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The Piglet2016 / Semifinal Round, 2016

The Violet Bakery Cookbook

The Violet Bakery Cookbook

Claire Ptak

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VS
Made in India

Made in India

Meera Sodha

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Judged by: Chris Schonberger

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Chris Schonberger is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of First We Feast, a James Beard Award–winning website devoted to exploring the intersection of food and pop culture. Formerly, he served as Associate Editor of Time Out New York's Food & Drink section, and he has written for Bon Appétit, Lucky Peach, and more. If he ever appeared on BBC Two's Mastermind (a dream of any dual citizen), his specialist subjects would be nachos and food references in rap music.

The Judgment

When I received my Piglet books in the mail—Claire Ptak’s The Violet Bakery Cookbook and Meera Sodha’s Made in India—I wondered if someone from Food52 had done a background check before tapping me for this semifinal showdown. One comes from a pastry ace in East London; the other from a self-taught cook born to Indian parents in the North of England. As a dual citizen reared on curry nights and British sweets, I imagined spending the next few weeks making sticky-toffee puddings and spotted dicks, and washing down fiery vindaloos with Kingfisher in my pint glass and Fat Les on the speakers.

Then I actually opened the books.

Turns out Ptak is not a Mary Berry type who's mad for clotted cream and Christmas trifles, but rather a California-born, Chez Panisse-trained transplant with a thing for seasonal fruits and alternative grains. Sodha, meanwhile, makes it clear from the get-go that the family recipes informing her collection are "unrecognizable from the food served at most curry houses across the UK." The index does not have anything listed for onion bhajis. 

This disconnect struck me as the difference between cookbooks and the Internet recipes I usually rely on. Online, you get a craving and you go hunting for a recipe like you're shopping for a new humidifier: firing up Chrome tabs, scanning star ratings, and wading through soul-destroying user reviews that say things like, "I replaced the lamb with tempeh and swapped in quinoa for rice…it was YUM!" Cookbooks are more confrontational. Rather than getting you from zero to boeuf bourguignon as efficiently as possible, they ask you to drop your culinary baggage and trust them. Let them into your life and you might learn something.

Since it's kind of unfair to compare curry to cake, and because my baking experience maxes out at biscuits and Yorkshire puddings, I decided that this higher calling of cookbookery would be my north star: Which book would open my mind and lure me to the stove, and which would send me slumping back into my Pret A Manger-by-day, Maple-by-night holding pattern? 

Also: Because I am currently squatting with my wife's 89-year-old grandmother, who is so New York that her oven doubles as a storage unit and her best knife looks like it was forged during the Koch administration, I decided to take this show on the road. I sent various friends and family members the "can I come over?! I'll cook [eggplant emoji]" text, ensuring both functional kitchen spaces and some help from more experienced bakers/standing mixer-owners so I wouldn't sell Ms. Ptak short. (I also enlisted the assistance of my wife, Sarah, who did most of the heavy lifting on the Violet recipes.) When the Piglet calls, ain't no half-steppin'.

Perhaps as a subconscious reaction to my baking anxieties, I dove into The Violet Bakery Cookbook first. The book has nostalgic, Kinfolk-on-a-sugar-binge allure to it, with heavy matte paper stock and carefully styled photos featuring crumpled serviettes and cupcakes that have been tipped over just so. It’s an illusion of whimsy with an undercurrent of detail-obsessed mania—much like baking! No matter—the visuals successfully make you want to eat sweets. The opening paragraph does not. Why start a pastry book by decrying the dangers of sugar and proclaiming that "eating cake involves a certain degree of guilt"? It's sort of like kicking off the Kama Sutra with a warning about genital warts. 

As I read on and learned that Ptak literally ate herself sick during recipe testing for the book, I understood where she was coming from with the Bloombergian finger-wagging. As a food writer who feels the sodium- and butter-induced sluggishness of too many meals out in New York City, I look to my home cooking to deliver flavor without the food coma. But while I was intrigued by the promise of "nourishing" recipes in Alice Waters' foreword and April Bloomfield’s jacket blurb, the book doesn't fully deliver  in practice. The options that stray from the processed-flour-and-refined-sugar formula account for less than 20% of the recipes by my count, and they're sprinkled at random into general categories like "Midday" and "Evening." That type of wholesome Trojan-horsing might work at the bakery, where people shop with their eyes, but at home I need a bit more convincing to buy a bag of spelt.

And so it was out with quinoa granola and in with the pantry-staple recipes on our tour de baking. Chocolate chip cookies seemed like a good litmus test of any pastry manual, so we beelined for the Egg Yolk Chocolate Chip Cookies, which are introduced with a convincing headnote about taking a French pastry course from Pierre Hermé and learning how removing the egg whites creates a richer cookie texture. Good lesson, solid cookies. Between my wife, her grandmother, two friends, and three coworkers, I'd say they averaged a B/B+ rating; if you like a balance between crispy exterior and chewy interior, these are for you.

While the cookie backstory made me want to follow Ptak to the pastry promised land, other headnotes were less encouraging. The introduction to the Lemon Drizzle Cake, which might otherwise seem like an easy on-ramp for the casual baker, reads simply: "All of our lemons at Violet come from the Amalfi coast of Italy. They are large and sweet and have a very thick and pithy peel." I looked at my sad, waxy haul from the supermarket and turned the page. That preciousness reared its head again in a recipe for Wild Blackberry Crumble Tart, which discusses the thrill of foraging for fruit in Hackney Marshes. "Finding these wild blackberries was one of the things that made my move to London bearable," writes Ptak. "I thought, if I could forage for wild blackberries, I could live here." So much for the National Gallery and St. Paul's Cathedral! We made ours with Driscoll's foraged from a suburban Big Y and it was delicious—tart, effortlessly instagrammable, and ideal for people who don’t like their desserts too sweet.

Ptak is more engaging when she's navigating the terrain between British and American baking. I like a dry, crumbly scone from a Marks & Spencer café as much as the next Anglophile, but her trans-Atlantic hybrid—which uses heavy cream to achieve a richer, cakier crumb—packed a ton of flavor, even if the baking time was way off and the centers came out too dense. The tradition-bucking recipe reminded me of the time I seared a beef tenderloin at Christmas and my grandmother accused me of ruining a "lovely bit of beef"; sometimes you gotta keep the old English ladies on their toes. (For the record, she had seconds.)

While no dish failed—though I'm glad we skipped the baking land mine that is the Cinnamon Buns recipe, which converts 560 grams of flour to 1 1/2 cups instead of 4 (where you at, copy editor?!)—the book is not particularly friendly toward beginners. From the scones to the so-so Potato, Mozzarella, and Thyme Tarts, most recipes we tried induced at least one moment where we wondered if we'd completely buggered it up. Was the scone dough supposed to feel so dry after kneading? Should each cookie be the size of a grape, or more like a golf ball? In fairness, I have no doubt that experienced bakers could handle most of this painlessly, but I found myself wishing for more descriptive cues about what the ingredients should look and feel like, or how they should be portioned. 

Even if she's reluctant to hand-hold the newbs, Ptak deserves props for delivering some idiot-proof recipes that give the book wider appeal. Take, for example, the Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding, an ingenious use of crusty day-old croissants whose degree of difficulty peaked at Googling "bain marie," and whose deluge of cocoa products could feed a tributary of Willy Wonka’s chocolate river. This is a convince-your-spouse-to-love-you-again type of dish; making it feels like discovering the cheat code for life.

That feeling of cooking triumph wasn't nearly so hard to come by in Made in India. Everything about the book is Ultralight Beam-level joyful—from the glossy, color-saturated photos of beet-and-feta samosas and coriander-chutney chicken, to the mom-loving personal history and passionate entreaty to make a "100 garlic-clove curry" (I didn't do it, but I respect garlic excess in all its forms). My copy is already alive in the way that a coffee-table showpiece never is: cumin seeds wedged into the book binding, pages stained with turmeric, recipes marked throughout with torn-up sticky notes. If a cookbook's greatest triumph is to become a part of your life—something you want to tell people about just like Mozart in the Jungle or the Neapolitan novels or The Life of Pablo—Sodha has done her job exceedingly well. 

I cooked seven dishes from the book over the course of a few weeks, and I would make all of them again. I grew up with jarred Patak's Tikka Masala sauce as my ultimate comfort food, and Sodha's Mum's Chicken Curry—inspired by a recipe her mother gave her to ward off homesickness when she went off to university—is my new replacement. Using whole chicken legs rather than cubed pieces yields a much heartier result, not to mention more silken, fall-off-the-bone meat. Double the recipe, cook it on Sunday, and eat it happily all week.

The excellent and super-simple Slow-Cooked Lamb and Spinach Curry was the centerpiece of two dinner parties I cooked for: one at my stepmom's place and one at my mom's. I swear this wasn't some sort of bizarre Freudian experiment to see if I could get them to love me more; the curry is just that good. The lamb came out much more tender than any rogan josh I order lazily on Seamless, and the just-wilted spinach leaves added some welcome greenery to a rich winter dish. It was even better as day-after leftovers, after the flavors had a chance to deepen. 

I love Indian food but was always intimidated to cook it from scratch, worrying that I'd never achieve the 40-ingredient spice alchemy I associate with my favorite restaurant dishes. But what impresses me most about Made in India is how it demystifies Indian home cooking: It makes it feel just as accessible as whipping up a spaghetti bolognese or making a stew. With alternative categories like "midweek meals (30 minutes or less)" and practical tips scattered throughout, it's also so much more versatile than a guide to curry night. Easy sides like Green Beans with Mustard Seeds and Ginger and perfectly spiced Aloo Tikki became off-piste accompaniments to a pork tenderloin we pulled out the freezer one day. Bombay Eggs—basically an Indian-style shakshuka—were more satisfying than any lazy-Saturday breakfast I've cooked in years.

I also appreciated that Sodha seems fully aware of what she's asking of you as a home cook. A starter kit of ground spices will get you through most of the book, but when she asks you to put in the extra effort—bashing garlic, ginger, and chiles into a paste for Oven Roasted Chicken Tikka, or starting out your pan by toasting cinnamon sticks and coriander seeds—it always pays off. Trade your useless bagel guillotine for an old-school mortar and pestle, and you'll be in business. 

Ultimately, that nudge toward new pastures was what made the difference for me. I’d recommend The Violet Bakery Cookbook as a source of inspiration for seasoned bakers, especially those with pipe dreams of one day turning their hobby into a business. But for me, Made in India delivered something more: It gave me go-to recipes I anticipate making for years to come, and it made me a better cook overall—more adventurous, more nimble with spices, and infinitely more adept at making basmati rice. Made in India gets the nomination, with chocolate-croissant bread pudding as its running mate. 

And the winner is…

Made in India

Made in India

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Do you Agree? (33 comments)

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8 months ago Lisa Walker

a crack up. Solid review.

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9 months ago Naomi Gingerich

In defense of The Violet Bakery cookbook, I have been cooking and baking out of it for the past several months. It has changed my baking game and I now have favorites I will forever turn to in that book, among them the Chocolate, Prune & Whiskey cake, the Devils Food cake, and yes, the Cinnamon buns with their incorrect cup measure (I use a scale). It's a fabulous book, reads like poetry, and am sad to see it lose this round. It was an entertaining review, though I winced at the lack of positive comments for a book that I adore.

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9 months ago Rebecca @ DisplacedHousewife.com

Love this review! This line alone, "It's sort of like kicking off the Kama Sutra with a warning about genital warts," slayed me. Hilarious. But this review is also thoughtful and helpful and definitely let's us know the strengths of both cookbooks. I could read your writing for days!!

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9 months ago Chocolate Be

Great review: witty and informative at the same time. I have been cooking from MIA for a few weeks. Started out thinking the recipes were too simple, too easy, to satisfy my craving for the different and the complex. Wrong! After making ten dishes from MIA, I am loving this cookbook so much.

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9 months ago Juliet Agg-Manning

What a fantastic review! I have Ptak's book and have to say I am with you on the alternative grains - I felt also that it was a bow to the general trend these days for recipes that call for ancient grains and thereby satisfy the food warriors of today. Also Amalfi lemons ... I haven't yet made that cake because the comment is so off putting, but I shall try it with some of the inferior citrus we get here in Kenya!
You've definitely convinced me that Made In India is a book I need, I can't wait to get a copy!

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9 months ago MRinSF

I just said I didn't think I needed another cookbook for Indian food, but I think I've been persuaded otherwise!

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9 months ago Malorie

After just holding a cookbook club and eating about 15 dishes from the book, I agree that it is an amazing cookbook. It definitely inspires you to get in the kitchen and try new things. This review is spot on--believe me, it beat the food lab for a reason!!

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9 months ago Incognito

Made in India's win over The Food Lab in the previous round sent me straight to the library. I needed to take an immediate look at the "David" who had triumphed over "Goliath." I am completely smitten. I want to cook everything in the cookbook and those dishes I have already prepared were delicious. The recipes are straightforward and the author's charm is apparent on every page. I loved the family stories and photographs! I have ordered the book! Brilliant choice and great review.

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9 months ago Christine

My boyfriend and I made the cilantro chicken and the chili paneer from Made in India last night, and both were phenomenal--easy, relatively fast, and packed with flavor. As soon as we took our first bites of the meal, I knew I needed to buy a copy of the cookbook. I'm pulling for it to win and I can't wait to cook more from it.

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9 months ago Janne Brorup Weston

YES! One can never have enough Indian cookbooks, and since I stopped eating almost all grains, baking has lost its interest.

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9 months ago ktr

I never thought I'd say I needed an indian cookbook but I feel like I do now. When he said there was a quick weeknight section I was sold. I have never cooked indian food and have only eaten it once so I just never thought about it, but now I am. Great review!

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9 months ago Savour

Made in India has won 3 rounds so far, but this is the first review of it that has made me go to the library and put it on hold - that makes me understand WHY the reviewers like it. Great review.

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9 months ago mungo

I was just thinking the same thing! I was dreading another "meh, it's okay enough to progress and I don't like the other book very much" style review, especially since it beat Violet. This is the first of the Made in India reviews to get me genuinely excited about the book!

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9 months ago Kate

"When the Piglet calls, ain't no half-steppin'." Truth.

"Why start a pastry book by decrying the dangers of sugar and proclaiming that "eating cake involves a certain degree of guilt"? It's sort of like kicking off the Kama Sutra with a warning about genital warts." Hilarious.

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9 months ago nomnomMKE

Absolutely fantastic review! Full of humor and thoughtful insight into how each functioned in the home kitchen. Chris has me totally intrigued by "Made in India" now.

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9 months ago Victoria Carr

This is an excellent funny, fair, and thoughtful review of two books I don't have. Mr. Schonberger's analysis makes me want to get both, not only the one he picked to move forward. I wonder what tomorrow holds for us piglets. It's been a real whirlwind this year; I've enjoyed the comments almost as much as the reviews.

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9 months ago Michelle

"Why start a pastry book by decrying the dangers of sugar and proclaiming that "eating cake involves a certain degree of guilt"? It's sort of like kicking off the Kama Sutra with a warning about genital warts." AHAAHHAHAHHAAAHH, dying.

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9 months ago LauriL

Yes Michelle...that's the line I cracked up on as well....my husband running into the room...whats so funny!!??

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9 months ago Erin Aguayo

no lie. first time i've laughed out loud reading the Piglet, ever.

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9 months ago cheesypennies

Agreed! Such a great read, and a very thorough and thoughtful review.

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9 months ago LauriL

Such a cleverly and hysterically written review! I voted for the advancement from round one, of "Out of India" and secretly hoped it to be the winner over all. I too have shied away from the Indian kitchen due to its plethora of spices but after reading Chris's over coming that hurdle...I'm In!!!

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9 months ago Pamela trefler

I have both books and could not agree more. The review itself was great. Funny, thoughtful and so totally spot on. Great job! Long live the Piglet.

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9 months ago cookbookchick

"Also: Because I am currently squatting with my wife's 89-year-old grandmother, who is so New York that her oven doubles as a storage unit and her best knife looks like it was forged during the Koch administration, I decided to take this show on the road." It is for lines like this that I look forward every year to the Piglet. Thank you, Chris! And thanks, too, for giving each book a fair and thorough home-kitchen test drive. Who knew I needed another Indian cookbook?? Ah yes, basmati rice with a side of chocolate croissant! (Oh, I guess I need another baking book, too.)

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9 months ago LittleKi

Great review. After the Food Lab carnage, I was wondering how this round would go. Last year, I bought too many books from The Piglet and decided to be a bit more thrifty this year. To me, Made In India was the sleeper of this competition, but this has convinced me to get my own copy.