and a counter). Also, I’m a little bit poor, so I don’t like to buy spices that I’m only going to use once, though I did buy cardamom for one of Ms. Ptak’s recipes. The cashier at D’Agostino's thought the item was mismarked because $14.95 for a tiny jar of a spice that seems like it’s spelled wrong is excessive. I agreed with her, but explained to that I had to purchase it anyway, in the name of science. 

Back to the books: Although my sainted and beloved daughter is named Violet, I am much more of a salad person than a cookie person, so I was certain the Bloomfield book was going to be my winner.

Oh wait, I’m not done with my excuses! Also: I’m not a “foodie.” I love to eat good food, but I cook a little like the people of yore (i.e. my mother). My first clue that I was unlike the cookbook writers is that no one seems to use the big cylinder of Morton salt. The ‘special salts’ are very big with these culinarians; kosher salt, “a flaky sea salt like Maldon,” fleur de sel. Do you know how many of those special salts I had before I started doing this? Zero. (No one seems to require Jane’s Krazy Mixed-Up Seasonings, which I do have.) I want you to know this because if I complain about not knowing what something is, you can refer back to this part and not think I’m just a run of the mill dummy. I am a self-aware dummy.   

I decided to start with The Violet Bakery Cookbook because I recognized more of the recipes in there, and I was just more comfortable trying chocolate chip cookies. I know the standard Toll House recipe by heart, and here are the differences: Ptak's have a little more butter, more brown sugar than white, egg yolks only, and more salt (kosher, of course). I baked them; I loved them. They were big and buttery and crunchy. Then I adventurously moved on to the butterscotch blondies (I know, not a great leap from the chocolate chip cookies, but too bad). These made everyone in my house make the Homer Simpson donut noise. My only problem with them was that I didn’t have—and couldn’t find, in any store around me—the pan size she recommends (12- by 8-inch). I’m sure they’re on every street corner in London. I bought the closest thing I could find (about an inch smaller), and it made them extra gooey, but no complaints about that. They’re also covered in caramel shards, and I need to take a slight detour here to explain something (you might have to refer back to the dummy part now): My pet-peeve in recipes is when one of the ingredients has a page number next to it, thus directing you to ANOTHER RECIPE WITHIN THE RECIPE. For example: 

125g (4 1/2 ounces) milk chocolate, broken into small pieces 
75g (2 1/2 ounces) caramel shards (page 238)

Ptak’s blondie recipe had a recipe within a recipe, which caused me to faint dead away. Mostly when I see that, I just skip the thing entirely. Is it because I’m lazy? (Um, yeah, duh!) But in the case of the caramel shards, it was just putting water and sugar in a pan and then putting it on parchment paper (or as I like to call it, “aluminum foil”). So I was okay with that. But if it’s just that one little thing, why not leave it on the page I already have the book open to? What am I, made of bookmarks? 

After the blondies, I moved on to her Chewy Ginger Snaps, which happen to be my favorite kind of cookie. These had two optional ingredients: coriander and paprika. I optioned out, only because when I opened the coriander I had, it looked like it was in some kind of X-files larval stage and the paprika I had was kind of brownish. (Note to self: Spices go bad.) I would’ve probably bought them except this was the recipe that I had already bought the million-dollar cardamom for. They were really good, but my own recipe from my friend Rebecca’s Grandma Polly is a little better, in my opinion—I’ve actually tried dozens of ginger molasses cookie recipes over the years, so I feel confident about this. I moved on to her Banana Buttermilk Bread recipe; the only ingredient I didn’t have was rum, but I bought a tiny airplane bottle of it which did not break the bank. I have been making the James Beard classic recipe since I was 10, but I liked this one even better. I made a few extra loaves and gifted them in “parchment paper.” 

I have to say that moving to A Girl and Her Greens was welcome because I was finding it difficult to snap my jeans. Right off the bat, I was smitten with Bloomfield's prose. She has a very funny, authentic voice. She talks about being a “cranky knickers” boss, and waxes rhapsodic about vegetables in season—the latter took me right back to growing up in Katonah with our huge gardens full of perfect tomatoes (or in my Brit accent, tomahtoes). In the introduction, she talks about how much she likes her vegetables just “boiled in salty water and served with a glug of olive oil and a sprinkle of chile or a tender squeeze of lemon.” But that wouldn’t make much of a cookbook, she says, which is pretty honest and I tend to agree.

She talks a lot about finding the best vegetables and letting that determine what you are making; she recommends walking through the farmers market and selecting only what’s great. This turned out to be my biggest problem. Although I downloaded the Union Square Greenmarket app on my phone, I don't actually know how to find fabulous vegetables by sight, and it’s even more challenging in November in Manhattan. I mean if I see heirloom tomatoes (tomahtoes) in July at a farm stand in Vermont, I feel like they’re going to be good, but I cannot do that with anything else. This is why I have avocados in my kitchen that are either rocks or rotten. 

So I went to the market and bought what I thought was good— asparagus—even though I know from experience that my parent’s asparagus is done by July. So maybe what I bought wasn’t asparagus… Anyway, I made the very delicious Tagliatelle with Asparagus and Parmesan Fonduta. Bloomfield says to “salt the water until it tastes slightly less salty than the sea.” As well as tasting good, it was impressive looking even though I didn’t make the pasta myself (recipe on page 127).

After that, I spent a week trying to figure out what else to make. At the last minute I went for her Salad Sandwich, which is essentially Pullman bread with lots of veggies and salad cream. It was lovely, though my mouth had some difficulty opening wide enough to get around it and I didn’t like the click my jaw made. Next recipe: Roasted Treviso with Breadcrumbs and Gorgonzola. Except I made it without Treviso, which is apparently a type of Italian radicchio that I couldn’t find anywhere.  I just used radicchio. It was pretty nice even though the pine nuts required a mortar and pestle, which I don’t have because I’m not a turn-of-the-century-chemist. 

The final recipe I wanted to try was Vegetable Crisps with Red Za’atar. (Other than overusing “Za” in Words with Friends, I had no idea what it was.) The special equipment required for this read like a who’s who of things I don’t own: deep fryer, check; mandoline, check; deep-fry thermometer, check; splatter screen, check; and a spider, which I do have in my bathroom, but I have the feeling that isn’t what she meant. So instead I read the recipe a lot, but didn’t make it—but I wish someone else would and send me some.

If I’d been testing A Girl and Her Greens in the summer and I had a great big kitchen full of equipment—and a different kind of spider—I would’ve championed it. As a book to read, I loved it: She is adorable and a riot and I even overlooked her having a dead pig around her shoulders on her first book cover. But making the food was just not working for me. I, along with my small kitchen and my one kind of salt, take responsibility for this, but I just kept going back to Ptak's book and cooking more and more. The recipes were familiar, but still interesting—which is why I will declare the winner The Violet Bakery Cookbook

And the winner is…

The Violet Bakery Cookbook

The Violet Bakery Cookbook

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Do you Agree? (107 comments)

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9 months ago Andrea

I like this review. What people here seem to be forgetting is that things don't always turn out your way: Sometimes with recipes, sometimes with the chosen author of a piece. Food52 gets to pick their writers. The one thing I enjoyed most about this review is the writer's honesty. Not everyone has a big kitchen, all the salts, or knows where to get what ingredients. She says she isn't a foodie. Cookbooks are not purchased only by expert cooks - they are purchased by a lot of people with different life experiences. Cookbooks are inspiring and these days they are beautiful, that only snobbish kitchen know-alps get to have a say in what they like it used is silly. I think Food52 has done a great job of letting a new, unashamed, not fancy cook make a decision. It's insightful. Ya'll should stop your whining. (Also I have and love both of these cookbooks. Not a fan of the heading fonts in April's but that's just me).

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9 months ago Andrea

*know-alls

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9 months ago Andrea

*like and used

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9 months ago Dave Webster

I'm sorry. I don't know how my comment came out three times and I wish some one would remove two of them.

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9 months ago Dave Webster

So here are two people who wrote cookbooks and put themselves on the line. (Read Yotam Ottolenghi about that)

And here are some readers who enjoy food and things related to food. They enjoy all or some of these things: eating food, preparing food, reading about food, reading about the people who prepare it professionally and learning about where the unusual food comes from.

And these readers buy cookbooks, many more than they need. So many of them are reading the Piglet to see what's next for their enjoyment.

And you turned all this over to an airhead who:
1) thinks this is all a hoot, and
2) thinks it's a good opportunity to write about her wonderful self.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot

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9 months ago Dave Webster

So here are two people who wrote cookbooks and put themselves on the line. (Read Yotam Ottolenghi about that)

And here are some readers who enjoy food and things related to food. They enjoy all or some of these things: eating food, preparing food, reading about food, reading about the people who prepare it professionally and learning about where the unusual food comes from.

And these readers buy cookbooks, many more than they need. So many of them are reading the Piglet to see what's next for their enjoyment.

And you turned all this over to an airhead who:
1) thinks this is all a hoot, and
2) thinks it's a good opportunity to write about her wonderful self.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

9 months ago Dave Webster

So here are two people who wrote cookbooks and put themselves on the line. (Read Yotam Ottolenghi about that)

And here are some readers who enjoy food and things related to food. They enjoy all or some of these things: eating food, preparing food, reading about food, reading about the people who prepare it professionally and learning about where the unusual food comes from.

And these readers buy cookbooks, many more than they need. So many of them are reading the Piglet to see what's next for their enjoyment.

And you turned all this over to an airhead who:
1) thinks this is all a hoot, and
2) thinks it's a good opportunity to write about her wonderful self.

Whisky Tango Foxtrot

23b88974 7a89 4ef5 a567 d442bb75da04  avatar

9 months ago carol morris

I agree with all the comments about a bad match and the author not understanding her audience. My response? I just bought April's book.

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9 months ago Morningside Heights

Julie Klam is an engaging writer, but I think she does not understand her audience here at Food52. Why pick a writer who doesn't know how to cook, doesn't even seem terribly interested in food, and seems annoyed/perplexed by the idea of a mortar and pestle, or coarse sea salt!? Can we have a rematch for Bloomfield's excellent book because I fear a pearl has been cast before swine here. Again, no offense intended toward Julie but I don't think she was the right person to write this review. And by the way, her notion of English food is out of date. I'm not sure if she's been to London lately but the food scene there is very vital (Ottolenghi, the Gastropub food movement, lots of very exciting things happening over there from a food standpoint)

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9 months ago mtrelaun

Her comment about English food made me peevish.

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9 months ago kasia S.

Another disappointing review, Julie has an impressive bio but she makes it seem like she's on borderline poverty with not much but a bowl and a spoon her house. And no slat, I mean really?

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9 months ago kasia S.

*SALT

you guys need an edit button

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9 months ago RahChaChow

This review was great fun and it started my day with a smile. The Piglet is an entertaining way to get exposed to new cookbooks, and I'm sure the cookbooks featured get an uptick in sales whether or not they move on in the competition. There's no way to scientifically compare two disparate cookbooks and if you did, reading about it would likely be boring as hell. I'm a fan of Piglet. Keep the entertaining reviews coming!

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9 months ago Sauertea

Jarrad, I agree with your comment about the timing for revieiwing books which are heavily dependant on seasonal produce. Saving the Season, by Kevin West was hampered by the same problem, as many of the recipes were dependant on summer fruit. I love both of April Bloomfield's books.

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9 months ago JK

Strongly disagree with the verdict, but Julie brings up a very relevant point.

Season of review might bias against certain seasonal books.

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9 months ago Sauertea

I have thought a lot about this review before deciding to comment. Last year, I was somewhat disappointed by the final selection of Brooks Headley's Desserts over David Lebovitz's My Paris Kitchen. My reaction to the review otf these two books is similar. The review, as others have stated, seemed to focus more on the prelude to cooking and the search for the ingredients than on the actual recipes themselves. Additionally there seemed to be a number of throw away lines about not having the right ingredients or tools and as a result the reviewer chose to do something different. Baking, in particular, is more like a science and less forgiving. It seems to me that the reviewer should have prepared to test these books by having those implements to allow for thoughtful testing and evaluation. By contrast, the review by Brookes Headley did just that. His review of Seven Spoons and My Kitchen Year allowed for a well considered selection of My Kitchen Year. While nature of the Piglet probably ventures into the realm of the subjective and personal preference, it seems to me that a serious approach to the recipe testing is needed. That being said, these two first round reviews have made me want to revist Fancy Desserts and see if maybe I have underestimated Brookes Headley.

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9 months ago Threemoons

More on this later, but just a quick note before I go off my lunch break: Do NOT whine about high spice prices at Manhattan chain supermarkets when there are two major resources nearby: One is called Queens, as in the entire boro. I can get a 6-oz bag of incredibly fresh (high turnover) ground cardamom--both the green and black varieties--for around a buck fifty at the Trade Fair near me in Astoria. The second is called the Internet. On the latter point, let me point you towards Penzys, already mentioned, and an even better pick in the form of World Spice Merchants. WSM is AMAZING, has many rare blends available both whole and ground to order, and best of all, you can get almost anything in amounts as small as 1 or 2 ounces. Anyone who goes into Kalyustan's for anything is going to get ripped off.

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9 months ago SNNYC

Even Kalustyan's (and the store next door which imo has fresher spices) and Dual Spice would be cheaper than $15 though. And all in Manhattan. I believe Sahadi's in Brooklyn has decent prices, too. Completely agree on Queens, but hey, I'm used to people from Manhattan not stepping foot in my borough under any circumstance.

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9 months ago SNNYC

Oh, and yes, I love WSM as well as The Spice House!

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9 months ago Madeline

I live in Brooklyn, the outer edge of Bushwick, to be more precise. I would never blame someone to not venturing to another borough for spices. It may be a few dollars cheaper but you spent 5 dollars getting there and back AND lost and hour (minimum) of your life to the MTA. Either way those spices cost a pretty penny.

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9 months ago SNNYC

But the point is she didn't have to venture out to another borough. As I mentioned both Kalustyan's (which is overpriced compared to other places), and the store next to it, and Dual have cardamom for less than what the reviewer paid. Not to mention there are other spice shops all throughout Manhattan.

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9 months ago beejay45

As many other commenters, I enjoyed the review, but once again it's apples and oranges. How can any reviewer, no matter how skilled a cook they might be, give a really unbiased comparison of two such disparate books.

I, too, was offended by the comment about British food. This was a common perception/joke in the post WWII years because of how the cuisine had been reduced to its lowest common denominator by food rationing during the war and in the post-war recovery years. This hasn't been true for a very long time, and I wish people would get over it.

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10 months ago Krysia

A note to Julie about her aged spices: Replace them overtime, but not by buying them at those overpriced markets in New York. Bad and old spices will ruin your cooking and baking.

Order them at Penzeys. I am lucky enough to have a store within 5 miles of my house, and since they opened a few years ago, I have replaced all my spices with theirs. They are astonishingly potent and fresh, vastly cheaper as well as better than grocery store spices, and can be purchased in a number of sizes, including a small jar holding 1/4 cup. If you'd bought your ground cardamom at Penzeys, you'd have paid $8.55 for it. If you buy $30 worth of spices from them online, the shipping is free.

If you can manage to take a field trip to one of their stores, you will be able to smell each and every spice and herb they have. And they have everything you can think of, and plenty you've never heard of, except for ras el hanout. And your beloved, old-timey Jane's Mixed Up Seasonings, of course.

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10 months ago LRSZ

I am sorry, Food52, but this review is entirely disappointing! The writing itself is entertaining, engaging, and well-crafted. The issue is that most readers of Food52, myself included, are enthusiastic and practiced home cooks. We know what cardamom is and it isn't a surprise to us that spices go bad. It isn't particularly helpful for me to read a review of a pair of cookbooks written by someone who not only doesn't know very much about cooking, but doesn't seem to enjoy it. What is the point of using reviewers who have such a low level of knowledge about food and cooking? It seems as though the reviewer sold A Girl and her Greens short, not because it is a bad cookbook, but because she wasn't a good enough cook to understand or enjoy it. Between this and the similar mis-handling of Mamushka, I'm really falling out of love with the Piglet this year. Food52: Please listen to these reviews and think wisely (and with your readers in mind) about whom you choose to write your reviews next year.

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10 months ago Selkie

Any chance we could invite Bloomfield's book back for a first-ever Piglet Rematch Smackdown? While I, too, found this review entertaining in its way, it also made me cringe, and my contact embarrassment for the author is at about an 11. I would love to read a more in-depth, balanced opinion in this case, rather than trope after tired trope.

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10 months ago breakbread

The Piglet is fun but each year seems to digress into a muddle of an attempt to match not only cookbooks but like-minded reviewers with books. What was the rationale for judging these two great, yet unlikely books together? And the reviewer can write but not cook? Unfair to both Food52 readers and the authors of the cookbooks. Silly review.

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10 months ago Erin Aguayo

Oh, this is sad. A Girl and Her Greens is a groundbreaking way to approach vegetables and savory cooking. The Stewed Squash (if you can get past the name) was a recipe that changed my life last summer, and has me dreaming of this coming year's glut of squash. There are so many wonderful cookie and cake books...this one didn't sound that different, but rather a novelty to a reviewer that hasn't read a lot of the others.