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The Piglet2016 / Quarterfinal Round, 2016

Near & Far vs. The Violet Bakery Cookbook

Near & Far

Heidi Swanson

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The Violet Bakery Cookbook

Claire Ptak

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Judged by: Ari Shapiro

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In 2015, Ari Shapiro joined Kelly McEvers, Audie Cornish, and Robert Siegel as a weekday co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine. Ari has reported from above the Arctic Circle and aboard Air Force One. He's covered wars in Iraq, Ukraine, and Israel, and he has filed stories from five continents. (Sorry, Australia.) 

The Judgment

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.

And the winner is…

The Violet Bakery Cookbook

The Violet Bakery Cookbook

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Do you Agree? (52 comments)

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9 months ago Vivian Henoch

Genius. . . turning judgment into a dinner party and such an entertaining review. Not sure I "need" another cookbook devoted to baking, but I'm inclined to get this one, if for nothing else but the new potato tart. Ari, I'm a fan.

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9 months ago Naomi Manygoats

I am eating vegetarian to fight cancer, and gave up gluten. So I will check our Near and Far! Thanks!

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9 months ago David

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). ...then WTF are you doing reviewing cookbooks?

Anyway, I have the violet bakery and agree with review, it's a great book!

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9 months ago Elisa María González

Brilliant review. And I agree.

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9 months ago AP

Disappointed to read the snark in this review as I assumed Ari to be more thoughtful and graceful than revealing cattiness over the dinner table with fiends. Unfortunately, this muddied anything astute he may have discerned. I have both books and have folded Near & Far into my weekly repertoire of review and inspiration before a trip to the store. The Violet Bakery may make an appearance on special occasions but its certainly not in regular rotation and feels too mired in the 'Chez' diaspora. PS. Heidi would never use Instagram filters, Ari. Thats what actual film looks like.

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9 months ago Zoe

Snarky reviewer? Snarky commenter. Pot. Meet kettle.

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9 months ago AP

Yes, you got me. Not unaware that snark begets snark, as your comment further illustrates. Shall we nip in the bud here? Happy to concede. I don't really understand the premise of this book contest anyway; totally unrelated books pitted against one another, judges that seem more about celebrity than expertise, and all in a forum of theatre that feels insensitive to the actual creative work that goes into the writing and execution of such work.

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9 months ago Morningside Heights

I didn't find the review to be too snarky, however I see where you might have drawn that conclusion. You are right about the judges being more about celebrity than expertise. This review and those of Julie Klam and Walman/Chabon just can't hold a candle to what someone like Phyllis Grant (nonfamous but eminently qualified writer/reviewer) brings. That said, I did not dislike this review and though Ari Shapiro's idea of throwing a dinner party throw down was a nice touch. He definitely put some effort and thought into his process and I enjoyed reading it although I wouldn't take his word for which cookbook was better.

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9 months ago EmilyS1220

I think I've come to terms with Ptak's first round victory after this really great review! This made me really consider ordering a copy.

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9 months ago lilroseglow

I'm glad. I've always felt Heidi and her blog is a bit pretentious. (I think the reviewer here agrees with my impression.)

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9 months ago Janne Brorup Weston

You got it, Lilroseglow

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9 months ago Fresh Tomatoes

Wow! That was quite a review! And it came from someone who isn't a big baker. I'm seriously reconsidering buying this book, although since its written by someone who worked at Chez Panisse I'm not all that surprised.

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9 months ago Naomi Gingerich

Oh yes! I have baking from the Violet Bakery cookbook for two months and am in love! Her Chocolate Prune and Whiskey cake is my favorite!

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9 months ago Naomi Gingerich

Oh yes! I haven baking from the Violet Bakery cookbook for two months and am in love! Her Chocolate Prune and Whiskey cake is my favorite!

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9 months ago Naomi Gingerich

Oh yes! I have baking from the Violet Bakery cookbook for two months and am in love! Her Chocolate Prune and Whiskey cake is my favorite!

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9 months ago Naomi Gingerich

Oh yes! I haven baking from the Violet Bakery cookbook for two months and am in love! Her Chocolate Prune and Whiskey cake is my favorite!

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9 months ago Veronica Fung

I love this review and I LOVE Claire's book. The mozzarella rosemary and potato tart just made it to the top of my to-make list. Will be rooting for this book! (And Diana Henry's brilliant A Bird in the Hand)

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9 months ago Kat

I LOVE this book, the choc chip cookies have replaced my previously standard and revered recipe- the yolks are genius. Make. These. Cookies.

Each recipe I've made has produced wonderful results! Great book Claire!

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9 months ago Mrs Beryl Patmore

Does anyone know if the edition being sold by Food52 includes corrections to the numerous errors in the first edition, especially with respect to ingredient amounts? Apparently there were some pretty egregious mass to volume conversions, e.g., saying that 560 grams of flour is 1 1/4 cups, instead of 4+ (Cinnamon Bun recipe). I always look at the Amazon reviews for new cookbooks, because if there are problems with insufficient testing, unclear instructions or sloppy editing, you will hear about it, in detail, in the reviews. At least one edition of this book has caused a lot of problems for people who baked from it. http://www.amazon.com/gp...

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9 months ago stefanie

I just took a look at my copy and it doesn't even have volume measurements. Sounds like after it was published, someone tried to make it more marketable in America and didn't do their due diligence. Weight measurements so far have been spot on.

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8 months ago chez la mere

hmmm...just picked up Violet Bakery from the weekly library haul. This copy has both volume and weight. The 560g (1 1/2 cups) flour. When I try this recipe I'll add much more cinnamon. A bun can never have tooooo much cinnamon and sugar in my oppinon

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9 months ago Barbara Martin

Now THIS is a review. Thank you!

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9 months ago Pastraminator

After reading this lovely review, i revisited Violet Bakery Cookbook for recipes for which Ari Shapiro mentioned. I took notice of Mozzarella Potato Tart, I noticed they had a labeled image of tart that looked rather soupy. I was rather confused because I didn't see any mention of size of tart pan in recipe which the image also showed. I then noticed there was giant green leaves in labeled photo which recipe didn't have either. I have the ibook version of Violet Bakery so i don't know this is the same for the hard cover version but the image is mislabeled and I think it's the quiche photo. The potato tart image, I'm assuming, is next to and along withTomato Marjoram tarts. I just wanted to give a heads up in case anyone else got confused and not to take away from the recipes which i am still going to make. Thank you Ari Shapiro for a delightful and inspiring review.

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9 months ago Andrea

The pic of the "soupy" quiche is a photograph of it before it's cooked. The giant green leaves are sage leaves which are listed at the bottom of the Squash, brown butter, and sage quiche. (In the printed book).

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9 months ago Pastraminator

lol, Andrea i got that, I was just commenting that in the ibook, that image is mislabeled as the potato tart and it took me a bit to figure out it was the quiche.

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9 months ago Andrea

Ah I see - in the print book it comes before the recipe. I get it!

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9 months ago Annie

Loved this review! I really want to cook out of The Violet Bakery Cookbook now! This review shows that the reviewer doesn't have to come from a food background to write an informed and thoughtful review, and Ari Shapiro definitely didn't sacrifice entertainment either. I especially loved the last line : "The scones confirmed the decision. Near & Far speaks many languages. But The Violet Bakery Cookbook speaks poetry."

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9 months ago Tippy Canoe

Thanks for this review! I own and love Near & Far, but now I want to cook out of the Violet Bakery Book.

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9 months ago ItsBrooksie

Very entertaining account, thanks Ari! I have Near & Far, and have only made one dish from it so far -- the Grated Cucumber Salad -- but it was very good. I agree with Ari that some recipes are simply too basic. I think I will get The Violet Bakery Cookbook now -- how can you pass up food poetry!