The Piglet2013 / First Round, 2013

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook

Deb Perelman

Get the Book

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

Small Plates & Sweet Treats

Aran Goyoaga

Get the Book

The Judgment

297114_10150342144903022_345650872_n

By Elizabeth Spiridakis

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 SOMETHING...you 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

Get the Book

Do you Agree? (49 comments)

Default-small
Default-small
Default-small

about 1 year ago pmporter

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.

Default-small

about 1 year ago pmporter

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!

Default-small

about 1 year ago bkh20town

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.

Image

about 2 years ago jamcook

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!

Default-small

about 2 years ago Hgranger

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

Default-small

about 2 years ago Omnivore Books

Great writing voice!

Maria_zizka_headshot

about 2 years ago Maria Zizka

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.

Birthday_2012

about 2 years ago luvcookbooks

Meg is a trusted home cook.

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!

Default-small

about 2 years ago DeesJournal

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 ....

Life_as_art-_japanese_print_3

about 2 years ago sel et poivre

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.

378765_10100142819201243_27206805_43631123_963932696_n

about 2 years ago The Fiery Epicurean

Well said!

Default-small

about 2 years ago amyeik

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...

Default-small

about 2 years ago lappie5

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.

La_gerbe_detail

about 2 years ago rosalind5

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.

Default-small

about 2 years ago bookgeekgirl

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!

378765_10100142819201243_27206805_43631123_963932696_n

about 2 years ago The Fiery Epicurean

I completely agree!

Default-small

about 2 years ago nlgeiger

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.

Default-small

about 2 years ago pmporter

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?

Default-small

about 2 years ago ATG117

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

Chris_and_karen_dr._winnie

about 2 years ago thepeche

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.

Default-small

about 2 years ago Sarag

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.

Imag0055

about 2 years ago mainecook61

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?

378765_10100142819201243_27206805_43631123_963932696_n

about 2 years ago The Fiery Epicurean

I agree completely!

Image

about 2 years ago bgavin

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

Default-small

about 2 years ago Elena-Raluca

I love Bon Appetit magazine, both for aesthetics and for content. But let me be truly disappointed with the magazine's Art Director; Mrs. Spiridakis prose is as bad as an unsalted dish. For someone with that kind of prose, the cooking must be very bad (is this lack of patience?). As for the books, I have both and I cooked from both and I must say that Aran does everything with a whole lot more finesse. And as finesse goes well with aesthetic, Mrs. Spiridakis should have stick to her first judgement (as the second one is irrelevant, considering her cooking skills)!

Chris_and_karen_dr._winnie

about 2 years ago thepeche

You really exemplify the food52 community at its best. Stay classy.

Chris_and_karen_dr._winnie

about 2 years ago thepeche

I just want to thank the anonymous person who stopped by our blog to call me a C for my comments here. It means so much! Food52 at its best!

Default-small

about 2 years ago paseo

How inappropriate

Birthday_2012

about 2 years ago luvcookbooks

Meg is a trusted home cook.

This Piglet decision was well written and fun to read. I appreciate having someone else's thoughts about the books and luv the variety of ways people write up their opinions!!

Default-small

about 2 years ago Michele1982

I must disagree wholeheartedly. I have made 12 recipes from "Small Plates" since I bought it 5 weeks ago and each has turned out fantastic; looked just like the photos, taste amazing and have been very simple to reproduce. This book is a bonus for any gluten free person providing information, simple but tasty recipes and enough variety to please all. Perhaps you should stick with reviewing books from an art direction point of view not a cooking point of view? Your comments regarding cooking with dried beans and challenges with beets hint that culinary arts may not be your forte. Not sure what went wrong for you but sounds like you were using a different "Small Plates" than the one I own.

378765_10100142819201243_27206805_43631123_963932696_n

about 2 years ago The Fiery Epicurean

BOO Elizabeth Spiridakis! I have both of these books, love them both for different reasons, but what Elizabeth Spiridakis wrote truly upsets me.

Default-small

about 2 years ago Lourierussell

OK, healthierkitchen! You've set a much nicer example of how to "stick up" for books you love! I'll take a page from your book next time!

Dsc_0048b

about 2 years ago healthierkitchen

Everyone has different reasons for loving cookbooks. I have some I never cook from but love to read. Others I look at more for the photos and still others are workhorses in the kitchen. I value all three categories. However, it is the rare cookbook that hits all three for me or just pulls at my heart for some inexplicable reason. This is the kind of book I look for to win the Piglet. Along the way, I am introduced to and intrigued by others that might still appeal to me even as they don't advance. And I will still go spend time at a bookstore with most of the books that don't advance and make my own conclusion about whether I want to own them. That said, I value the opinions here and generally find them interesting to read. Do I take them as law? No, I and most other people I know would exercise independent judgement in choosing how we spend our cookbook dollars and our cooking time. While I don't share Ms. Spindakis' distaste for book jackets and disagree with assertion that I should, I respect and can completely see how an art director would find the look and feel of a book to be of great importance. Would I not buy a book because of it? Not if it had other merits to me. Obviously, the "je ne sais quoi" of a book is different for everyone and for her the litmus test is art based. Why wouldn't she discuss the merits of each on that basis? As it turns out, she continues to actually cook from both books and renders an opinion based more on the recipes than the style of the book, though she says neither really speaks to her. I don't think that takes anything away from this forum.

Default-small

about 2 years ago Lourierussell

I LOVE Smitten Kitchen! I have made several of the recipes and have many more marked for future meals. The tomato scallion shortcakes with whipped goat cheese were so delicious! These recipes are made with familiar ingredients, but used in unusual ways. Perhaps art directors aren't particularly well equipped to judge cook books by anything but their covers!

Default-small

about 2 years ago KRae

I was actually surprised by this decision--I have the Small Plates book and completely love it. I'll admit that my favorite part of the book is the "sweet treat" section, as well as the other baked goods in the book (focaccia, breads, savory muffins). This is over half of the recipes--the author used to be a pastry chef! It seems a bit unfair to not test one of her baked goods for the challenge. Anyway, all of the recipes are gluten free, and most that I've tried (from a pear cake with homemade toffee to a quince tart) have been delicious and very forgiving--a rarity among gluten-free recipes. I'd recommend it to any baker.

Face-1

about 2 years ago Naomi Manygoats

I found the fonts in both books to be very easy to read. The Smitten Kitchen a bit less so in the ingredient list because they were rather brownish. I have some cookbooks that have obviously tried very hard to have stylish fonts and layouts, while having a font size that is nearly impossible for ANYONE (young or old) to read! I am not an art director, but am an artist and natural foods chef and I found the layout of both books to be nice and the pictures gorgeous. The blog cannelle et vanille (Small Plates) have some of the most beautiful food photographs ever taken! I love both books, but find the numbered list of directions, as well as having the entire recipe/ photos of each recipe visable at once (no flipping the page to finish a recipe) gives Small Plates the edge. There are very appealing dishes in both books, using wonderful, fresh ingredients. And time consuming recipes in each (try making the Zucchini ribbons with a peeler as suggested in the Smitten Kitchen)!

Default-small

about 2 years ago jmddc

I'm actually okay with dust jackets because they protect the book and can double as a bookmark. I love the Smitten Kitchen cookbook both for the recipes and the photography which I don't find dark at all.

Chris_and_karen_dr._winnie

about 2 years ago thepeche

Wait. What did you think about the fonts they used? WHAT ABOUT THE FONTS???

Face-1

about 2 years ago Naomi Manygoats

Well, more time was spent complaining about dust jackets and formatting than on cooking the food it seems. I think to fairly judge both books in such a big competition, you should at least read all the recipes in both and cook half a dozen from each, instead of flipping through each and only cooking a couple. I don't mind dust jackets, and I do think good formatting is important, but the number of great recipes is much more important to me.

Cakes

about 2 years ago Bevi

Agreed

Junechamp

about 2 years ago ChefJune

June is a trusted source on General Cooking.

I.would.never.peel.baby.beets! I don't know either book, but the Butterscotch Banana Tarte Tatin makes me want to look for Smitten Kitchen in my library.

Ozoz_profile

about 2 years ago Kitchen Butterfly

Elizabeth - you're my kind of girl, I cant stand dust jackets. I know what they are meant to be....but I am not meant a lover of them. Anyway, to the topic at hand, I am pleased the recipes 'spoke', after the cooking and eating.

Chris_and_karen_dr._winnie

about 2 years ago thepeche

So. Dust jackets. High gloss paper. Tiny beets. Puff pastry.

Got it.

Img_1433

about 2 years ago China Millman

I have to agree about dust covers, but personally I hate cookbooks that are too pretty. If all goes well, that book will wind up folded, stained and generally worn-in. Coincidentally, I made the butternut squash galette from Smitten Kitchen last night and was really impressed by the accuracy and delicious-ness of the recipe. I haven't investigated Small Plates & Sweet Treats, but I don't have any plans to buy it, so I guess that says it all.

Default-small

about 2 years ago creamcheese

Interesting notes on the book design, but I was glad to see that recipe content prevailed as the decision maker.

Stringio

about 2 years ago Leah Silver Graves

Yeah, I get my baby beats at Trader Joe's. I'm too lazy to peel and I don't want my butcher block to get all red.

Img00019-20100929-0432_1_

about 2 years ago sexyLAMBCHOPx

sexyLAMBCHOPx is a trusted home cook.

I enjoy Smitten's blog but her book was very disappointing to me.

Default-small

about 2 years ago Swaki

I so enjoy Deb Perlman's recipes. I'm pleased you went with her book.

Img_5648

about 2 years ago krissi

I hate dust covers too, there is not one in my house, they are instantly removed. I did not care for either book and I enjoy The Smitten Kitchen website.