The Piglet2019 / Quarterfinal Round, 2019

All About Cake vs. Bottom of the Pot

All About Cake

Christina Tosi

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Bottom of the Pot

Naz Deravian

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Judged by: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s writing appears in Best American Mystery Stories 2014, Best American Short Stories 2012, Best Sex Writing 2012, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Virginia Quarterly Review, and many others. She is a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. She is the author of the books Ayiti, An Untamed State, the New York Times bestselling Bad Feminist, the nationally bestselling Difficult Women, and the New York Times bestselling Hunger. She is also the author of World of Wakanda for Marvel. She has several books forthcoming and is also at work on television and film projects.

The Judgment

I am an incredibly picky eater. I am not proud of this, but I am 44 years old and my palate is not likely to become more sophisticated in what remains of this life. I am not only picky, I am also not adventurous. I have no inclination to eat a broad range of foods. I like what I like. I hate what I hate.

Avocado, for example, is the stuff of my nightmares. To me, the texture is all wrong. I think it is mushy and bland, and the world’s obsession with avocado is something that keeps me up at night. I am allergic to seafood and shellfish, so any recipes that involve those ingredients are immediately out. I hate eggplant, because I find it to be mushy and bitter. I don’t like soups or stews. I don’t like most grains. (I’m a real treat as a dinner guest!) I could go on, as the list of foods I will not eat is long, but that’s not what this is about. 

When I considered All About Cake by Christina Tosi, and Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories by Naz Deravian, I naturally gravitated more toward All About Cake, because I love cake. Cake is delicious. Frosting is delicious. And I knew nothing about Persian cooking, so I worried that I wouldn’t find anything in Bottom of the Pot I could enjoy, given my desperately immature palate. 

 

Some time ago, I watched Tosi’s episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table with great interest, because she talks about food—dessert, specifically—in such passionate, accessible, and authentic ways. 

It was surprising, then, that All About Cake is not terribly accessible. I love to bake and am pretty good at it. What I particularly enjoy about baking is the precision—measuring things and combining things and applying heat or cold and seeing what happens. Baking also makes you a pretty popular person, because people always enjoy eating baked goods. I make a mean chocolate chip cookie, as well as some lovely banana bread with a brown sugar crust, and I love making Ina Garten’s brownie pie, only I add white chocolate to the recipe to really drive the decadence. 

All About Cake offers many hallmarks of a great cookbook. Tosi begins with her personal story, talking about how she hasn’t always loved cake, and explaining how she came to change her mind. She establishes her guidelines on what makes a cake good, which I think are worth listing here. A good cake must have a strong point of view and flavor story. Each layer should be delicious on its own. There should be unexpected textures. Finally, a cake shouldn’t be hidden behind frosting, so Tosi doesn't frost the sides of her cakes. I was with her until this last guideline, because frosting is awesome. I don’t need to see what’s going on in each of a cake’s layers to appreciate the flavor and composition. Give me that butter and sugar whipped into creamy goodness, and slather that delicious cake with it!

In the opening pages, Tosi also offers definitions of key baking terms and what she views as essentials for baking. She closes with some life lessons that aren’t particularly groundbreaking or innovative, but "common sense" is so named for a a reason. Smart, humane ideas about being in the world always bear repeating. But shortly after these ideas, Tosi gets right to the recipes. In many ways, the front matter feels kind of perfunctory, abbreviated. I suppose, having seen her episode of Chef’s Table, I wanted a bit more from her because I find her way of seeing the world endlessly interesting. This may not be a fair expectation. 

The theme of this book is singular—cakes—but in its pages there are all manner of cakes to be baked: Bundts and pound cakes, hot cakes, sheet cakes, cupcakes, cake truffles, layer cakes, and even a slender section of vegan cakes for those living that plant-based life. I was supposed to try three recipes from this book, but I struggled in selecting them. Each of the recipes is clear and concise, but also...not. Most of the cakes had multiple subrecipes. With the Burnt Miso Pound Cake, for example, there was the recipe for the actual cake, and one for apple compote, and one for sour whipped cream. The Baller Birthday Sheet Cake consisted entirely of four different subrecipes.

It was overwhelming trying to find a recipe that felt manageable. (And I didn't want to bake mug cakes because those recipes just didn't appeal to me or feel like "real cake.") I was just not up to the task. I am all for taking chances, and I can handle complexity, but in my mind a cookbook is supposed to allow regular folks to make interesting food, in their own homes. As I read through this book, I never found a recipe I felt comfortable attempting. I thought, from one page to the next, “I would love to eat this cake, if someone else would bake it.” 

What impressed me about All About Cake, however, was the sheer imagination of Tosi’s recipes. The Compost Pound Cake offered a mix of savory and sweet. The Popcorn Cake Truffles conjured popcorn, but in a cake. What could be better? The Dulce de Leche layer cake promised rich, sweet, creamy goodness. It was all a wonderland of confection—if only it felt possible to make on my own. 

 

Naz Deravian’s Bottom of the Pot was a much different cookbook. It had a warmth and depth I found extremely compelling. Deravian opens the book with an essay about home, family, Iran, and how so many of her memories are interwoven with a simple ingredient: rice. It is a lovely bit of writing and I was excited to read her perspective on food, particularly because I am not at all familiar with Persian cooking. In the book’s introduction, Deravian offers a tidbit about her mother’s recipes that I can relate to: How the recipes her mother shared were mostly just lists of ingredients. I am Haitian–American, and often try to get recipes from my mother, who shares them in similar ways—a list of ingredients, always-changing instructions that seem to leave out critical measurements and recipe steps. 

Deravian really shines when explaining the tenets of Persian cooking. She shares the staples of a well-stocked Persian kitchen, defines the Persian palate, and provides recipes for commonly used spice blends. Each section of recipes opens with an essay about memory and culture and how they are intertwined with food. The recipes themselves are beautifully written and photographed. Most of them include brief headnotes with information about the recipe, and/or useful tips to keep in mind as you prepare them.

As I said earlier, I am a very picky eater, so there were a great many recipes in this book that seemed lovely but that I was never going to try. Still, I ended up selecting four recipes that did sound good to me. All of them were fun and easy to make, though certainly some of them took some time. The recipes I chose appealed even more to me because they all contained parsley, and I am a big fan of parsley. It’s weird, I know, but I will gladly fuck up some parsley, whenever I can. 

Winter has been long and kind of dreary so I wanted to cook spring into emerging. I began with the Tomato Cucumber Salad, which married some of my favorite foods: cucumbers (yes, really), tomatoes, green onions, and parsley. There is something deeply satisfying and relaxing about slicing a cucumber thinly and neatly. Once the cucumber was ready, I added basil and fresh mint, all of these tossed in the recipe’s vinaigrette. One of the best things about Deravian’s recipes is how colorful they are, both visually and on the palate. As I assembled the salad, I loved seeing the colors come together. I loved smelling the freshness of the herbs. And the flavors were complex. To elevate cucumber, which is not the most exciting vegetable, and even infuse it with flavor, is no small feat. 

 

I also made the Cabbage Salad using red cabbage, carrots, green onion, a ton of parsley, fresh orange juice, fresh lemon juice, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. This salad is outstanding—bright and crisp and flavorful. It was even better the second and third days, as the flavors mingled and marinated.

Cherries are my favorite fruit, so I decided to stretch myself a bit and make the Sour Cherry and Feta Crostini, an hors d'oeuvre that will absolutely be part of my dinner party rotation. There are cherries to bring to a boil. There are nuts to crush (all in a feminist’s day’s work). I felt very fancy as I drizzled olive oil on the crostini after I toasted the sliced baguette. The finished product was a marvel of textures and flavors—crunchy and soft, sweet and savory. It also looked gorgeous when plated. 

To round things out I made Goosht Ghelgeli, or meatballs, prepared with ground beef, lamb, turkey, or chicken. I picked beef and combined it with various spices, grated onion, and crushed garlic, along with bread crumbs and egg to bind the meatballs. And though the recipe didn’t call for it, I also threw in some fresh parsley. Things went a bit awry as I baked the meatballs, because I am in a new house and am still learning the quirks of my oven. The bottoms of the meatballs were, shall we say, very well done. Next time—and I will be making these meatballs again—I know to shorten the cooking time. But even with the slight overcooking, the meatballs tasted wonderful, and flavorful. I enjoyed the unexpected combination of dried mint and cinnamon and turmeric in a delightful parcel of meat. 

The recipes in Bottom of the Pot are versatile and smart and soulful. Deravian’s passion for cooking and for home is deeply felt from the first page to the last. I’m pretty sure my choice for the winner of this round has been clear from the beginning, and that’s fine. Sometimes you know the ending and want to figure out how we got there anyway. Bottom of the Pot was, by far, the cookbook I enjoyed and appreciated the most—coming from someone who loves to read and loves to cook but was not at all expecting to enjoy reading and cooking and eating beyond her comfort zone. 

 

And the winner is…

Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories

Bottom of the Pot: Persian Recipes and Stories

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Do you Agree?

59 Comments

Paola S. April 17, 2019
I just bought Bottom of the Pot and, just by leafing through it, I was captured by the quantity and quality of the recipes. I have eaten Persian food two or three times and love it, now I shall be able to prepare some of those mouthwatering dishes 😊
 
LittleKi March 30, 2019
I loved this review. I, too, have cookbooks that I bought following other good reviews only to open them, read them, and close them forever because they totally lost me on SOME level. I'm OK with the honesty!
 
Cara March 26, 2019
I feel terrible for Christina Tosi. I can't imagine the amount of time that goes into creating a cookbook and to have it dismissed by a reviewer who couldn't even be bothered to try a single recipe (or sub-recipe? Seriously, just make a pound cake or some icing and tell us what you think) is so disappointing.
 
Jennifer K. March 24, 2019
When I got to the penultimate paragraph on the section about All About Cake, I blurted out: "Oh, my! This is gonna make a lot of readers splutter." My own reaction at the time was solidly in the "No fair, Roxane!" camp. But the more I think about it, the more I agree with her decision to not even try to bake out of the book. I have bought a few highly-touted cookbooks that I just couldn't find my way into as a cook. Sometimes, they are still worth it to me, for what I learn or for the stories or just to be in on the buzz. But in a tournament, where one must fall and one must rise, if you really can't see your way into cooking from the book, that's a legitimate reason to choose the other to send on. Interestingly, I am more inclined to buy All About Cake after reading Roxane's review, because I don't need another cake cookbook, but I am definitely intrigued by what I'm told about the book as something to learn from.
 
petalpusher March 22, 2019
A very honest review. It reminds me of some friends who dine at my table and say how delicious everything is, but it seems like way too much work. As far as blowing off the rules to prepare 3 recipes, she could have at least made one cake, since several of the recipes were contrived of 3 or 4 recipes. I love Laurie Colwin's cake recipes. Simply delicious.
 
Julie March 22, 2019
I LOVE Roxane Gay! So wonderful to read her on your site!
 
Mona P. March 21, 2019
So. . . the reviewer didn't even attempt a recipe from Tosi's book? Full disclosure, I consider myself a baker more than a cook, but usually a cake recipe will have multiple components. Especially a cake book that focuses on layer cakes like this one. Filling, frosting, cake. I feel like that's to be expected. And there were mug cakes. . . which apparently weren't complex enough? This seems like a cop-out.
 
Ronni L. March 21, 2019
Perhaps if this had been a first round review and therefore the only take we had of Tosi's book I might find Gay's response a little more unfair. But we have Vivian Howard's well-written positive assessment to encourage would-be fans of Cake, and now Gay's frank response for those who find the intimidation factor of a book to be a primary concern--which, by the way, is not everyone and I warrant that Gay's reluctance to approach Cake will be just the spur to send others out to buy it. Best of all, we have this wonderfully accessible, splendidly written review. Thumbs up.
 
LJS March 21, 2019
If you're not going to cook anything from a cookbook, then don't cook anything from either cookbook. Judge them on the quality of the writing, or the imagery or the number of typos found.
 
Tippy C. March 21, 2019
In the past, I have been one of those that complained over what I considered slipshod or lazy non-cook reviews, but I disagree with others that this in any way falls into the same category as some of those of the past. In fact, I love this review. Good for Roxanne Gay to say, "nope...too much" about the extremely layered and complex recipes of Tossi's cake book. I am an experienced home cook, and I say "nope" all the time for precisely the same reasons. RG is a phenomenal writer and it was fun to see her write in this genre.
 
MRinSF March 20, 2019
I don’t mean to be snarky but really, don’t we all know by now that the Piglet creators sanction this kind of review year after year? It comes with the territory. Some years I’m annoyed, some years I’m not. But expecting the Piglet to refuse this kind of review is a worthless cause. 😜
 
MRinSF March 20, 2019
P.s. — if you want a real controversy, go back to the year The Amateur Gourmet reviewed Mimi Thorisson’s book!
 
Ida B. March 21, 2019
It is almost as if they want a lazy reviewer (and cleverly writing a couple of paragraphs is definitely less time consuming than, in this case, actually BAKING A COOK - insert eye roll) to start a flame war so they can get page hits on the review. Either that or they are just terrible at their job as “editors” and can’t figure out “I noped the book because it looked like work” does not equal “make three recipes”.
 
Victoria C. March 21, 2019
I still consider Adam Roberts' attempt at humor (and The Piglet for publishing it) to be despicable and disgraceful. The Piglet never rolls around that I don't remember it. Now I imagine the thud it would have landed with in this day of me-too. Mimi Thorisson handled it with composure and grace, which turned me into a lifelong fan of hers. The review itself appalled me, and then Adam Roberts' tone-deaf defense of it on his blog on February 26, 2015, appalled me even more. He didn't even have the decency to empathize or apologize.
 
coneil March 21, 2019
I loved that review; disagreed with the judgment.
 
362Heather March 20, 2019
I cannot stand when reviewers don't try the recipes. It annoys the heck out of me. The judge’s attempts at re-creating the recipes is central to piglet. Additionally, by failing to make an attempt at the recipes, judges disregard the hard work of the cookbook author. This review came from a fellow author, making her disregard even more disappointing. Does Roxane Gay feel that her efforts deserve respect? If so, why didn’t she respect the hard work of another?

Copping out on the recipes is like sitting down to read one of Roxane Gay's stories and saying "oh well I don't care for the character development, lets just skip all that useless character description and plot development and jump right into the last few pages. Let’s then judge Roxane Gay and her work on a less than full understanding of everything that happened in the story.” That is precisely what she did did to Christina Tosi and it’s shameful.

Additionally, and most importantly, it is a disservice to the reader of the review. I read these reviews hoping to learn more about the cookbooks and IF the recipes work. I can sympathize with readers here who only care to get an assessment of the book’s difficulty level, but the reality is that Roxane Gay could have done a service to all factions by trying a recipe, and then commenting on the difficulty of the recipe, the inane nature of it and the result. IF it is true that Christina Tosi’s cakes result in a saccharine mess (as one reviewer put it, and which is something that I have heard a few too many times to feel secure about buying and baking from one of Ms. Tosi’s books) then I really want to know that before wasting my own time and energy. By the simple replication of the “mug cake recipe”, Ms. Gay would have been able to comment on the amount of sugar that went into the confection and if it was an appropriate amount. Clearly she didn’t care to help any of us out on that front.

On the other hand, per her own admission, Roxane Gay does not have the physical tools that it takes to be successful as a baker. Rule # 1 is OWN AN ACCURATE OVEN THERMOMETER. Even if Roxane Gay had tried the recipes, she herself would have (more than likely) failed, yielding dry, nasty cakes. We would not be able to discern if the error was the result of a poorly written recipe by Christina Tosi or simply due to Ms. Gay’s oven.

In summation, it is best that Roxane Gay did not attempt to make the recipes, but it is still disappointing. Does she not have any friends or family that could have helped her meet her commitment of baking A cake? This sort of thing has repeatedly happened in the past though. Perhaps Piglet should screen for the author’s ability and willingness to deal with fussy recipes. 10 years ago, Grace Parisi was handed what is likely one of the greatest modern-day cookbooks ever written (literally, every recipe is a show-stopper taste-wise), but she rejected it because it was too complicated and precise of a book. However, the difference there was that Grace Parisi put in a solid effort and actually attempted the recipes. Her opinion while debatable was valid. Just this year, Andrew Knowlton rejected an incredible, but fussy book (Noma Guide to Fermentation), but Knowlton put in a solid effort, tried the recipes and wrote an excellent and respectful review. That should not be too much to ask.

In Roxane Gay’s defense and at the very least, she was not flippant in her laziness, so we have that to be thankful for. Additionally, I have seen the word “outrage” tossed around in the comments section. Situations like this: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/joshua-tree-national-park-could-take-200-300-years-recover-shutdown-180971379/ warrant outrage. So for clarification purposes, I am not expressing outrage, but rather disappointment. Plus, no matter how many accolades Christina Tosi might have, she deserves to be defended. Perhaps reading this might make Christina Tosi feel better if, as Allison Robicelli put it last week, Tosi “labored over this with every part of her being” for what felt like an eternity.

Lastly and on a very positive note, I had to double-check that I spelled Allison Robicelli’s name properly. Google pulled up her tweet about, Atticus, Toby and the Thigh-master. I highly recommend that everyone on the forum look that up. Wow…. she is hilarious!!!
 
Ronni L. March 21, 2019
Total amen on Allison's work! I've been missing her this Piglet.
 
ironstring March 29, 2019
Calm down, Becky.
 
Ida B. March 20, 2019
If she can’t obey the rules, she should not get paid or the publicity from participating. She was given two cookbooks and asked to cook three recipes from each.

She made two salads, meatballs and some crostini, all from one book while spending PARAGRAPHS justifying her unwillingness to keep to her agreement.

I guess every Piglet has to have at least one reviewer who WASTES OUR TIME so we can all get annoyed that the editors of Food52 don’t bother enforcing their own rules or treat the subject matter with actual respect.

But hey - she made her word count, and now her resume will show she “judged a Piglet” so whatever.
 
Leonard March 21, 2019
lmao calm down Ida it's the internet sheesh
 
Ida B. March 23, 2019
Thanks. If you had not explained that this was the internet, I never would have known. You have mansplanned to me with such skill, I am in awe of your wit. Perhaps you can use that same verbal skill to explain why “cook three recipes so you can review a cookbook in return for either cash or publicity” isn’t actually a contract because...? Oh, it is the internet - no need to explain further. Argh - trolls!
 
Stephanie B. March 23, 2019
Yeah Ida, your initial comment is a real stain on the pristine reputation of internet comments. Also if you could reign in your opinions, maybe make them a little more palatable, try smiling more...
 
ono March 20, 2019
I loved Gay's review, and, I admit, I love everything she has written that I have read. I, too, was looking forward to reading her missive about two cookbooks. I so enjoyed her voice as she explained her opinion about both books. For me, I don't take The Piglet too seriously, enjoy the diversity of opinions - whether I agree or not - and look forward to seeing which book makes it to the end.
 
Stephanie B. March 20, 2019
I understand her reasons for not baking from All About Cake, I've never had a desire to bake from Tosi's stuff myself (though I do enjoy going to Milkbar occasionally). And her reasons, if she were the average customer*, are totally valid: she things the book is unapproachable. Fair critique.

*BUT she's not the average customer: she agreed to try recipes from the book and review them; she did not do this. I'm in the baking club so I'm familiar with people's views on Tosi's baking - I've heard other people say her recipes are no walk in the park. Really though, no tries at anything? Not even the banana bread? Mug cakes aren't cake-y enough but real cakes are too hard? Sure the miso pound cake has a compote and sour whipped cream, but a quick look at the recipe posted on food52 reveals these extra components are 1) not difficult and 2) toppings, so she could still have made a basic pound cake and at least reviewed that. Ms. Gay say's she's a good baker, but after reading her review I don't buy it!
 
Stephanie B. March 20, 2019
thinks, not things.
 
Stephanie B. March 20, 2019
Bloody hell I can't type to save my life today: says - say's is nonsense. Food52 you guys could really use an "edit" function.
 
Leonard March 21, 2019
She agreed to review the book and she ...reviewed the book
 
Stephanie B. March 21, 2019
"I was supposed to try three recipes from this book, but..." Sounds to me like she got pretty clear instructions.
 
Valhalla March 20, 2019
What would be the point of a simple cake book at this point in the world? I have no desire to cook a Tosi cake either, but I think the attempt would have elevated this review considerably. A failure is so much better than a "nah."
 
Valhalla March 20, 2019
What would be the point of a simple cake book at this point in the world? I have no desire to cook a Tosi cake either, but I think the attempt would have elevated this review considerably. A failure is so much better than a "nah."
 
cindy March 20, 2019
Although I believe the review was well written, I knew when she mentioned she was a picky eater this review was going to go awry. Then when she didn't even cook from AAC, it really made me think this judgment was a joke. Even the few items that she cooked from BOTP were pretty safe and not very challenging to fully get a sense of the cookbook. Just very disappointing.
 
witloof March 20, 2019
Loved this review for many reasons. I agree that feeling so defeated by a cookbook that you can’t bring yourself to use it is a fair assessment. I also adored the sly joke Ms. Gay inserted mid paragraph.
I live in New York City and have sampled Ms.Tosi’s desserts from time to time. I have always found them to be too sweet, too salty, too weird, too big, and too much.
 
brit March 20, 2019
I disagree with the commenters that are stating it was unfair that Roxane did not cook from Tosi's cookbook, and therefore, was unfair in her judgement. As a confident cook and unconfident baker, the accessibility of the cookbook or recipe is literally the first thing that I look for when evaluating. The same can be said for any source of information or fiction title. If I am confused, unsure, or even the slightest bit weary, I will immediately look for another source (or recipe or cookbook), and I can't believe that the same wouldn't be true for many of you. Frankly, I don't have the disposable time or income to waste on cookbooks or ingredients that don't make me feel confident in my ability to succeed. I appreciate and enjoyed Roxane's review! Thanks!
 
Brittany March 20, 2019
This: "The accessibility of the cookbook or recipe is literally the first thing that I look for when evaluating."
Exactly. I've had friends who spent all weekend cooking one of Tosi's amazing cakes and thoroughly enjoyed both the finished product and the process itself. I've had other friends nervously laugh and shelve it again after taking it down from my stack in the kitchen.
This competition isn't about finding a cookbook for everyone; that's why its fun. It's about questioning what makes you want to cook something someone has put together in a book and if you enjoyed the process and the final dish.
 
Ronni L. March 21, 2019
Brittany: The Piglet should post your final paragraph at the start of each year's competition!
 
zooeybechamel March 22, 2019
Totally! I own Milkbar and although I find it super interesting, I'm yet to find a recipe that I want to bake. Everything seems to come with at least two other subrecipes! I'm glad someone else spelled it out so bluntly, so I know that it would have been pretty silly to buy another of her books.
 
DylanTonic March 27, 2019
Ahh yes, the nervous laugh of panic. I have several cookbooks that elicit that response from guests. I totally get it, as well; I have periods where I want to get elbow-deep in cake batter and 47 frostings... and times where I eat rice crackers from the box and feel SO TIRED I have to throw the box away.

Some cookbooks are just.... exhausting to consider.