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Birmingham’s Best Eats: Cook-off! The Thomas Keller vs. Frank Stitt Challenge


Pork loin, Frank Stitt

Roast Pork Loin Stuffed with Rosemary, Bacon, and Onions,
from a recipe in “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table.”
Photos by Jason Horn.

By Jason Horn

I make a dish a week (or so) from “Ad Hoc at Home,” by Thomas Keller, arguably America’s greatest chef. Everything’s made from scratch, using time- and labor-intensive methods.

Birmingham's Best EatsIt is my summertime personal quest, The Thomas Keller Challenge, documented on the Messy Epicure.

But how would Keller fare against Birmingham’s indisputably best chef, Frank Stitt?

The plan

  1. Choose similar recipes from “Ad Hoc at Home” and “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table” [aff. links]: stuffed pork roast and coconut cake.
  2. Spend a day-and-a-half in an orgy of cooking.
  3. Have foodie friends over to judge the fracas.

The results

I’m sad to report that our hometown contender put up a valiant effort, but came up short.

Both roasts were delicious, but Keller’s version was legendary, while Stitt’s recipe merely great. I think the brining in Keller’s instructions left the pork perfectly moist. The fig and balsamic jam stuffing was sublime as well.

Stitt won the cake battle, though only by a nose. Both versions had some issues: Keller’s cake is a bit dry, while Stitt’s cake collapsed after baking (this seven-layer cake had just five layers). Of the near-identical meringue frostings, Keller’s recipe is much easier to make. My ultimate coconut cake would pair Stitt’s pastry-cream filling and rich cake with Keller’s meringue.

Recipes, after the jump …

• • •

Pork loin, Thomas Keller

Fig-Stuffed Pork Loin
(adapted from Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home”)

  • Preparation time: 11 hours
  • Cooking time: 1 hour
  • Servings: 6


For fig and balsamic jam:

  • 1 pound figs, stems removed and coarsely chopped
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon black peppercorns, tied in a piece of cheesecloth
  • Fresh lemon juice

For pork brine:

  • 6 tablespoons honey
  • 12 bay leaves
  • 3 rosemary sprigs
  • 1/2 bunch thyme
  • 1/2 bunch flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/2 cup garlic cloves, crushed, skin left on
  • 2 tablespoons black peppercorns
  • 1 cup kosher salt

For pork loin:

  • One 2.5-pound pork loin roast
  • 1 large fennel bulb
  • Canola oil
  • 1/2 cup ciabatta or other artisan bread, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
  • 1 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1 tablespoon finely chopped shallot
  • 1/4 cup chicken stock
  • 1/2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
  • Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Fig and balsamic jam: Combine figs, sugar, vinegar and peppercorns in a large saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring gently, until jam reaches 215 to 220 degrees on a candy thermometer.

Remove from heat, remove peppercorns with cheesecloth, and stir in lemon juice to taste. Spoon into jars or other container, cover, let cool to room temperature, and store in refrigerator up to 1 month.

Fig and balsamic jam

Pork brine: Combine all pork brine ingredients with 8 cups water in a large pot. Cover, bring to a boil, and boil 1 minute, stirring to dissolve salt. Let cool completely, then chill in refrigerator before use.

Pork loin: Pour cold pork brine into a container large enough to hold pork loin, and add pork. Refrigerate 10 hours.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place a roasting rack in a small roasting pan and put in the oven.

Remove pork from brine and rinse under cold water (discard brine). Pat pork dry with paper towels. Cut halfway into pork lengthwise, then turn knife and cut a bit further so the roast can be held open. Let rest while preparing stuffing.

Remove stalks and root end from fennel. Separate bulb into individual layers, and cut into batons about 1-1/4 inch long by 1/2 inch wide. Set aside 1/2 cup fennel (reserve the rest for another use).

Heat a small amount of canola oil in a medium frying pan over medium heat. Add bread and cook, tossing to brown on all sides, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove bread from pan.

Pour off any excess oil from pan, add fennel, and cook until tender with a bit of crunch, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic and shallot, and cook 1 minute. Stir in 1 cup Fig and Balsamic Jam and warm through, then add bread, chicken stock and thyme, and season to taste with salt and pepper.

Tying a pork roastPlace stuffing into cavity in pork, close it back into a round shape, and tie with kitchen twine to hold it together (as shown in photo).

Season pork on all sides with salt and pepper. Heat some canola oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat until smoking. Place pork in pan and brown on all sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side.

Transfer pork to roasting pan, and roast 30 to 40 minutes or until internal temperature is 135 to 140 degrees (it will be slightly pink). Remove from oven and let rest 30 minutes. Remove string, and slice loin into 1/4-inch slices.

• • •

Roast Pork Loin Stuffed with Rosemary, Bacon and Onions
(adapted from “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table”)

  • Preparation time: 1-1/2 hours
  • Cooking time: 65 minutes
  • Servings: 8


  • 1/2 pound bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
  • 4 medium onions, cut into 1-inch dice
  • 2 cups crustless day-old French bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, leaves removed and finely chopped
  • 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 1-2 tablespoons chicken broth
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 center-cut boneless pork loin roast (about 4 pounds)

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Place bacon and onions in a roasting pan and roast, stirring occasionally, until onions are slightly golden and bacon is semi-crisp, about 15 minutes. Transfer, with all drippings, to a bowl, and set roasting pan aside. Add bread, garlic, rosemary, parsley and broth, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Let cool.

Cut halfway into pork lengthwise, then turn knife and cut a bit further so the roast can be held open. Place stuffing into cavity in pork, close it back into a round shape, and tie with kitchen twine to hold it together (as shown in photo in previous recipe).

Season pork with salt and pepper, place in reserved roasting pan, and roast 20 minutes. Turn oven down to 325 degrees, and roast 30 minutes, or until internal temperature reaches 140 to 145 degrees. Remove from oven, place pork on a rack set over a platter, and let rest 5 to 10 minutes.

Remove twine, slice pork 1 inch thick, and serve two slices on each plate.

• • •

Coconut cake, Thomas Keller

Coconut Cake
(adapted from Thomas Keller’s “Ad Hoc at Home”)

  • Preparation time: 1-1/2 hours
  • Cooking time: 40 minutes
  • Servings: 10 to 12


For cake:

  • One 15-ounce can coconut milk
  • 1-1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3 cups cake flour
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 3/4 cup egg whites (about 6 large eggs)
  • 2 cups sugar, divided
  • 1-1/2 sticks (6 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups shredded unsweetened coconut

For meringue:

  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 3 large egg whites, at room temperature
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Cake: Bring coconut milk to a simmer over medium heat and simmer, whisking occasionally, until reduced to 1 cup. Pour into a small bowl set atop an ice bath. When milk is cool, remove from ice bath and stir in vanilla. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line the bottom of two 9-inch cake pans with parchment paper, butter the paper and sides, and coat with flour, tapping lightly to remove excess.

Sift together cake flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Set aside.

Whip egg whites until frothy in an electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment on medium speed. With mixer running, add 3/4 cup sugar, increase speed to medium-high, and whip to medium peaks. Transfer whites to a separate bowl, and clean mixer bowl. Switch mixer to paddle attachment.

Beat butter on medium speed to soften, scrape down bowl, add remaining 1-1/4 cups sugar, and beat on medium speed until light and creamy, stopping to scrape down sides as needed.

Add half of flour mixture to butter mixture, and mix on medium-low until mostly combined. Add half of coconut milk, and mix until mostly combined. Repeat with remaining flour, then remaining coconut milk. Remove bowl from mixer and scrape down sides with a spatula, mixing lightly until just combined.

Gently fold egg white mixture into batter by thirds. Divide batter evenly between prepared pans and gently smooth. Bake until a cake tester inserted in center of cakes comes out clean, 26 to 28 minutes.

While cakes bake, spread coconut on a baking sheet. Bake until lightly toasted, 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and let cool.

When cakes are done, remove from oven, and cool in pans on a cooling rack about 10 minutes. Remove from pans, and let cool completely.

Meringue: While cakes cool, combine sugar and 3 tablespoons water in a small saucepan and cook to 220 degrees (use candy thermometer) over medium heat, stirring just until sugar dissolves. While sugar syrup cooks, whip egg whites to soft peaks in an electric mixer fitted with whisk attachment on medium-high speed. With mixer running, pour sugar syrup into mixer bowl in a slow stream. Add vanilla, and whip until stiff peaks form and bowl is cool.

Position one cake layer in center of a cake plate. Spread a 1/3-inch-thick layer of meringue on top. Sprinkle lightly with toasted coconut. Top with second cake layer, and frost sides and top of cake with remaining meringue. Sprinkle remaining coconut on sides and top of cake.

• • •

Seven-Layer Coconut Cake
(adapted from “Frank Stitt’s Southern Table”)

  • Preparation time: 5-1/2 hours
  • Cooking time: 1 hour
  • Servings: 12 to 14


For pastry cream:

  • 4 cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 cup cornstarch
  • 7 large egg yolks
  • 5 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, sliced
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract

For cake:

  • 4 cups cake flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3 sticks (3/4 pound) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 8 large egg yolks
  • 1-1/3 cups sour cream
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla extract

For frosting:

  • 3 large egg whites
  • 1-1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons light corn syrup
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 3/4 to 1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut, lightly toasted (bake at 300 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until golden brown)

Pastry cream: Combine half-and-half and coconut in a large saucepan, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Turn off heat, cover, and steep 30 minutes.

Combine sugar and cornstarch in a small bowl, whisking to break up lumps. Set aside.

Place half-and-half mixture back on medium heat. (If it starts to boil while doing next steps, remove from heat.) Beat egg yolks in a medium bowl. Whisk sugar mixture into yolks a little at a time until mixture is smooth and thick. Whisk about 1-1/2 cups hot half-and-half mixture into yolk mixture to temper, then add to remaining half-and-half mixture. Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until thick, about 10 minutes (should register 175 degrees on a thermometer). Do not allow to boil.

Remove from heat, transfer to a bowl, and whisk in butter and vanilla until butter melts. Cover with plastic wrap directly on surface of the pastry cream, and refrigerate at least 4 hours, up to 3 days.

Cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 9-inch cake pans.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt, and set aside.

Cream butter and sugar on high speed in an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment until light and fluffy. Reduce speed to medium, and add egg yolks. Add sour cream and vanilla, and mix until combined, stopping to scrape down sides of bowl if necessary. Reduce speed to low, and add flour mixture a little at a time, beating until combined after each addition. Scrape down bowl after all flour mixture is added, and mix until no lumps remain.

Divide batter evenly between prepared pans. Bake until cake springs back when pressed lightly and a cake tester inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven, and let cool completely in pans on a cooling rack.

Coconut cake, Frank Stitt

Oops, this cake fell!

Remove cakes from pans, and chill in freezer a few minutes. Using a long serrated knife, slice each cake into four even layers, about 1/2 inch thick. (You will end up with eight layers, one extra in case of breakage.)

Place a layer in the center of a cake plate, and spread with a 1/2-inch-thick layer of pastry cream. Top with another layer, and spread with pastry cream. Repeat for a total of seven layers (no pastry cream on top layer). Chill cake in freezer while preparing frosting.

Frosting: Combine egg whites, sugar, corn syrup and salt in a large heat-proof bowl. Set over a saucepan of boiling water, and whip on medium speed with a handheld electric mixer 4 minutes. Turn mixer to high, and whip 3 minutes more or until mixture has doubled in volume. Transfer to a separate bowl, add vanilla, and whip 3 minutes more or until cool.

Frost sides and top of cake, and sprinkle with coconut.

• • •


• • •

Jason HornJason Horn (@messyepicure) is a Birmingham writer, sometime culinary student and big fan of zombie movies who blogs at The Messy Epicure.

• • •

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3 Yips for “Birmingham’s Best Eats: Cook-off! The Thomas Keller vs. Frank Stitt Challenge”

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