When these two cookbooks landed on my desk, I confess that I thought it wouldn’t be a fair fight. I don’t eat a lot of meat (bonus point for Near & Far). And I don’t do much home baking (strike one for The Violet Bakery Cookbook).
Each book starts in Northern California, but they travel two very different paths from there. Heidi Swanson begins Near & Far with recipes inspired by her home in San Francisco, then she sails to Morocco, Japan, Italy, France, and India. In The Violet Bakery Cookbook, Claire Ptak applies the skills she learned in the kitchen at Chez Panisse to her unassuming bakery in East London—the very neighborhood I called home for the last two years (though I somehow never made it to Violet). Near & Far's design suggests exotic lands and Instagram filters; The Violet Bakery Cookbook goes for more direct boldface enthusiasm, with poppy colors and shiny surfaces.
Anyone familiar with Heidi Swanson’s blog, 101 Cookbooks, will not be surprised that Near & Far is vegetarian, but the cookbook doesn’t advertise its meatlessness. It can feel a bit odd to take a culinary tour of France minus the escargots, duck confit, and boeuf bourguignon. Swanson makes up for this absence with surprising combinations of flavors and ingredients. Her French madeleines are made with millet. In Morocco, she offers a bright pink cocktail of limoncello and prickly pear. Her Japanese-inspired granola includes nori seaweed and the spice mix togarashi, along with more traditional oats and nuts.
Although the ingredients can be esoteric, the recipes are generally simple—sometimes too much so. Do we really need a whole page on how to make “Poached Egg for One,” or a recipe for ginger juice? (Basically: Grate ginger. Squeeze.) The prose sometimes veers toward purple. Over dinner, my friends and I did dramatic readings. "One afternoon, while browsing a naturopathy store in Marrakech's newer Euro modern district, Gueliz, also known as Ville Nouvelle, I came across a stack of little pots of unusually fragrant saffron." The Violet Bakery Cookbook occasionally lapses into similar reveries, though they're less frequent. "All our lemons at Violet come from the Amalfi coast of Italy. They are large and sweet and have a very thick and pithy peel."
The Violet Bakery Cookbook, by contrast, is more focused. This is the story of a specific place and the influences that shape it. There are glimpses of London’s kitchen greats: Ruthie Rogers, Simon Hopkinson, Yotam Ottolenghi. And though I don’t often yearn to bake, these recipes make me reconsider my disinclination. Friands with Pistachio, Raspberry, and Hazelnuts. Apricot and Almond Cornmeal Muffins. Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding. (I suppose chocolate croissants on their own are just a little too healthy.)
So, on a bright and frigid weekend, I threw a cook-off dinner party. Near & Far took the first shift of the night: Red lentil hummus was creamy and smooth, but not all that different from the traditional chickpea stuff. The best thing about harira, the hearty North African soup, was the surprise of sweetness from chopped dates as a garnish. I'll steal that trick for other soups, thank you. A salad of Cara Cara oranges and radicchio leaned towards Asia, with mint, chopped peanuts, lime juice, and frizzled garlic. If I make it again, I'll go full-on Chiang Mai with chiles and fish sauce. A carrot sake salad was beautiful with shaved rainbow carrots and bright green pepitas. Roasted acorn squash with cinnamon and orange was enjoyable enough for a first date with a recipe, but I might not introduce it to my parents.
Then came the Violet baked goods. First, a mozzarella, rosemary, and new potato tart as a main dish. If the earlier courses received admiring applause, this produced silence. Focus. Full awestruck attention on the food. Finally, desserts. I'm not a chocoholic, and I didn't believe the world needs another brownie recipe. Until I tried Violet Bakery's rye chocolate brownies with sea salt on top. I took a bite and flashed to Faye Dunaway in full Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest mode. This is a "Don't fuck with me, fellas!" brownie. Then came the lemon drizzle loaf, a bright yellow ray of citrusy sunshine. Yin and yang. Devil on one shoulder, angel on the other.
At my dinner table, the verdict was unanimous. Just to make sure the ledger was evenly balanced, the next morning I baked a tray of Violet Bakery's Prune, Oat, and Spelt Scones for breakfast. The prunes soaked in Earl Grey tea. The scones confirmed the decision. Near & Far speaks many languages. But The Violet Bakery Cookbook speaks poetry.