The Piglet2015 / Semifinal Round, 2015

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts vs. Heritage

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

Brooks Headley

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Sean Brock

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Judged by: Henry Alford

Humorist and journalist Henry Alford is the author of five books. He has written for The New Yorker, and writes a monthly column about manners for the New York Times.

The Judgment

I will admit to initial misgivings concerning Brooks Headley’s Fancy Desserts. A former punk rocker, the pastry chef at Del Posto has rigged his cookbook with artifacts from his days spent creating a towering wall of sound -- here is a photo of a pair of broken, splintery drumsticks; here is a poster from when Spitboy, Universal Order of Armageddon, and Man Is the Bastard all played Berkeley. I mean, dood.

Sean Brock’s Heritage, by contrast, seemed at first blush to be homespun, simple, heartening -- look, please, at the photos of chickens and a tractor and a hog; note the awesome-looking and terrific-sounding Breast of Guinea Hen Pan-Roasted on the Bone with Oats, Ramps, and Parsnips.

But as soon as I started cooking from the two books, my first impressions started to shift.

My first step was to tally the number of recipes in each book that a) I wanted to make and b) didn’t require wildly out-of-season produce, special ordering, or trips beyond my local Whole Foods or Chinatown markets. The Headley book had 25, but the Brock -- because he is so devoted to heirloom veggies and benne and fennel pollen and seasonal fruit -- had only 14.

I started with Brock, making his Southern take on the classic Provençal barigoule, in which he’s substituted its traditional ingredient, artichokes, with eggplant. Finished with a 1/2 cup of white wine and a 1/4 cup of Cynar or dry vermouth (I used the latter, as artichoke liqueur is a longstanding source of humor in my household), this was, when served over rice, a hearty and terrific way to combat a cold winter night. Seared cubes of eggplant + winey sauce = happy face decal. Two nights later I made Brock’s Chicken Simply Roasted in a Skillet (a beautifully-seared and then roasted chicken half is topped with garlic “confit” and a pan sauce that’s been graced with slivers of Italian parsley and the juice and zest of a lemon). My boyfriend and I devoured it, instantly forming a relationship with the sauce that bordered on the vampiric; I am quite sure that this is a recipe I will be making for the rest of my life. The lemon and parsley separate it from the roasted chicken ranks. 

When it comes to dinner, the two “money” words in my household are mustard and carrots. So, on seeing that Headley had a recipe for candied carrots, I knew I had to try them. They took seconds to make (sear carrots in olive oil; sprinkle with sugar; finish with butter), and proved to be a lively and unexpected accompaniment to chicken curry. A good start.

Next I made Headley’s Red Wine Plums, wherein dried plums are stewed in red wine, some sugar, and the zest of orange: Yes, please. Headley suggests serving it with a chestnut cake, but I decided to go off-road and use vanilla Haagen Dazs -- I can defy authority, too, dood, and frozen dessert products are my CBGB. 

But my favorite Headley offering was Brutti Ma Buoni, the hazelnut meringue whose name translates as Ugly But Good. Because I love to touch and manipulate food (no-knead bread: Who would bother?), the fact that I would get to make flattish meringue cookies and then, while they’re still hot, scrunch them into weird, crusty Monet haystacks was very exciting to me. In my next life, when my work as a massager of kale and octopus and Kobe beef starts to contort my upper body from over-use, I will hang up my shingle as a meringue aggregator. As Taylor Swift is to youngfolk, I will be to elderly Italian women.

Or will this same demographic think I’m the devil? Shortly after making Brutti Ma Buoni a second time, I realized: roasted peanuts. Their saltiness and crunch, when injected into the template of the weird, crusty Monet haystack, produces a flavor profile that is admittedly more terrestrial than its hazelnut progenitor, but somehow more nutty, more savory, more convincing. A hazelnut meringue is something you give to a small child or a dowager, certain that its bracing amount of sugar will render them tongue-lolling and couch-bound in a crowded hotel lobby in Zurich. But a peanut meringue has more possibilities. You could serve them to a sunburned family who has spent too many hours on a boat. You could warm the soul of someone going through a difficult break-up.

What’s confounding about Brutti Ma Buoni is that, despite seeming so rich and luxuriant, they consist solely of nuts, egg whites, sugar, cinnamon, vanilla, and salt. No butter. 

Which brings me to a larger point: Though I had great results with both books, Headley arrived at his results with far fewer ingredients. Two of the Headley items I made had 5 ingredients and one had 6; the Brock dishes, by contrast, had 22 and 24 (if, as Brock suggests, you make your own chicken stock). Granted, Brock’s dishes were entrées and Headley’s desserts; but we are talking about a factor of four here.  

I so admire chefs who can make something unexpected from a few ordinary ingredients. And while, yes, I also admire a chef like Brock who champions heritage ingredients and who is re-positioning an entire cuisine, this second kind of admiration is a more passive one for me.  

At the risk of sounding more shallow than you already think me, I will point out that the two books’ appearance seems to mirror my ultimate feelings about the books as a whole. When I look at Brock’s oversized, jacketed tome lying on my stack of cookbooks, I think, “That is a lovely monument to a chef and his mandate.” When I look at Headley’s unjacketed, textbook-like work, I think, “Next batch: walnuts.” 

And the winner is…

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

Brooks Headley's Fancy Desserts

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Do you Agree?


Radish March 30, 2015
I bought Heritage reluctantly. But I have enjoyed it immensely. I do not know that I will cook anything from it, but it is a wonderful read. I keep coming back to reread parts and I am actually working up courage to cook from it. The cocktail parts are so interesting. And I am going to order some of the products from the resources. I would like to know how special Carolina Rice is. Drinking Vinegar? Sounds fun.
Jamie D. March 8, 2015
Helpful review, thank you! I am interested in both books but being from Virginia my bias goes towards Heritage. Although I admit I worry some over how specific ingredients might be for the recipes to actually ever get made correctly, the regional focus does make me want to read and learn.
Juliebell March 8, 2015
Great review written with wonderful wit.
Zelda March 8, 2015
Thank you for this well judged, informative review. I have always felt intimidated by the thought of dessert, never mind the fancy variety, but this has piqued my curiosity!
Zelda March 8, 2015
Heritage sounds fascinating, too, I should add!
pandapotamus March 7, 2015
LittleKi March 7, 2015
This review took me right out of my first-cup-of-coffee stupor and now I want both books!
Naomi M. March 7, 2015
Kate I agree that regional books are treasures! As we get more and more global, old regional food traditions are dying out! I especially love southern ones like Edna Lewis, and Texas traditions. And some of the Jr. League books are pretty great like River Road that taught my husbands family to cook!
Joan O. March 7, 2015
Now this is my kind of review and my favorite so far. Loved that I know how many dishes the reviewer would actually make from each book and the amount of ingredients in recipes made was interesting. Also that he actually cooked recipes from each book and what they were and how he liked them. I'm still not sure the dessert book is for me since I'm don't need more dessert recipes at the moment but I'd give it a look due to this review. I also still want a peek at Heritage.
Kate P. March 7, 2015
I will admit that I do not have Brooks Headley's book, nor have I looked at the book in much detail, but being the owner of Sean Brock's book, I feel that his book is a very special and beautiful example of a book celebrating the food of his heritage (literally) and gives such a sense of place and purpose. I don't live in the US, but I feel that books celebrating regional ingredients and traditions are to be treasured and I can't help but wish this book was the winner of this round.
dymnyno March 6, 2015
Is it fair to judge a book by the accessibility of its ingredients? It depends on where you live.
sexyLAMBCHOPx March 6, 2015
I'm with Eliza on this one.
eliza_z March 6, 2015
Lovely review, a good analysis of the recipes (including counts of what recipes were tagged and average number of ingredients per recipe, things that are so helpful to know!) Although Fancy Desserts scares me a bit as a non-baker, I'm starting to think about purchasing it!
Maia March 6, 2015
I actually purchased Headley's book, and, as a pastry chef, found it *inutile*, as the French say. I love his philosophy, and in fact am often as irreverent. But… Brock's buttermilk poppyseed ice cream.
hana March 6, 2015
hmmm...reading the review makes one want to gravitate to the eliminated book.
Ileana M. March 6, 2015
Loved this review!
booglix March 6, 2015
Interesting! I definitely want to read and cook from Fancy Desserts...
ChefJune March 6, 2015
Very interesting review. Having been a pastry chef, I have way more dessert books than I will ever use, and still am not sold on this one. It does sound interesting, but... OTOH, Brock's book is a finalist for THREE IACP cookbook awards. Headley's did not make the cut.
dymnyno March 7, 2015
It almost sounds like backlash for Sean's book being so well regarded by the IACP .
Bridget March 6, 2015
Aside from the entertainment value of this review, I was most impressed by the fact that he took the time to asses the availability of ingredients and cooked through more than one recipe. Although I am one who actually read the stories in a cookbook, as someone who has a passion for food, my ultimate goal is to actually cook from a cookbook. This review puts both books on my wish list. Bravo!
alison March 6, 2015
I liked this review. I liked that the reviewer started by counting the number of recipes he wanted to make, and had ingredients he could easily find. Too often I have bought cookbooks, only to find I use just a handful of the recipes. Desserts are something I shouldn't eat too often, but those meringues are calling.
JudyH March 6, 2015
Each review of Fancy Desserts makes me more interested. It sounds like the recipes are a revelation.