The Piglet2019 / First Round, 2019

All About Cake vs. Solo

All About Cake

Christina Tosi

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Solo

Anita Lo

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Judged by: Vivian Howard

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Born in Deep Run, N.C. to tobacco and hog farming parents, Vivian Howard’s upbringing was steeped in the Southern food traditions of her neighbors. After college, Vivian moved to New York to work in advertising, but soon transitioned to the city’s food and restaurant scene, working with Scott Barton of Voyage, Wylie Dufresne and Sam Mason of WD~50 and later, with Jean Georges Vongerichten at his critically-acclaimed Spice Market. In 2005, Vivian returned to Kinston, N.C. to open her first award-winning restaurant, Chef & the Farmer, followed by the Boiler Room, Benny’s Big Time Pizzeria, and Handy & Hot. 

In 2012, Vivian and director Cynthia Hill premiered A Chef’s Life, the award-winning documentary television series celebrating eastern North Carolina food traditions. The series has segued into a new series to premiere in 2019, where the hour-long, primetime show will tell food stories of the American South in the context of global food traditions.

In October 2016, Vivian released her first cookbook, Deep Run Roots: Stories and Recipes from My Corner of the South, published by Little, Brown & Co. A comprehensive record of modern Southern cooking, filled with stories and more than 200 recipes that celebrate the flavors of her eastern North Carolina home, Deep Run Roots catapulted to the top of the New York Times Bestsellers List. Vivian is currently working on her second book.

The Judgment

First, I will say this: The Piglet crew is a sneaky bunch, pitting two books against each other that are about as much alike as Swahili and Japanese. All About Cake, Christina Tosi’s ode to confection, is neon confetti rainbows layered with popcorn powder. Its message sparks finale fireworks with CAPS LOCK, emojis, and exclamation points, all the way through its multi-paged, often laborious recipes. Solo is a whispered study on a dinner party for one that takes into account the reader’s time and lifestyle. All periods. 

But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

I don’t generally bake or even eat cake, and I’ve never ever successfully cooked for one person. But I’ve taken All About Cake and Solo with me absolutely everywhere for the past two months: On airplanes, in the carpool line, in the green room before speaking engagements, at bedtime and just after waking up. I’m not a masochist. I’m also not a perfectionist (well, maybe not all the time). Yet I’ve read every word of both books and cooked nearly a dozen recipes from each.

I went to such great lengths to become one with Ms. Lo’s and Ms. Tosi’s books because I have admired these women from afar for a long time. Anita Lo is a chef’s chef, cooking quietly with a distinct voice at her austere but approachable restaurant—the now-closed Annisa—for almost two decades. Christina Tosi is a bona fide businesswoman and television personality, who has made a forever mark on the dessert world. She did this when she performed a virtual cannonball into a bowl of cereal milk at her bakery Momofuku Milk Bar. I’d like my culinary contributions to float somewhere between the two icons, so I look to both their ethoses with reverence. (Also, I wrote a cookbook once and it was a Piglet contender. I know well what it feels like to be on the “reviewed” end of this Tournament, so I relate to them there, too.)

 

Solo projects the mantra that “people will always let you down. Good food never does. Cry on this shoulder if you must.” (That’s a direct quote, by the way.) To be fair, Lo’s less-than-celebratory quote references a lusty Grilled Lamb with Fregola, Yogurt, and Mint. The well-rounded plate is easy to make, interjects an underutilized, grain-like pasta shape, and pops a smile with a sprinkle of mint. It made me feel like I was eating in a restaurant…alone. As someone who struggles to do anything well-rounded that’s not also overly complicated, I really admire Lo’s tight, mindful style. Her Twice-Cooked Sweet Potatoes with Kale, Mushrooms, and Parmesan is everything I want in a dinner at home. Since Lo suggests cooking the sweet potato in the microwave, the whole meal took me less than 20 minutes to prepare. I’m not sure, if left to my own devices, I could scramble an egg in that time.

Still, despite the ease and accessibility of her recipes, when I read the headnotes and tips in Solo, they are narrated by the character Sadness from the animated movie Inside Out. Sadness was overwhelmingly my favorite character in what is one of my favorite movies, but nonetheless, Sadness sets a tone. It’s not that the idea of cooking for one person turns me blue. I cook more food than one person could possibly eat, but theoretically I often cook only for myself, and I like it. Instead, there are constant little indicators in Solo that suggest loneliness. Advice like “get a basil plant. You’ll have something to take care of!” And pale illustrations, like a single shrimp floating on a blank background, make me want to swipe right on Crustacean Tinder to find that shrimp a friend, if only for dinner.

So on the search for a little joy, or possibly BingBong (a somewhat obscure Inside Out character reference), I turned where I’ve found terrific joy before: Korean-style beef.

Here, Chef Lo highlights what I see as the book’s silver lining. “The best thing about eating alone is you can hog everything.” I start to sweat a little bit when asked to split this or that dish, so I couldn’t agree more. And just like the shoulder to cry on, Lo’s Korean-Style Flanken Lettuce Cups were a cinch to prepare and complete, and really, really satisfying. I admit that I made this dish (and nearly all the others I tested from Solo) times three, because I liked it so much.

 

Christina Tosi opens her celebration of cake with life lessons. Normally, I’d roll my eyes at this brand of preachiness in a cookbook, but these are ideas I can get behind, but sometimes struggle to do so. “Be happy. Be a pro. Make life a little sweeter. March to the beat of your own drum.” OK, I hear you, Tosi.

My fear of baking without help prompted me to start my recipe testing with my 17 year-old niece, Iris. She bakes a lot, and I thought we’d spend some quality time together while soaking in Tosi’s supreme brand of perk. Iris and I went deep—meaning, we attempted the Mint Cookies and Cream Layer Cake from the “Get Fancy With Layer Cakes” chapter—because it was Christmas, and Tosi said this was a Christmas cake. But the cacophony of kitchen destruction that ensued deflated us, and brought my All About Cake recipe testing to a screeching halt for a time. The first problem was that the cake was really six recipes, four of them found in different sections of the book (now I better understand the criticism about the subrecipes in my own book). 

Fumbling through pages searching for subrecipes, while flinging flour and eggshells all over my cleaned-for-Christmas kitchen, didn’t make me happy (guess I didn’t learn much from Tosi life lesson one). And because I thought I was already a pro (there goes her second life lesson), I was certain that when she called for quarter-sheet trays she couldn’t possibly mean quarter-sheet trays. Who in the hell has those? So I assured my niece Tosi didn’t really mean that, and opted for half-sheet trays. Instead of a sheet cake, we baked chocolate-chip crackers. 

Meanwhile, Iris took charge of the frosting. Granted, we didn’t have the clear vanilla extract the recipe called for (not yet, at least), but the frosting she whipped up resembled thick, curdled cement. In an effort to “make life a little sweeter” (trying hard to follow life lesson three, here), Iris made it again. We now had two recipes of curdled cement. 

I chose to tackle the liquid cheesecake because it appeared to be a subrecipe I could actually handle, and Iris took the chocolate crumbs. Both seemed destined for failure because they just didn’t make sense to our Betty Crocker-trained brains, but both rose from the cracker cake’s floured ashes as delicious. We marched to the beat of our own drum (feeling better about life lesson four) and enjoyed both over ice cream, sans cake.

For reasons related to my cracker-cake trauma, I decided to test the simplest recipe in the book next: Molten Chocolate Microwave Mug Cake. I was both drawn to and disturbed by the idea of “baking” a cake in the microwave in roughly two minutes, but mostly I smiled every time I looked at the picture on the opposite page: In it, said cake puffs up over the rim of a coffee mug that’s printed with a picture of Tosi wearing orange aviator sunglasses and a blue toboggan. The mug reads “best boss ever.” The recipe worked. It took about ten minutes to “bake” and it gave me a toothache.

With a success under my belt, I graduated myself to the chapter called “Bundts, Pounds & a Fluffy Little Cake From Heaven.” I like salty stuff, crunchy stuff, butterscotch, and the no-nonsense nature of a loaf pan, so Tosi’s Compost Pound Cake topped with pretzels and potato chips screamed for me. Guess what? It worked! And even without the chocolate-covered potato-chip-and pretzel-topping I decided were too tedious to bother with, the Compost Cake was by far my favorite recipe I tested between the two books. I’d make it again. If I ever bake a cake again.

 

Feelings, mood, mantras, illustrations, ease of direction, and recipe success aside, both chefs do a great job with tips, or what I classify as “if you never cook anything from this book, these are the things you should take away from it.” I had no idea what clear vanilla extract was, or why it mattered, but thanks to Tosi we now use it at our restaurants. When I’m feeling low, I take a dab of it and a dab of cola extract (also recommended in All About Cake) and perfume my pressure points for pleasure. And THANK YOU, Tosi, for finally validating my belief that to sift flour is to waste time. 

In a section called “Less Basic but Really Delicious, or Items You Should Know About,” near the end of the book, Lo distills and describes her favorite flavor-builders, ignoring the rules of food geography many cookbooks prescribe to. From chaat masala, to dried anchovies, to Meyer lemon, Shishito peppers, masa harina, Lao Gan Ma chili oil, and za’atar, she recommends a starter pantry I (or any adventurous home cook) want to curate. Also, thanks to Solo, I’ll never look at my toaster oven the same way again. Lo calls on hers like it’s the new Instant Pot, and damn it, she deserves a sponsorship!

I believe successful cookbooks speak to a particular audience by shedding light on or by celebrating some aspect of that audience’s interests. Both Lo’s and Tosi’s books do just that. All About Cake will inspire someone who bakes a lot, and someone who has or is willing to acquire a cupboard full of very specific powders, pans, and cake rings. Solo will empower someone who relishes in living alone but wants to eat well without wasting a whole lot of leftovers. I’m just not exactly either’s ideal reader. But because I believe in neon rainbows, I choose All About Cake.

 

And the winner is…

All About Cake

All About Cake

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Do you Agree?

15 Comments

Tilly’sskillet March 18, 2019
I am a big fan of Vivian Howard. Love her way with food and words. I have eaten Lo’s food at a food festival in NY and been to Milk Bar Bakery. I have made Tosi’s cakes 4 times. Yes each recipe is a collection of recipes. Yes finding the stuff you need takes weeks of searching. I feel validated as a home cook that I did not experience any execution errors with Tosi’s recipes. However, I got too creative with combining sub recipes on my own and created a beautiful chocolate chip, cheesecake, chocolate crumble, chocolate ganache birthday cake that was tooooo much. I am buying the All About Cake Book!!! (Clear vanilla Walmart)
 
coneil March 14, 2019
Fregola is not an "underutilized grain." It is a pasta similar to couscous. Was the reviewer perhaps thinking of freekeh? And which did she use in Anita Lo's grilled lamb with fregola, yogurt, and mint?
 
Brinda A. March 15, 2019
Thanks for this helpful information, coneil—this has been fixed. Vivian used fregola as the recipe called for! Thanks again for the heads-up.
 
Gammy March 14, 2019
Love Vivian's A Chef's Life and can hear her voice as I read her reviews and will watch for her new show. I am half of a two person household, Solo will be a book I will watch for, Vivian's writing makes me very intrigued about these recipes. As for All About Cake... who want a recipe where one has to search for recipes in 4 different locations in the book (as bad a magazines referring you to their website for a recipe!). Very surprised by the winner of this pairing.
 
Mary C. March 13, 2019
Stating the obvious here—Vivian Howard is an amazing writer. She’s an amazing chef, too (check out Deep Run Roots if you haven’t already). I’m more stoked about seeing VH’s writing than I am to explore either of these cookbooks. She describes both books well and she clearly did due-diligence on the testing bit, but none of the descriptions or neither subject jumped out at me.
 
Kathryn March 12, 2019
"...pale illustrations, like a single shrimp floating on a blank background, make me want to swipe right on Crustacean Tinder to find that shrimp a friend, if only for dinner." What a sentence. This review is so fun. I don't think I want to read either book from these descriptions..but I do want tp read anything by Ms. Howard.
 
cookbookchick March 12, 2019
My favorite line, too! Terrific food writing. More please, Vivian, more!
 
Eric K. March 13, 2019
That was my favorite line, too.
 
Ronni L. March 15, 2019
Mine, too: One of those lines that make you mutter, Damn, I wish I'd written that! And the genius of this review is that while it gives both books their deserved due, it also made it clear to me that I neither want nor need either. Some great writing this year; thumbs up!
 
boulangere March 12, 2019
I wish there were a category for I Wouldn't Buy Either of These.
 
cookbookchick March 12, 2019
Wow, yes, a surprise ending! What’s not a surprise to me, or most likely anyone who enjoyed her wonderful TV series, is Vivian Howard’s diligence and dedication to this difficult Piglet assignment. I will read this review again, savoring every word, and then - two more books to buy??!!
 
SandraH March 12, 2019
This was a very evocative review with a surprise ending! I may check out All About Cake from the library to have a look through but it’s Solo that I want to cook from. Thanks for performing such a comprehensive review of two very different cookbooks. I hope you have a new tv series coming up soon!
 
Ida B. March 12, 2019
It seems Solo lost because Sadness, even though the other had issues because sub recipes and frosting fails. Nice review.
 
Girlfromipanema March 12, 2019
While I was rooting for Solo, this review was thorough, thoughtful, and beautifully written. This is the kind of food writing I love, when people take abstract concepts about what food means and actually deconstruct it for real life. Thank you Vivian!
 
Joan O. March 12, 2019
Love Vivian, her show, and her cookbook. As I was reading her thoughts on both these books I really thought she was leaning toward Solo and was surprised she picked All About Cake. I haven't seen either of these books but am now wanting to check them both out.