The Piglet2013 / First Round, 2013

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Deb Perelman

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Small Plates & Sweet Treats: My Family’s Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking

Small Plates & Sweet Treats

Aran Goyoaga

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Judged by: Elizabeth Spiridakis

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Elizabeth Spiridakis is the Art Director at Bon Appétit magazine. She has worked in magazines for over 10 years and maintains the blog and online shenanigans of White Lightning, which she started over 5 years ago on a whim. She's obsessed with social media and you can follow her on most outlets at @white_lightning.

The Judgment

I hate dust jackets. I mean, I HATE dust jackets. Don’t you? You should. 

Both of the books I was given to judge have dust jackets, just so you know. Right away I was wary of both of them -- sorry, but it’s true; I judged books by their covers and I lived to tell the tale. 

I immediately removed both aforementioned paper offenders and felt immensely better. Cookbooks should be as beautiful as art books, as far as I’m concerned, and most of the time the design level is in the basement. What’s up with that?

At first flip, both books felt pretty similar to me. They’re roughly the same size and thickness, printed on the same kind of papers that are cost effective and don’t feel particularly special or tactile.

I know both authors are bloggers and I’ve heard of Smitten Kitchen, but I’m embarrassed to say that even though I’m the Art Director at a food magazine I don’t get into food blogs much. (Food Instagrams on the other hand? I am kind of obsessed.) So I didn’t really start with an impression about these gals either way.

My first weekend with the books I kept wanting to look through Small Plates & Sweet Treats. It had a pretty cover (once it was sans dust jacket, that is), cute, colorful endpaper, and although they chose to print on a high-gloss paper (shudddder), the photos made me hungry (this is the  number one rule of food photography, let’s get real), and the props and palette were bright and fun.

The design of the book isn’t really my taste but it has a charm to it, although I don’t support the decision to constantly flop the ingredient list from the left to the right of the instructions. In food, choosing form over function can be a mistake -- in this case, you need the ingredients first, and then the steps for what to do with them. 

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook, on the other hand, was not really grabbing me; looks-wise, it’s all so DARK. Like, shot in the dark, in a dark room, with the brightness taken OUT in Photoshop. Why so glum? There’s a difference between ambiance and poor color correction, and I fear that this book suffers from the latter. That made it harder to feel hungry (read: want to cook anything) when I flipped through. The cover, with dust jacket or without, is not exciting to me. But worse than that: the interior layout is bad. I don’t want this to be a straight up takedown, but the design reads as dated and makes the content seem pretty boring. Visually, it was hard to get through. 

At this point maybe you think you know which one I picked and why. And you’d be wrong, because then I cooked. (TWIST!)

From Small Plates I made the Autumn Panzanella Salad and the Red Bean, Chorizo & Short Rib Stew. I invited friends over to eat the surely-to-be-delicious fruits of my labor. Spoiler alert: it didn’t go very well. The panzanella was delicious, but it requires the peeling and quartering of ten baby beets. In case you were wondering, peeling tiny beets sucks. And it takes some time. And after you spend all of that time and you have a pile of ruby shards that want to stain everything in your life, you have a leeeetle mound of...peeled and quartered beets. That just get tossed into a salad with other roasted veg. It seemed like an extraordinary amount of effort and time for something that tasted good but didn’t change my life.

The stew was, how do you say, a disaster. I followed her directions to a T, and instead of the beautiful clear broth with beans and delicious chorizo chunks that is pictured on page 93, I ended up with a puce sludge that tasted decent but made my friends look at me like I was trying to punish them. Not great. (Full disclosure: After the stew disaster, I brought the book into Bon Appetit and asked all of my talented coworkers what I did wrong, and there was a consensus that there are perhaps a few directions missing in how to properly execute dried beans. I felt slightly vindicated.)

It took me a while to find something I really wanted to eat in The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook. Eventually, I made the frittata (I love frittata! Everyone loves frittata!) and it was delicious, and better -- not a pain. But the real winner, the thing that probably won me over completely, was the Butterscotch Banana Tarte Tatin. This was beyond easy and SO GOOD and fun to make, because puff pastry PUFFS. And all you did was drape it over the top of a pan and put it the oven but all of a sudden you MADE know?

In the end, what drew me to the Smitten Kitchen recipes most was the conversational-specificity of her ingredients and recipe instruction. In her Butterscotch Banana Tarte Tatin, she writes that the skillet should be "heavy enough so you fear dropping it on your toes" and that you should use bananas that are ripe, but "preferably without speckles." These are the details I like to know, the kind of details that get a cook through a recipe -- from ingredients to process to finish -- successfully. I feel that the reason a lot of my Small Plates experiments failed is because she wasn't specific enough. (The short rib stew didn’t specify if the short ribs should be bone-in or boneless, for example, or offer any real, comprehensive notes on cooking with dried beans. I need to know this information!).

For this matchup, I have to go with The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook! In my opinion, the book itself is not an object to covet but the recipes are superior to those in Small Plates. I’d call this one a squeaker, though -- I wasn’t in love with either book, but aren’t you glad to know that I let the actual food content win out over my better aesthetic judgement?

I judged books by their covers and I was wrong. (Sort of.)


And the winner is…

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

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Do you Agree? (49 comments)

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Oh dear, I just saw that I am on the Smitten Kitten website. Still, all of the below. SK is absolutely great and I congratulate you, Deb.

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Why oh why all the hate? Food 52 provides the best recipes and commentary ever from home cooks and professionals. We are not snobs. We are rather folks who have a serious hobby and/or profession that makes us enthusiastic and inspire each other to try different ingredients and methods and perhaps create something new. Snobs, not!

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I just came across Food52 and this thread (a year late) and boy are you commenters a bunch of uptight snobs. These obnoxious comments reflect so poorly on this site, and the lack of self-awareness is just staggering. Get over yourselves.

This review is *PERFECTLY* in keeping with The Morning Review's Tournament of Books, on which this tournament of cookbooks is based. TMR chooses reviewers who may or may not have specific expertise in literature and invites them to give their feedback and judge based on any criteria they choose. It's not meant to be a comprehensive, rigorous testing. And when it comes to book reviews, it's not important that we like or agree with a reviewer or even that we agree with their criteria for evaluation. It is important that we understand what that reviewer's criteria are, and use that understanding to evaluate how seriously we want to take their opinion. This review succeeds on that level. Most of you utterly fail.

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Spiridakis's review shows us why Bon Appetit has changed into such an awful magazine.
Highly stylized photos of millennialis dining in expensive digs . food Porn...all form and no content. If everyone is looking at fonts and photos and dust jackets.. When do they cook? I suppose we should now throw out all those books with no photos. The Craig Claiborne, James Beard, Marion Cunningham, Silver Palate, Maida Heatter books and many more. This reviewer doesn't cook, and never graduated from picture books to chapter books..but wow.. What a great I phone case!

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I don't care what Ms Spiridakis thinks about these cookbooks; Bon Appetei's iPad app is AMAZING!

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Great writing voice!

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It surprised me to see so many negative comments about Elizabeth Spiridakis's judgment because I found it to be thoughtful, playful, and serious (without being somber). She’s right that a cookbook should be beautiful and the design quality on both of these cookbooks is indeed sub-par—from printing photographs on cheap, high-gloss paper (eek!) to flopping ingredient lists on opposing pages. I’m grateful to Ms. Spiridakis for holding the best cookbook of the year to the highest standards and for calling attention to the book’s design elements. After all, it’s most interesting to read someone’s opinions on the topic that they know best.

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I look forward to Piglet each year but this thread distresses me a bit. When I joined the site and even now it is billed as being for home cooks. Many of the people on the site are food professionals of one sort of another and the people who run the site are food professionals but an on line review of a cookbook, it seems to me, is partly just for fun. Every serious piece of writing is work and creates vulnerability for the writer. I personally love dust jackets as I love everything about books, so I was quite interested in the reviewer's extended opinion about dust jackets even though she doesn't like them. I am interested in every part of the cookbook as well as the recipes, so while it is nice to get a clutch of tested recipes it doesn't seem to be a life and death issue. To me, this is a way to get to know the books better without necessarily reading and cooking from all of them, and to see sides of them that I might not appreciate. I love reading something open ended. I love being surprised by each reviewer's approach. I usually love reading the comment threads but I feel that this one takes itself too seriously!

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Agree with other commentators. The judge did a very poor job of judging. I love both Deb's and Aran's cookbooks and it should have been a very tight competition. I cooked numerous recipes from Aran's book and they all turned out wonderfully. Disappointing to see her lovely book cast in such a harsh light ....

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Ouch! While I have cooked extensively from the Smitten Kitchen Cookbook (and have loved every single recipe), I still don't think this review has been fair to Small Plates. Having only cooked 2 recipes out of each book and giving a much more detailed opinion on the dust jackets (seriously?), I don't think Ms. Spiridakis lived up to the job she was given by food52. I can understand the reasoning behind choosing someone who does't seem to have a knack for over-laborious cooking techniques, but at least food52 could have chosen someone who actually likes cooking and cares more about the food and recipes in a cookbook rather than someone who would obsess over its aesthetic appearance. Whereas every judge is different and every judgement is subjective, this review kinda makes me wonder if food52 should make some kind of general rules about the process of judging the books. Instead of telling reviewers to just "cook dinner", why not ask them to try cook a recipe out of each section of the books (appetizers, mains, desserts, etc.) for example. If Piglet is to aspire to be a major cookbook competition, let's actually give some accountability to the judging process.

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Well said!

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You "don't get into food blogs much" and you are a blogger, are reviewing on a blog, about a blogger. Let's stick with cooks, who happen to have some aesthetics but don't lead with them...

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This is one of the most self-obsessed, aggrandizing and irresponsible cookbook reviews I have ever read. Ms. Spiridakis appears to be more interested in promoting her boorish viewpoints about dust jackets than in actually covering the content of the review in a professional manner. Is it fair to cook two recipes and judge an entire book upon this? What kind of journalism is this promoting?

I would strongly suggest Ms. Spiridakis bother to take the time and effort to cook one of the gluten-free recipes in this book, considering it is subtitled “My Family's Journey to Gluten-Free Cooking.” As a former professional pastry chef who developed an allergy to gluten this IS the point of the entire book. Did the reviewer somehow miss this? All of the gluten-free breads, pastries, and cookies in this book are sheer genius. Aran's knowledge and use of alternative flours is nothing short of miraculous. There has never been a better book on gluten-free baking. Ever.

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I've been thinking about this review since I have read it. The thing that puzzles me is that Deb's photographic aesthetic and the new-ish BA aesthetic are rather similar to me (and I really like both of them). The thing that bothers me about the review is that it implicitly calls my own aesthetic taste into question (which, of course I don't enjoy). Not only can I not tell the difference between the sort of in-your-face close-up photography in BA and SK, but I also really like the picture on the cover of the SK dust jacket. I can see that the SP/ST photograph is more "delicate", but I don't hate that either. I had no idea I so lacked discrimination.

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I almost didn't buy the Smitten Kitchen cookbook. Despite loving Deb's blog, at first glance the cookbook just didn't seem all that exciting to me. But then I got it for Christmas, and it turns out that I absolutely love it. Everything I've made from it has been a total winner -- particular favorites are the beer-and-basalmic short ribs and the snap pea salad with miso-tahini dressing. I also don't like dust jackets, and was so glad this book was actually made to be gorgeous without the jacket! And I don't find the photography dark at all. I'm glad Smitten Kitchen won this round, but I too thought the reviewer did kind of a crappy job. But then again, I hate Bon Appetit's new(ish) look, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this reviewer and I don't agree on much!

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I completely agree!

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Interestingly, Deb at Smitten Kitchen discussed her dislike of dust jackets on her blog when the book was about to be made available (sorry, I can't find the link). The inside cover with the variety of pictures is a compromise between she and the editor - she did not want to have a dust jacket and it's what she wanted the book to look like without it.

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Now I understand why Bon Appetit is such a lousy magazine. Narcissism at its best. How can you work at food magazine, in whatever capacity, and so thoroughly hate cooking?

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Great review. I love smitten kitchen, the blog, and after hearing the continuous praise showered on the cookbook, I was happy that I looked through it before purchasing it. I too found the photography to be sorely lacking, and while the prose were, as usual, great, none of the recipes cried out to me enough to warrant a purchase. To those who say that one shouldn't judge a recipe by the photo, I always admently disagree. I'm glad to hear I'm in good company to some degree

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So glad to read that the art director at BA hates dust covers! I look forward to the next issue of BA that lacks any stunning photography that makes me want to buy it. Plain, understated, and humble. That should work out great.

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Tedious review. Remove the dust jacket and get on with it. I have enjoyed Smitten Kitchen. Cutesy cross outs of unedited thoughts aside, the writer had a warm and likable voice. My issue with the format is the need to flip back and forth between reading the recipe and checking the ingredient list. I would prefer the info I need to be on a two page spread.
I have not cooed from the gluten free book but I am excited to get started.

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Ooh, what a badly written review, so tiresome and self-absorbed, as well as so unfair to the writers, who deserve better. It reads like it was dashed off on a phone or something. Please, could we have some better writing in the next rounds?

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I agree completely!

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Me, too. Least well down of all the reviews so far. Snarky and un-objective.