The Piglet2018 / Quarterfinal Round, 2018

BraveTart vs. Bangkok

BraveTart

Stella Parks

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Bangkok

Leela Punyaratabandhu

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Judged by: Tim Gunn

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Tim Gunn is the Emmy winning co-host and mentor for 16 seasons of Lifetime’s cornerstone series “Project Runway,” where he also acts as one of the show’s producers. Gunn is also an executive producer, mentor, and co-host of “Project Runway Junior.” A member of the administration and faculty at Parsons School of Design for 29 years, he was appointed Chair of the Department of Fashion in 2000. Currently, he voices the character Baileywick on Disney Channel’s hit animated series “Sofia the First.” Gunn devotes a good deal of his time to charitable organizations, especially those with a focus on domestic violence, AIDS awareness, and GLBT issues. He resides in New York City.

The Judgment

I live in New York City, so people don’t believe me when I tell them that I don’t eat out. Well, my claim is not entirely true. On most mornings, I go to my local diner for breakfast—two scrambled eggs, two pieces of turkey bacon, and coffee. I read my digital New York Times and get briefed on the nation and the world, something that I wouldn’t indulge in if I were home. Anyway, I’m getting off topic.

Back to not eating out… I love to cook. It’s therapy for me. I pour a glass of wine, roll up my sleeves, and go at it. I live alone and tend to cook for just that particular night. This means that I’ve taken many recipes and adapted them as single-serving meals. I’m all about comfort food: meatloaf (I use a recipe of Craig Claiborne’s that calls for flattening the meat mixture into a one-inch-thick rectangle, covering it with grated cheddar, and rolling it up like a pinwheel—delicious and so easy!), chili (yes, I use a seasoning packet), roast chicken (easy and always good), and pasta (myriad combinations of shapes and sauces).

 

You can see that "easy" is appealing to me. And it’s not just about easy recipes, but easy ingredients and easy cleanup, too. When it comes to cleanup, I’ll admit to being a trifle OCD; that is, I get unnerved when there’s a mess anywhere in my apartment, especially the kitchen. I’ll also admit that I clean any used pots/pans/dishes and utensils before I eat. And, although I have a lovely dishwasher, I wash my dishes in the sink, dry them, and put them away each night. I couldn’t have a sound night’s sleep otherwise. (And, yes, the first thing that I do each morning is make my bed.) I’m laughing to myself—all of this probably accounts for why I live alone! 

Now, a little about my tastes. I never use salt. Period. I think I must have an over-salted system, because neither the need nor the desire to add it ever occur to me. And does salt have a shelf life? I ask this because I’ve had the same salt cellar for at least ten years. (Google tells me, “If it’s in an air-tight container and in a dark place, then it can last for years.” Phew!) Second, if a food comes from water, then I’ll only eat it if has had or still has a shell; I get squeamish with fish. And no organ meat for me: in my mind, offal is awful.

So as a judge, I’m rather specific. But I am who I am. All this being said, with Bangkok and BraveTart in hand, I was excited to try something new. 

I love Thai food, and Bangkok by Leela Punyaratabandhu is a gem. She opens with a fascinating and very personal history of Thai cuisine. Her writing allowed me to almost smell the food markets and taste the ingredients. Likewise, each recipe has a substantial narrative filled with cultural context, tips and serving suggestions, and smart advice to avoid potential missteps. Additionally, the photographs of Bangkok and its environs, along with the plated dishes, are stunning. This book makes a perfect gift for any cook, anyone traveling to Thailand, and anyone who is a fan of Thai food.

As discussed, I’m a fan of Thai food, and Bangkok has only enhanced my appreciation of it. For one, Punyaratabandhu’s cultural and contextual material tells you everything you should want to know about what you’re eating. Two, the incredible care and finesse involved in preparing Thai food make it all the more gratifying to eat.

Let me begin by sharing the first recipe that I made, 24-hour Chicken Matsaman Curry. Upon reflection, this dish is hugely ambitious and I was foolhardy to attempt it. But things happen for a reason and executing this recipe taught me loads. At the top of my learning curve was the following: listen to Punyaratabandhu and obey. I didn’t. She says that this recipe cannot be scaled down. Ha!, I thought. She doesn’t know me and my proclivity for downsizing almost every recipe that I encounter. Second, don’t assume that you can make substitutions for ingredients or leave them out altogether. I did. Third, don’t alter the cooking directions. I did this, too. Specifically, I broiled instead of fried the chicken to brown it. (I don’t fry—spattered oil everywhere.) 

The recipe calls for 16 chicken thighs, which I downsized to four. Correspondingly, I basically cut every other ingredient by 75%. This “cutting” proved to be a regrettable rationale; for example, two tablespoons of galangal became zero. Likewise, I made substitutions for other ingredients: cardamom pods (I used powder and guessed the amount), lemongrass with purple rings (I used the lemongrass that I could find, sans purple rings), and mace blades (I used ground nutmeg). Unable to find palm sugar at both my fabulous local specialty food market and in Chinatown, I left it out. 

Let me fast-forward: The dish as I prepared it was just okay from my point of taste, but not something that I would serve to guests. My radical tweaks ended up diminishing the desirable sass and gusto from Punyaratabandhu’s original dish. But I learned loads, as I said earlier—namely, not to tweak. I also learned that the Internet has all of the ingredients you need—cardamom pods, galangal, and mace blades. However, the prices can be dear….

So, going forward, I searched Bangkok for recipes that I had the ability to make. 

 

This led me to Poached Chicken on Rice with Soy-Ginger Sauce. This was my second recipe and with very few exceptions I followed it literally. I had never poached a chicken, and Punyaratabandhu’s directions were excellent in guiding me, though also a bit labor-intensive (thankfully, I work from home). While preparing to make the sauce, I misread the recipe and thought it said, “chop the ginger, garlic, and chiles into pieces about the size of a matchstick.” No, it said “match head.” I had already chopped them into matchsticks, and it struck me as self-flagellation to make them that much tinier, so I just cut the matchsticks into thirds. The thirds were small enough. And I bought some Thai seasoning sauce in lieu of  Thai “thin” soy sauce, since my local store had only the former on hand. Making the rice was relatively easy.

Having not come across a winter melon in my shopping excursions, I dared not substitute it with anything else. But when I understood that this melon was a companion to a sipping broth, I said “forget it” to the sipping broth; it was a mere enhancement and not a necessity. But then I felt guilty of cheating, so I sought redemption in trading out the recipe’s simple, unadorned sliced Cucumber Garnish for something a bit more involved from Punyaratabandhu’s repertoire. Her Cucumber Relish was the easiest of all the recipes I tried, though I’ll confess that I don’t remember what chiles I used. They were the chiles at the market. And they worked, at least for me. 

Verdict: I loved the poached chicken. It was succulent and tasty and made for a winning textural counterpart to the rice, which was also tasty. For me, the cucumber relish really made the dish into a triumph. It brought spice and zest to everything. Finally, owing to the fact that I had a 3.5 pound bird, I ate this over several nights. The second night, I heated the rice, but served the chicken cold from the fridge, as I did with the relish. A new level of deliciousness! I had it cold from then on.

Next, I made the Spicy Corn Salad. This salad piqued my curiosity, but also presented a challenge, because corn isn’t in season. I bought frozen cobs and treated them as fresh, but the kernels did not hold together well when slicing down the length of the cob. I opted for frozen kernels instead and just let them be what they are. Likewise, the green beans I bought frozen. I was respectful to all of the other ingredients, though, and mostly to the method. Frankly, I really believe that Punyaratabdandhu’s directions to chop many ingredients down to the size of match heads is excessively labor intensive and does little to enhance flavors or presentation (says me, the person using frozen foods—ha!). I roughly sliced and diced everything, and all was well.

I enjoyed the flavors and textures of the spicy corn salad. I’m eager to try it in late spring/summer when fresh ingredients are available. We’ll see if there’s a palatable difference.

Bye for now, Bangkok

On to BraveTart by Stella Parks. By practice and taste(buds), I am neither a baker nor a dessert person. (Full transparency: I lack the self-discipline to control my intake of sweets; that is, one Krispy Kreme donut is too many and a dozen aren’t enough, so I tend to stay away altogether.) I’d just left Bangkok behind—I’m terrible at multitasking, so I couldn’t work from both books simultaneously. BraveTart took me right back to my childhood and conjured all of the treats I loved. The book triggered some of my fondest memories. Furthermore, the clarity of Parks’ writing, along with the fantastic “troubleshooting” tips or “key points” that accompany each recipe, made execution fulfilling and…fun! I felt like I was in high school science class finishing a fabulous experiment before the bell rings. What really sent this book over the top for me was the history that Parks provides. Making these recipes made me feel as though I was part of a great and distinguished legacy. And who knew that the falling price of chocolate at the beginning of the twentieth century would be responsible for its eventual ubiquity?

When I first perused BraveTart, I made the decision to stay away from candies and ice creams—too complex and/or too equipment-needy for me. I decided to stick with pots and pans and baking sheets that I already own. Wait a minute, what am I saying? I went out and purchased a stand mixer and a stainless steel saucier, along with a flour sifter, a piping bag, and parchment paper. After that, I figured that enough was enough. 

I started with the Silky Chocolate Pudding. Confession: I really wanted to make the DIY Banana Pudding, but the recipe called for the amalgamation of three other recipes in the book, and I couldn’t cope with that. I love banana pudding, but… 

Then I saw the Silky Chocolate Pudding, which didn’t require venturing off the page. Prior to this experience, the only pudding that I had ever made was Jell-O Instant. Diving into this recipe, I thought that I must be a glutton for punishment. But no! It was easy-breezy to execute and exceptionally good. It was a Mona Lisa compared to paint-by-numbers (Jell-O). I hit neither snags nor hiccups. However, Parks’ assertion that “any percentage [of milk] will do,” eluded me. Really? I used whole milk thinking that this recipe is so rich, why dilute it? In any case, I chilled the pudding for half a day and fully intended to eat one serving a night for four nights. HA! I ate three portions in one sitting, accompanied by a bottle of champagne. I’ll repeat: exceptionally delicious and sublime.

May I also add that a stand mixer is really easy to clean.

Next, I tried my hand at Homemade Fig Newtons. I was hesitant about trying this recipe, because Fig Newtons are my very favorite cookie. And if it’s not broken, why fix it? When I scanned the recipe, the real seduction was the no-cook filling and my belief that it would be fairly easy to execute. It was…and it also wasn’t. My first attempt was a bust; the Mission figs were so sticky that they adhered to the blades of the food processor. Despite my repeated scraping, they just wouldn’t amalgamate with the applesauce (I chose sweetened) and orange juice. I started over with new ingredients, this time adding the figs a few at a time, whirring until they were fully blended before adding more. Success! The dough was no-nonsense. But I didn’t understand the rationale behind taking a 15-inch square of dough and cutting it into four 3 ¼-inch-wide strips. I cut five 3-inch strips, thereby reducing the math challenge and yielding more cookies.

After baking, as throughout, it’s very important to heed Parks’ directions: let the cookies rest for six hours so that the steam can bring moisture back into them and allow them to “mature.” I snuck a taste right after they left the oven, and what I tasted was a dust ball. But, true to Parks’ recipe, after six hours, I had Fig Newton heaven. Divine.

Next, I wanted to diversify my BraveTart experience by making a cake. I jettisoned my first two choices. Effortless Angel’s Food Cake sounded anything but. The tips and troubleshooting scared me away. So, I turned to White Mountain Layer Cake with Marshmallow Buttercream, but after reading Parks’ note about the importance of the ingredients being at a certain temperature, I fled. I decided to attempt something a little less inhibiting.

The Buttermilk Biscuits with Strawberries and Cream caught my eye. This is Parks’ version of strawberry shortcake. It’s a dream to make and even dreamier to eat. However, I took a huge risk: it’s winter and there are no fresh strawberries to be found in New York City. So, I used frozen ones and loved the result (though I don’t have a fresh strawberry version with which to compare it). Parks’ whipped cream was perfectly foolproof, with just the right amount of sweetness. 

Regarding the biscuit preparation, I was a bit concerned that I don’t own a cast iron skillet, because Parks recommends one. But she says that a cake pan can be substituted, which is what I did. In troubleshooting, she also writes that these biscuits turn brown quickly and to let them bake longer than you’d expect. She’s right—the tops of my biscuits ended up looking burned. The bottoms, however, looked fine. Accordingly, when I halved the biscuits, I used the tops as the base of the eventual assemblage.

This dessert is the ne plus ultra of comfort food. It’s delicious and the single servings make presentation so easy and impactful. I can’t wait to serve it to guests.

Summary:

Bangkok and BraveTart are both exquisite books: beautifully designed with gorgeous photographs; comprehensive and captivating narratives; fascinating histories; and easy-to-follow recipes.

From the point of departure of a Thai food novice (me), Bangkok’s recipes were very challenging to execute. I needed to source many ingredients that I don’t usually have on hand and I needed to eliminate recipes with proteins and/or cooking methods that are anathema to me—specifically, fish and frying. But I loved the poached chicken and the cucumber relish so much, along with their relative ease of execution, that I’m going to scour the book for other recipes that call out to me. I’m certain that there are many more. Besides, the book is so stunning and inspiring to peruse.

BraveTart was no walk in the park, either. It was particularly challenging for me because I have never been a baker. And, as I stated earlier, I stayed away from the chapters on candies and ice creams. However, I loved the tastes of the desserts that I made and I’m very eager to try more. Stella Parks has completely converted a heretofore-resolute non-baker. How’s that for an achievement?

The judging process is nothing if not extremely subjective. I know this only too well from my many seasons of disagreements with the judges on Project Runway. (Contrary to scuttlebutt, I have absolutely no voice in the judging. In fact, the few times that I have asserted my opinion into the judges’ circle, I’ve been dismissed by them!) 

In this Piglet judgment process, I tried to tame my visceral instincts (which tend toward the familiar—my comfort zone, so to speak) and embrace the aspirational (the less familiar and more sophisticated). BraveTart took me back to my fonder memories of childhood, but Bangkok took me to a place where I’ve long aspired to go. Through both books, I experienced recipes that produced delicious and memorable results. And so I felt very conflicted. 

But in the end, I chose BraveTart, because, quite frankly, it speaks to my food-soul in a very special way.

 

And the winner is…

BraveTart

BraveTart

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Do you Agree? (52 comments)

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Champagne and pudding, I love it!

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Well, I bought this book and we have made the snickerdoodles and Tahietian vanilla pudding and both are the best ever. I bought a good sacier finally and it was a dream for pudding making. I am going for the chocolate pudding today and may make the condensed milk so we can compare Bravetart” Key lime pie with the standard bottle recipe. I am loving loving loving this book - and when my kids start reading and cooking from it just because I leave it on the counter (and they are not known to cook much) that is saying something.

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While I agree with the choice and loved his writing style and honesty, I don't think Tim tried as hard with Bangkok as he did with Bravetart. If I can find all of those Thai ingredients in Nebraska, I guarantee you can find them in your big, beautiful city full of Asian grocery stores. I think if he committed to trying a curry recipe or something similar and followed all of the rules, it would have been a bit more fair.

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This is a fantastic review, although I would expect nothing less from Tim Gunn, who has elevated constructive criticism to an art form on Project Runway. I like that the range of experience and abilities reflected in the judging panel continues into Round 2. His struggles to find ingredients or hesitancy about attempting certain techniques reflects very real issues enthusiastic amateur cooks face when approaching a cookbook, but I appreciate how he acknowledged his subjectivity in his judgment. The diversity of judges ensures that it is not simply increasingly technical cookbooks advancing.

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I just really loved this review (particularly after that especially lousy last one.) The genuine enthusiasm for cooking and reality check- this is who I am, and these are the ingredients I could find- really spoke to me.

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The great thing about T.G. is you can hear his fantastic voice through his writing. I couldn't help but groan when he said he was downsizing a recipe BUT 16 chicken thighs is soooo many! I appreciate that he gives you a sense of how accessible/approachable the books truly are and whether the recipes are worth the effort. Keep the excellent reviews coming.

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I loved his reviews. I know everyone says that they would be able to locate all the ingredients that Tim could not, but I would suffer from the same difficulties. Do I see cardamom pods in my supermarkets....nope and I shop at various food stores, often. Thai "thin" soy sauce or lemongrass with purple rings, can't say I would easily be able to locate those either. Just saying. After reading the review, I immediately went to my local library to check out the cookbooks to review them. I too hate frying basically because of the clean up. Normally I only fry chicken twice a year. I am assuming that there are many others out there like Tim and I but if not....you go Tim. I understand.

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Mr. Gunn,
You had me at "I went out and purchased a stand mixer and a stainless steel saucier, along with a flour sifter, a piping bag, and parchment paper." BRAVO! That is the kind of dedication and sincerity we love to see I our judges. Fabulous review, and I'm tickled that my favorite baking book of the year, "BraveTart," advances!

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Thank you Mr Gunn for an elegant review. I appreciated the way you took your role seriously and cooked from both books with great honesty and humility. Some have complained about your openness regarding likes and dislikes, but I thought it leant an everyman quality to the review. After all, we all have our quirks and foibles, and seeing how the books stood up despite yours gave me a clearer view of their merits. Unlike other celebrity judges, you did not try to bend the competition to your interpretation. You were honest about changing recipes and you took responsibility when that did not work out! I think you gave both books their due and treated them with

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I wasn’t sure when I started reading this review if I would be very dissappointed again with the choice of judge. But I liked the review and believe the comparison and judging fair. Gunn gives us a lot of information on how he cooks, and it fits in the range of home cooks these reviews and the contest is geared towards. He admitted his errors and also pointed out the complex recipes in both books that many novice home cooks or those looking for easy recipes would avoid. I found this helpful. He also completed recipes from each book “to the letter” and enjoyed them. In short he took his responsibilities seriously (he bought a stand mixer and saucier to do so which is more than most judges do) and actually read and experimente dwith both books in a very genuine way, explaining his own foibles in enough detail to help us understand his process. His foibles impacted both books - I was sure Bravetart would lose up front when he stated he was neither a baker nor a desert eater. I was thinking “why????” So if Bravetart won Gunn over that is saying something. I just read Bravetart from cover to cover and must say the history tid bits accompanying each recipe are so much fun and make this book an instant classic. My daughters are picking this one up and reading the stories that go along with the recipes and I have NEVER seen them do that. This is leading them to pick recipes to bake - that would never happen with the Thai book as pretty as it is. I have most of the Piglet books checked out from the library, but so far Bravetart is the only one I am buying.

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Thanks for the amusing and informative review. I always look forward to The Piglet, for the most part because of the reviews rather than the cookbooks themselves. I already have a lot of cookbooks so the diverse and often original styles of the reviewers is what makes The Piglet, for me, the unique and fun experience it is.

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Dear Mr. Gunn,

Thank you for this review. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It’s a fine example of what The Piglet is all about – finding out how someone approaches two excellent cookbooks and getting to hear which one he or she chooses to move on. Sometimes the choice ends up being easy; there is a clear winner. Other times it’s a struggle to have to pick one to move forward.

It sounds like you liked both books, which is great, especially considering what a challenge it must be to review two books in a Quarterfinal Round. Each book has already won Round One, and you don’t have much time to work with them. Plus there are loads of us hanging on your every word.

I love Bravetart for the EXCELLENT writing, good instruction, and personal recommendations (hooray for 3-inch cake pans) even though I have no interest in making a homemade Oreo. Bangkok was not on my radar at all, but based on the two reviews of it, I am definitely going to check it out. When I lived in NYC it was easy for me to get the ingredients to cook Thai food, but now I live in a place where it’s impossible to source them locally. Based on what you say, I think I can find a way around that. (Cooking for someone who hates fish sauce and coconut milk will be a little harder, haha.)

For years I lived in a small – but to me, perfect – NYC apartment, so I understand how important real estate in the kitchen is. I applaud you for getting a stand mixer; you won’t be sorry.

Victoria Carr

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I am a huge Stella Parks fan, have made several of her recipes and her Blueberry Scones are a regular at my house. I love her details and whimsy.

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Thank you, Mr. Gunn!

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Thank you for this lovely and entertaining review, Tim! I think you approached both books exactly the way a busy, budget-conscious home cook would (well, minus the stand mixer purchase!) I hope you continue to perfect your Thai cooking and newly discovered baking skills.

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I loved this review - what a pleasure to read. I feel like I know even more about both books. I’ve just purchased BraveTart and looking forward to baking from it but also want to look at Bangkok for the recipes that Tim made. Thanks!

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I really enjoyed this review and the honest details every home cook can appreciate. While I was not a fan of non-cooking/non-foodie celebrity reviews from last year, this is different as there is culinary interest and experience brought to the table and enough detail for everyone to understand the process and the results. It's not flip and not out of left field, hence a very valid review because not everyone is a baker nor is everyone a pro chef. Love both books, by the way.

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This was a joy to read, especially by reading it with Tim Gunn's lovely voice in my head. I loved his transparency and felt like I was cooking with him! Additionally, I found myself thinking how I wish that all The Piglet reviews were put into a massive PIGLET BOOK! Maybe a retrospective of The Piglet over the years...wait, does this exist already?

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I personally found this review to be quite helpful. When I buy a cookbook, I buy it with the hope that I'll actually use it, and accessibility of ingredients is a big part of my decision-making process. We aren't all expert cooks who have the time to travel to many different far-flung specialty supermarkets, nor are we all willing to spend a lot of money on specialty ingredients that we'll only use once or twice. Also, considering that the other heavyweight in this Piglet is SFAH, I don't think we can completely knock intelligent substitution of ingredients.

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I love Tim and his review. And I appreciated his point of view. I already own Bravetart and I agree with him. It's a great book that takes you back to childhood. But his comments on Bangkok do not deter me from acquiring that book too, quite the contrary. His comments on the importance of using the correct ingredients, the pitfalls of not following the recipe were very helpful to me. And I'm super happy that he's acquired a stand mixer. I hope he keeps baking.