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The Piglet2015 / Quarterfinal Round, 2015

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts vs. Flavor Flours

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

Brooks Headley

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Flavor Flours

Alice Medrich

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Judged by: Edward Lee

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Edward Lee is the chef and proprietor of 610 Magnolia, The Wine Studio, and MilkWood, all in Louisville, KY. He is a multiple finalist for the James Beard Foundation Award Best Chef: Southeast. He is the author of the best-selling cookbook, Smoke & Pickles. He appears regularly on television, most recently as the chef and host for Season 3 of the Emmy-winning series, Mind of a Chef. His signature small batch bourbon with Jefferson’s Reserve called Chef’s Collaboration Blend has garnered praise from the nation’s top publications. He resides in Louisville, KY and is an avid karaoke singer.

The Judgment

I rarely cook from cookbooks. I finger through the cool pictures and scan the ingredients, but mostly, they make my library look cool. 

Dessert books are different. I actually use them, and they sit on my kitchen counter dog eared and dirty. There’s a quiet zen to measuring and scooping that makes the process of using one pleasant. A good dessert recipe is about trust; I don’t question authority, but instead allow myself to be led through a series of instructions while my brain drifts in and out of focus. So I was relieved when I got these two greatly anticipated dessert books to review. And then I realized they couldn’t be more different: Aside from the fact that both live in the dessert section of your local bookstore -- please support your local bookstore -- they have nothing else in common. Reviewing them would be difficult. Here goes: 

I’ll start with the more conventional book, Flavor Flours. Alice Medrich is a god among mortals; I own all of her books, and so should you. I’d be lying if I said I never pilfered one of her recipes to enhance a dessert on my menu. Her truffles are legendary, her lemon bar is the touchstone for all others, and her chocolate torte can’t be improved upon. Her body of work (this is her eleventh book!) is known for its precision, elegance, and reliability. Flavor Flours fits right in. 

She tackles the world of wheat substitute flours with an approach that is both familiar and refreshingly bold. This volume gives ancient grains the lengthy conversation they deserve; it eschews the polarizing topic of gluten-free in favor of a lusty-yet-educational approach to working through our unfamiliarity with flours from corn and buckwheat to teff and sorghum. (Here’s an example of the resource page being quite helpful -- some of these flours are hard to find.) It’s filled with logical instructions, majestic photography, and plenty of helpful substitution ideas. She’ll confidently assume you have some prior baking experience, and she doesn’t cut corners for the sake of novices. (If a recipe doesn’t work, it’s your fault, not hers.)  

Medrich is adept at coaxing deep flavors out of recipes as simple as her Buckwheat Sponge Cake -- which sounds and looks odd but the nutty, almost savory finish is so haunting I know I will make it again and again. Her Chestnut Jam Tart is a great example of something so familiar and recognizable and yet unlike anything you’ve ever tasted. The decadent, taut crust gives way to a chewy center that’s both impossibly soft and crunchy at the same time -- it’s easily the best dessert I’ve had in my mouth this year. And recipes like the Corn Flour Tea Cake are easy enough to instantly become a staple in your repertoire. All throughout, it’s evident how much research and testing went into this book.    

As with any compendium of recipes, some ideas can seem to overreach. The rice flour beignets were tasty, but I wouldn’t put them above a traditional wheat flour and lard recipe. In her introduction, Medrich explains that she made a decision not to introduce Aboriginal recipes -- instead she chose to focus on the familiar canon of Western desserts. I wish she would have ventured more into the unknown; teff and sorghum offer a world of exotic possibilities that I would have loved to delve deeper into. And what about the dizzying variety of sweet cakes and dumplings that rice flours have contributed to Asian cultures? As I read and cooked my way through her book, I was thankful for her exhaustive treatment -- but also left feeling like I wanted more of a cultural context from whence these delicious flours came.   

Which brings me to Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts. For him, everything is a cultural context. You don’t navigate through his recipes in a vacuum; you listen to them through his lens of punk rock, his sardonic New York City attitude, his Holden Caulfield-esque skepticism of anything that smells like it came from a “pastry chef” kitchen, and most importantly, his contagious passion for what he does day in day out. 

Books like his are not easy to digest; they involve a level of commitment that, frankly, most home cooks aren’t willing to invest. He can be self-deprecating about this, so let me clarify something before we go any further: You will never make desserts like Mr. Headley. You may buy his book and faithfully follow his recipes, but you will not recreate his desserts on the level that he does. (If you’ve been to Del Posto, then you know what I’m talking about.) 

So why should you crack open this book at all? Therein lies the beautiful contradiction: It is precisely in that failure to reach perfection that you will find your way to becoming a better cook. Headley doesn’t assume that you have prior baking experience. He doesn’t care. The recipes do not follow a logical course; they are at times mercifully short and frustratingly abridged. You’ll feel helpless because you don’t have Tristar strawberries. You’ll feel angry reading that his tangerine dessert is just a tangerine over cracked ice. 

But you’d be an idiot not to make the Cucumber Creamsicle -- a dessert that so fragrant, sweet, and savory that it forces you to rethink your notions of what a “sweet” dessert is. Or the Sbrisolona, a cookie-cake hybrid so addictive that you don’t care that he doesn’t tell you what it is for or how to pronounce it only to discover later that it’s a component on a dessert in a different part of the book. He takes Brown Butter Panna Cotta, which sounds so mundane, to another stratosphere by making it a three-day process. Set in a plastic lid, it’s the thinnest panna cotta you’ve ever had -- and the book is full of little details like this that just blow your mind. All of these desserts will alter the rest of your life, if you have the patience to make them. They’re that good.  

Fancy Desserts, with its recipes connected like a mystery novel, can be confusing, illogical, hilarious, disarming, vulnerable, and intimidating -- and I could not put it down. Part culinary manifesto, part punk rock tapestry, part New York City folklore, this book is not just a fascinating read, it’s a portrait of a person, of a time, and of a place so unique you feel lucky to live it through the pages of a book. I wish more chefs were this honest about themselves. Hell, I wish more people were too. 

What I will say is this: Don’t attempt to make a recipe until you’ve read the whole book -- every page, cover to cover. Let it sink in. Listen. Don’t just turn to page 62 and start pulling out your measuring cups. No, you may not have Tristar strawberries, but what’s important is that you smell, touch, feel, and build up your vocabulary of ripeness, of taste memory. It’s important that you be aware. Understand that first, and then start on the recipes. If that isn’t zen, I don’t know what is. 

Alice’s book is measured elegance. With her, you get to cook the perfect recipe. With Headley, you get a chance to be a better cook, and maybe, if you really listen closely, a better person.  

And the winner is…

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

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Do you Agree? (55 comments)

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over 1 year ago LE BEC FIN

HA! So many of us have commented what a great writer he is: check this out:
" Lee attended college at NYU graduating Magna cum Laude with a degree in English Literature. At 22, he chose to pursue a culinary career instead of a literary one."
Yay, edward!

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over 1 year ago LE BEC FIN

wow, edward lee, you obviously have 'great writer DNA'. If all the piglet reviewers could have Lee's articulate writing and clear analytical skills, combined with a firm knowledge of cooking and sweets cooking, we 52ers would be soooo lucky. Here's hoping we'll see more of his reviews in one format or another...!

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almost 2 years ago Juliebell

I loved this review so much I am buying Edward Lee's cookbook

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almost 2 years ago satyamama

this was an incredible review. honestly heading in to it, i figured that of course Ms. Medrich would emerge the winner. NOW, well, I feel the need to have both books. AND that Mr. Edward Lee needs to write more reviews. It was such a well balanced and nuanced review, thanks for that.

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almost 2 years ago Juliebell

This review was beautifully written! Thank you for such valuable insight.

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almost 2 years ago Helen

Oh man. I love Flavor Flours, it's handsome and contains the best German Chocolate Cake recipe ever conceived and I was rooting for it to win. But having read this review, my only response is that I need to go buy Fancy Desserts, too.

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almost 2 years ago HeatherM

Wow, high praise! This review is so well written. I have no intention of buying a dessert cookbook, but I really enjoyed reading about them.

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almost 2 years ago pandapotamus

I need both of these!!!

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almost 2 years ago Connie C.

I have neither the skills nor the confidence to cook or bake from either of these books, but I can dream. And I can drool over them.
The elegance of the review itself is a joy to read. Thank you.

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almost 2 years ago JudyH

This thoughtful review was a pleasure to read. Well done, Mr. Lee. I now want both books.

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almost 2 years ago Nicole B-L

Looks so fun!

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almost 2 years ago luvcookbooks

Meg is a trusted home cook.

Seriously need to go to Del Posto, then get the book.

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almost 2 years ago hobbit2nd

Great review. Flavor Flours sounds interesting but I think that I'd rather eat desserts than make them!

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almost 2 years ago Zensister

I'm now curious about Fancy Desserts. I just started experimenting with Flavor Flours, and I'm thrilled with it. It's a far more intuitive look at wheat flour alternatives than I've worked with.

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almost 2 years ago chels

This is the best review I've ever read! Like someone else said, it gave me all the information I wanted about each book. It made me absolutely certain that I want to own Flavor Flours, but also deeply curious (and on the hunt) for Fancy Desserts as well!

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almost 2 years ago rosalind5

This is a excellent review - but as other have commented, I'm definitely going to buy Flavor Flours (this review cemented the deal; I'm going to *love* this book), however I'm still very much on the fence about buying Fancy Desserts.

"All of these desserts will alter the rest of your life, if you have the patience to make them." I celebrate the fact that such cookbooks exist (and work!), but isn't that what restaurants are for?

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almost 2 years ago Inko

I enjoyed the review but it made me want to buy Flavor Flour. I'd be content to be a worse person making foolproof and delicious desserts.

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almost 2 years ago C WILSON

Thoughtfully crafted review - thank you! And what a cliff-hanger. I respect the choice, but for me I am more likely to purchase Medrich's book and check Headley's out at the library.

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almost 2 years ago Naomi Manygoats

Food that is so good 'it will alter the rest of your life'. Bingo! That is exactly what I want! Which is why I pick the Flour book, not the dessert one! In order to HAVE a 'rest of a life' that exceeds the next two years, due to revenge of The Cancer, I cannot have wonderfully decadent sugar and flour filled goodies. Which is why I love Flavor Flours so much! It allows you to have the occasional fabulous gluten-free dessert, and still feel great! The Peach Crumble looks so amazing, I can't wait until the peaches are ripe so I can try it! Which is why it is great that there is a list of variations so I can make it right now with blackberries! Dark chocolate soufflés made with rice flour, yum! Most gluten free cookbooks simply try to swap out flour with something gluten free. But Medrich makes pretty amazing looking recipes using better tasting flours such as coconut and nut flour, which takes baking to a whole new level. Books that help you have better health almost never compare well with conventional books, which is why I was so stunned Flavor Flours got this far. Truly, I wish we could all eat and drink the way we could when we were about 25, but doing that for a few decades takes a serious toll. Sorry, don't intend to bum out the dessert hard-core. I am sure the Fancy Dessert book is amazing, especially for dessert chefs! But I no longer want to spend 3 days making something. But I would love to look at the winner! I just got Flavor Flours in the mail today, and now want Dorie's latest too, if only for sweet dreams!

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almost 2 years ago Thom Carter

I think think he was going to come to that conclusion but I agree. I want a book that will make me think and make me a better cook in the process even if I can't achieve the perfection of the author.