The Piglet2014 / Quarterfinal Round, 2014

Robicelli's vs. The New Persian Kitchen

Robicelli's

Allison and Matt Robicelli

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The New Persian Kitchen

Louisa Shafia

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Judged by: Maxwell Ryan

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Maxwell Ryan is an interior designer, an author, and the founder of Apartment Therapy Media, originally an interior design service and now a network of blogs devoted to helping people make their homes beautiful, organized, and healthy.

In 2004, Maxwell and his brother launched ApartmentTherapy.com. The network now includes two sites -- ApartmentTherapy.com, devoted to home design, and TheKitchn.com, devoted to home cooking -- reaching over 16 million unique readers per month.

The Judgment

I love to cook, but I am not a cookbook cook. 

I can't remember the last time I followed a recipe from a cookbook, let alone a baking cookbook -- something which requires exactitude -- so I consider myself a perfect, though amateur, judge. Faced with cooking something out of these two very cool books, I couldn't have been more intimidated, but as I diligently thumbed through each one, that intimidation turned to excitement: these books were both beautiful, interesting, and full of things I wanted to make. 

Content-wise, they couldn't be more different. Robicelli’s is a paean to Brooklyn and the bold lives of Allison and Matt Robicelli, who have built a successful business from scratch. The humor and upbeat charisma of Allison and Matt is evident in every page, but as I read, I began to find the design and structure of the book distracting. It organizes itself around "Love Letter" sections ("A Love Letter to Christopher Guest" is meant to explain and highlight their oddly balanced or "clever/stupid" recipes, for example) that are very abstract; when I look at the Table of Contents, I have no clear idea about what the cupcakes in each section might look or taste like. I would have appreciated more photos alongside the recipes to help guide a visual thinker like myself, and the font sizes on the page jump up and down, which made it hard for me to navigate the recipe instructions reliably. 

Do the Robicellis know how to make rich and interesting cupcakes? Yes, they do. (And, full disclosure: I happen to love cupcakes.) But baking is tough, and when I do it, I want a calm, clear guide. There were times when this book didn’t offer that. The Robicellis are intense -- and sometimes that made it hard for me to learn from them. From their book I made the Brooklyn Blackout Cupcakes; the recipe was complicated and hard to follow, but it was also incredibly delicious. 

I baked them a second time, and I did find that doing so made them quite a bit easier. Based on famous cupcakes from Ebingers Bakery, they require the baking of the cupcakes, the making of a custard, and, finally, a shiny glaze that covers the custard and makes the whole thing that much more decadent. And, oh, the chocolate! If you love chocolate, these are for you. There is so much knowledge and deliciousness here to enjoy, just as soon as you decipher the 4-page recipe. 

They had me with their beautiful cover, but, at times, they lost me with the content. 

The New Persian Kitchen is an elegant introduction to Persian food and, after the first book, I found it comforting to read. The table of contents is laid out very clearly, starting with "starters and snacks" and ending with "pickles and preserves." The font size changes are all well organized so that chapters and recipes stand out the most. And there is a compelling lead-in to Persian cuisine which answered a big question on my mind right away:

"I'm often asked, "So, what exactly is Persian food?" The best way I can think of to describe it is as a lush garden in the desert, a familiar image from classical Persian lore ... Why a desert garden? Through a system of underground aquifers, ancient Persians transformed vast stretches of arid land into fertile oases, and over thousands of years, the miracle of water in such unlikely places led to a cuisine that relishes the gifts of the garden in every bite." 

I loved that image -- it inspired and colored Shafia’s whole collection of recipes. 

Shafia’s writing never tried to sell me on her personality; I trusted her completely and appreciated her calm approach as I entered this new, unfamiliar cuisine. The recipes mainly filled individual pages (a plus: no page turning while cooking) and were clearly laid out. 

The Date-and-Walnut-Filled Cookies I chose to make intimidated me at first, as they seemed to require an global assortment of flour that I couldn't find (fava bean, coconut, tapioca). But Shafia assured me that I could use white flour if I needed, and everything baked up perfectly. The cookies were nutty and light -- not only successful, but delicious, subtle, and surprising, with a recipe that was easy to follow. In fact everything about The New Persian Kitchen was much simpler once you dove in; the organization and tone seemed geared to that effect. If an ingredient was rare or a cooking tool unique, there was always a common replacement.

I made these cookies twice as well, and they improved greatly on the second round. Making the balls of dough and stuffing them with the date-nut filling is tricky, but both trials came out with a buttery crust and a lovely filling. This recipe packed itself very nicely into a page and a half, which meant that I didn't need to do too much page flipping. 

These books are both beautiful on first glance -- their covers interesting and delicious-looking -- but when you open them up, they’re vastly different. I now believe a good cookbook illuminates the story of the food and the making of it. To me, the story of the cook is much less important. 

For that reason, The New Persian Kitchen is the book I’m more likely to keep on my kitchen shelf. 

And the winner is…

The New Persian Kitchen

The New Persian Kitchen

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Do you Agree?

68 Comments

pbf March 1, 2014
This is a really good review of two very different types of cookbooks and was thoughtful and fair -- considering this is a contest. I suppose that the premise of this competition means that cookbooks won't necessarily be compared to others which are similar -- baking books to baking books, etc. That being said, however, this is the competition we have and you did a fair and informative job of judging. Thanks.
 
Naomi M. February 28, 2014
A really nice review! Have to agree myself, own the Persian Kitchen but cupcakes, nice as they are, simply don't fit in with the way I eat! Difficult to compare two very different books I know, but a great job!
 
Maja L. February 27, 2014
I had a vague idea I would like The New Persian Kitchen but the review kind of sold me on it. I want those cookies!<br />
 
Manny G. February 26, 2014
I think I would always choose a more cumulative cookbook over a single subject book.
 
BakerK February 26, 2014
I want to buy The New Persian Kitchen just for that date and walnut cookie recipe--sounds divine!
 
HalfPint February 26, 2014
I've skimmed both books (courtesy of Piglet), borrowed from my local library. This match-up is such an apples-to-orange comparison. It really boils down to the individual cook. If you love sweets and cupcakes, you'll like the Robicelli book. I agree with the reviewer, the layout can be a bit chaotic and intimidating. I'm a fairly decent baker and even I found myself thinking whether I had the energy to take on some of those cupcakes, as insanely delicious as they looked and sounded. This book has a fun narrative with a few expletives sprinkled (lightly) in. I've read some reviews whose authors were rather turned off by the language. I didn't find that to be quite the case. Sure, there is a little swearing, but not anymore than what I hear in a PG-rated movie. Makes me wonder what these readers would have thought of Roy Choi's LA Son.<br /><br />Switching gears abruptly, the Shaifa book is very reader friendly. The layout is easy on the eyes and rather comforting in tone. Almost too tranquille. I found my attention wondering a bit as I perused the recipes. The directions are clear and well organized. I didn't feel intimidated by this book which I sort of felt with Jerusalem by Ottolenghi which is an incredible book, but still intense and intimidating. That's why The New Persian Kitchen on my wishlist.
 
jeneric February 26, 2014
This is the beauty of the piglet: I would never have known about The New Persian Kitchen, but after two rounds, I'm getting it!
 
tyrannyofcake February 26, 2014
Those date-and-walnut-filled cookies sound delicious. Smart choice to compare two recipes for sweets.
 
Ileana M. February 26, 2014
I can't wait to get my hands on that Persian cookbook!
 
Bob M. February 26, 2014
Methinks it was a brutal mismatch.
 
Jill H. February 25, 2014
While my love for Persian food may be a bias, I have to say the simplicity and excitement that come across in the review for The New Persian Kitchen makes it a just win!
 
Joan O. February 25, 2014
Great review that made me want to take a look at The New Persian Kitchen.
 
Anna B. February 25, 2014
Cupcakes without pictures and hard-to-follow recipes, no thank you. A steady guide to a new, untried cuisine, yes please to both a good read and great recipes. Nice review.
 
PieceOfLayerCake February 25, 2014
Persian food is incredible! I'm so glad its being highlighted here. And, as a pastry chef, I can't tell you how disappointing it is to see a book dedicated to cupcakes. Do a cake book, sure (Rose Levy Beranbaum made a name for herself off of one), and give the OPTION for a cupcake. But has the cupcake really become so dominant that we lose the lineage?
 
Annie B. February 25, 2014
Another very well-written review.
 
Liz W. February 25, 2014
Kudos to the reviewer for being thorough enough to make a recipe twice before passing judgment. I, too, prefer a cookbook to be about the recipes. A memoir can tell me what I need to know about a person. I think that The New Persian Kitchen seems to be a better organized book. A book about baking needs to be even more precise and organized than one about cooking.<br />
 
Rinchen February 25, 2014
Seems like an unfair match up. Who would dare criticize Christopher Guest! The New Persian kitchen sounds like a bridge to an ancient culture. I imagine it is just as enticing as Saha., one of my all time faves.
 
ATG117 February 25, 2014
Wonderful review. I love how the second review has brought to light even more details about each book, which the first reviewer had not covered. It's given me a great sense of the books, and in this case, I totally agree with the verdict. I only wish the piglet could be replicated by different reviewers, testing the recipes in a different order. It would be so interesting to see how results differed.
 
THEToughCookie February 25, 2014
Such different books, different techniques, different skill set. Baking is not cooking. Why can't the baking books be judged against each other?
 
boulangere February 25, 2014
I second the motion.
 
kgmom February 25, 2014
Hard to compare such different books!<br />