The Piglet2016 / First Round, 2016

Modern Jewish Cooking vs. Mamushka

Modern Jewish Cooking

Leah Koenig

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Olia Hercules

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Judged by: Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo

Claire Mazur and Erica Cerulo are the co-founders of the site Of a Kind, which sells the pieces and tells the stories of emerging fashion and home designers. Friends for almost 15 years, they are all about discovery—sign up for their newsletter for proof—and are always on the lookout for healthy-ish recipes that will keep them from ordering in at the end of a long day.

The Judgment

Writing what follows was more stressful than Claire and I thought it would be. This stems partly from the fact that my business partner and I (we went halvsies on this cookbook testing project, as we do with a whole lot of things in life) have a “don’t go negative” policy when it comes to posting on the internet and our own website, Of a Kind

The other dose of trepidation can be attributed to the fact that the books we were assigned to critique—Modern Jewish Cooking and Mamushka—are both rooted in cultures and customs and histories, important things that neither one of us felt educated enough about. Making this pronouncement suddenly felt like a lot of pressure. 

I’ll start first with our lacking qualifications: Claire, while Jewish, might have experienced her first Passover Seder during college when I, her half-Jewish friend, presented a version of the sacred ritual where Sour Patch Kids stood in for parsley and salt water. We might not be in a position to judge what would make something feel “authentically” Jewish. We do, however, have a good amount of experience dining at Russ & Daughters Café and would like credit for that. 

As for our Ukrainian chops: I have none (unless you count having a half-Ukrainian uncle, which you probably shouldn’t), and Claire has some (though I didn’t learn this fact until this book and its very pretty gilded cover slid across our desk).

If you judge by their covers, which Claire and I do because we like aesthetically pleasing things and also because we are human, Mamushka takes the cake. You want it sitting on your coffee table. You want your house guests to spot it and think you’re way ahead of culinary trends—that you know everyone will be all about kefir dough, sour eggplants, and mutton with cilantro in 2017. We were rooting for it out of the gate.

But opening the book made us feel pretty quickly like outsiders—we wanted more context than the glimpses we got to be lured into the food of author Olia Hercules’s childhood. For starters, there’s the title, which I had assumed was a word in a language I do not speak; I discovered after I read the introduction, though, that it’s a reference to The Addams Family movie (of all things) that was co-opted as a nickname for the author’s mother. By page six, I was a little lost. 

Claire and I tested the recipes from both books by cooking from them with our husbands and then bringing leftovers for each other for lunch (shout-out, Not Sad Desk Lunches!). One Monday, Claire served up Mamushka’s Mushroom Broth with Buckwheat. It was nice, if a little flat—and it might have been better had it contained the whole grain instead of buckwheat flour, like we used. (The recipe just called for "buckwheat.") This is one of those things that would probably have been abundantly clear to someone who cooks with the ingredient regularly, but not to someone who was just dipping into a cuisine a little uncharted for her. As Claire puts it: “Why not put the word ‘groats’ after ‘buckwheat’ in the ingredient list?”

A bigger winner: the Azerbaijani Chicken with Prunes and Walnuts (and sumac too—bring on that tang). The recipe was alluring and accessible enough to motivate Claire to stuff a roast chicken for the first time, and the successful mix of the sweetness of the dried fruit, the nuttiness of the, er, nuts, and the depth of the grated red onion made her want to do it again—which will be an easy thing to achieve since she now has a ready supply of prunes on her hands and not a lot of tempting ways to use them. 

Though the exterior of Modern Jewish Cooking does less to bait you, the introduction works hard to contextualize author Leah Koenig’s broad and longstanding interest in Jewish cuisine in all of its various forms: This isn’t a book just about Eastern European comfort food— it’s also one that represents Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, and Mizrahi Jews with roots in the Middle East. Koenig makes sure you have that understanding going in—a welcome thing for readers less versed in her cuisine, her culture, her food.  

In that way, the preface feels a little like required reading, but once you have an understanding of how this project was conceived, the recipes collected make more sense: They span from updates on classics like Sweet Noodle Kugel with Dried Cherries and Figs or Beef Kreplach with Ginger and Cilantro, to dishes like Roasted Eggplant and Tahini Crostini or Spinach Shakshuka that would feel at home in the world of Ottolenghi. Still, there are some that feel out of place no matter how broadly we’re defining Jewish cuisine. Does baked ziti really need to be represented here, especially when presented with no more explanation than that this sort of thing is always a crowd-pleaser? 

But flipping through the book and stumbling on its curveballs is a big part of the appeal: Rather than organizing recipes by region of inspiration, the author groups them by type of dish. This is hardly a cookbook innovation, but in this case, it means you jump from matzo granola into Lemon and Rose Water Scones. Or that you flip from hummus to chopped chicken liver—and then straight into vegetarian chopped "liver" (see the word “modern” in the title). Leah’s book is more vastly cultural than straight-out-of-bubbe’s kitchen, and the format lets you experience that. It has a Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? bent that draws you in.

Cooking from the book felt approachable and doable on a weeknight. I kicked myself for not whipping up a bigger batch of the Carrot Salad with Mint and Dates to snack on for days. It makes you want to eat raw carrots, which is not something I say often, and it made use of ingredients I use all the time, just not together. The Saffron Rice Pilaf is a nice back-pocket side for just about any protein main, and her Tomato-Chickpea Soup with Spinach is hearty and flavorful but light enough to scratch that post-holidays itch (and easy enough to whip up at the end of a long Tuesday). Claire and I didn’t feel like we were being pushed out of our cooking comfort zones and into an unfamiliar cuisine without much guidance—instead, Koenig nudges gently with a “try it, you’ll like it!” attitude. 

Modern Jewish Cooking felt cohesive in a way that Mamushka didn’t. Cooking from it was like taking a college survey course: You don’t walk away an expert, but you can hold your own. And it is just the right amount of surprising. It’s the sort of compilation that entices you to try something new—or at least new to you.

And the winner is…

Modern Jewish Cooking

Modern Jewish Cooking

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Do you Agree?


noons March 3, 2016
I like both of these very much. Buckwheat "groats" would have been obvious to me.
joanna September 24, 2019
I have a similar comment about Mamuska’s recipes. Anyone should be able to use the recipes.Mamushka’s recipes make faulty assumptions, and dare I say, recipe testers should have pointed this out. That said, the book has a number of interesting dishes.
SusanR March 2, 2016
This review is not a review, it is not a blog post, it is not an essay. If I were a teacher, and I gave an assignment to review two books and pick the better of the two with detailed explanation about why, I would not give this very high marks. It really tells me nothing about the books, except that Mamushka is pretty, on the outside. Sadly, the review does not do justice to either book, in that the review is so bland, I am not really interested in looking deeply into either book. The review was simply too beige, however, peeking in on their site, it is not... beige and is worth a look.
kasia S. March 2, 2016
What a detached, bland review, those two need to stick to their day jobs. This is not doing any justice to any cookbook.
LeBec F. March 2, 2016
joanna September 24, 2019
I actually agree with a few of the comments. The reviewers were honest about their familiarity with the subject matter, and their lack of familiarity enabled them to uncover what is lacking in details.
Nancy M. March 2, 2016
This "review" is more about the reviewers than the books. They don't seem to have understood their assignment.
Zelda March 2, 2016
What a disappointing review. Only two recipes cooked from Mamushka, one of which you didn't bother to use the correct ingredient? Your verdict on the winner does not pique my interest in the slightest - no detail at all about the flavours or ease of the 3 measly dishes you made, other than 'nice' and 'flavourful'. I was very much looking forward to the review of Mamushka. What aromatics and cooking methods are favoured? What are their staples, celebratory dishes, sweet treats? Is Georgian food closer to slavic or balkan cuisine? Sadly, this pair of judges fail to enlighten, and I feel I have learned more about the them (they don't cook much) than either of the books.
LeBec F. March 2, 2016
EXACTLY. what a waste of our time.
Kat March 1, 2016
I bought Mamushka and was very excited to read another spin on eastern european food (I'm Polish) but to be honest it didn't draw me in that much. I've made maybe 1-2 dishes which were good and fine, but many of the recipes seemed too much of an effort.
joanna September 24, 2019
I agree. However, this was the author’s first cookbook.
LeBec F. March 1, 2016
I understand the reviewers' choice of this book; it makes sense to me. But REALLY, I ask, HOW could 2 women who calls themselves chefs- think that buckwheat FLOUR should be used in a soup recipe just because the word groats was omitted? would they use rice FLOUR instead of rice, when the word 'grains' was omitted? It really lowers any validity these 2 have as reviewers, for me that is. I often see 52ers posting dissatisfaction with the chosen reviewers; i definitely am in their ranks on this one.which means i question the qualifications of the 52 staff who chose these reviewers. ugh.
petalpusher March 1, 2016
Hello yes

Hello yes! My thoughts exactly. Except I'll come out and say it "they are lazy!" Why would you substitute anything for a first time review? And you live somewhere that has EVERYTHING within arm's length. I feel very sorry for both of these authors. Thank you Le Bec Fin.

Selkie March 1, 2016
I spotted Modern Jewish Cooking on sale for $2.99 this morning, actually, so I flipped through the e-book. It strikes me (a modern, also Jewish cook) as a book with some genuinely creative ideas, but maybe not enough of them to make a full-length cookbook project? The Obligatory Ways with Shabbat Chicken section was super meh, and a chunk of the book was devoted to menu planning for holidays and Aren't Preserved Lemons Iiiinteresting (etc.) sidebars. If you are not at all (like, at all at all, never seen a kugel) conversant with Jewish cooking, this book is a go. If you are a starter cook who likes Shabbat and holiday good, you'll find about 50% usable content. As a reasonably strongly-skilled home cook with a heavy repertoire of Ashkenazi and Mizrahi recipes, I saw about five recipes I wanted to try, all takes on baked goods slightly different from mine. Not enough to make the book a keeper for me.
Selkie March 1, 2016
ETA: Shabbat and holiday FOOD. Oy vey.
maya March 2, 2016
this got me all excited, but then i saw that this is not a Cookbook tournament, just a 'regular' book tournament... :(
jksfgc March 1, 2016
I'm a long time follower of The Morning News's Tournament of Books, which deals with fiction and which was the inspiration for this Tournament of Cookbooks. I know these two sites have different audiences, but it seems like Food 52 readers are taking this SOOOO seriously. Kind of sucks the fun out of it in my opinion! Granted, The Morning News goes to much greater lengths to highlight the arbitrariness of the whole endeavor (and the extent to which, truly, ALL book awards have something of arbitrariness and luck to them). It might help if Food 52 highlighted that just as clearly. But really, readers, please lighten the heck up! The whole point of a tournament is that it's informal and transparent, where other awards are often embued with false sense of gravitas and authority. I like the fact that Piglet reviewers have different levels of experience, and yes, the match ups are often sort of arbitrary. That's intentional. For those interested, The Morning News is about to start their tournament as well. An excerpt from their website: "Twelve years, we say up-front: Our event is stupid. Stupid. Books aren’t basketball players.... Awards for art are intrinsically political, fussy, inevitably crass. ...the Tournament of Books (ToB)... is actually less an award or event, more a long heated chat about books and reading and writing, and what makes literature good or bad or something in between."
maya March 2, 2016
this got me all excited, but then i saw that this is not a Cookbook tournament, just a 'regular' book tournament... :(
Talia March 1, 2016
I'm all for variety in cookbook reviews however this is supposed to be a "Tournament of Cookbooks" and these daily posts are framed as judgements vs reviews...presumably to select the very best cookbook. The judgements of the past two days have been disappointing and largely irrelevant in terms of providing any valuable insights on the the books being judged. If the trend continues, the final outcome will be just as irrelevant.
Peony March 1, 2016
I don't have a problem, per se, with the unusual choice of inexperienced cooks writing the reviews (wouldn't be my first choice but it's a interesting approach). However, the reviews from the past two days just weren't that interesting to me and wish they focused more on the recipes themselves.
Pamela M. February 29, 2016
I've been making recipes from Modern Jewish Cooking for a few months and I love this book. I discovered it via Jenny Rosenstrach's rave on her blog. So far I've made spiced lentil patties, apple and date chutney, classic chicken soup, rustic vegetable soup with dill dumplings, tomato-chickpea soup with spinach, vegetarian chopped "liver," miso-roasted asparagus, spinach-matzo lasagna, and orange-glazed cornmeal cake. As a cookbook concept it doesn't have one of those seductive personality-based hooks, but it's full of things I want to try and things I want to keep making (e.g., the lasagna, the cornmeal cake).
mainecook61 February 29, 2016
When a writer begins a piece by commenting on how "stressful" the writing was, as if it were a high school essay being handed in late, the reader knows that what follows won't be worth reading. And it wasn't. Good cookbook writers deserve better than this lazy "review."
SpringUp February 29, 2016
Sorry but another disappointing choice for book reviewer(s). There was exactly one paragraph about testing recipes and they were even detailed enough to convince me that they actually cooked anything. Reviewers in the future should be either industry folks or Food52 readers!
sjm0123 February 29, 2016
I disagree re: Mamushka! I've made many things from the book... fermented tomatoes, the garlicy chicken, moldovan flatbread, etc. and everything is authentic and fantastic. Besides the food... how can you say that you needed more context... she talks about Ukraine and how the conflict inspired the book, saving her family's recipes (who cares about the title and where it came from?!). It's a love letter to her family, her heritage and I think you didn't give it a fair chance.
joanna September 24, 2019
Some of the recipes have incomplete information. And this not the first time it has been pointed out.
Sarah M. February 29, 2016
Seems like the authors of this post can't read recipes well. Mamushka is a Not only visually appealing, it's fun to read and the recipes are well thought out.
Lynn R. February 29, 2016
I have Mamushka but haven't made anything out of it yet. I'm about half way through reading it but saw at least ten recipes if not more that I want to try when I have time. Buckwheat flour? In soup? To me common sense would tell you groat, not flour. I found this review rather lacking and not inspiring me to get Modern Jewish Cooking.
Selkie February 29, 2016
I actually wonder if the 'buckwheat' standing alone was an editorial decision to replace (for literalism, but clearly not for clarity) the word 'kasha,' which you can't mistake for anything else but might sound like it needs explication to a cookbook editor who may or may not be familiar with it.
SNNYC February 29, 2016
I thought the very same thing about how if they had used "kasha", it would feel more foreign to people.
hardlikearmour February 29, 2016
I was rooting for Mamushka (it's fantastic), but haven't looked through Modern Jewish Cooking yet. RE: buckwheat. I've got Mamushka, and in the index there are 2 recipes that call for buckwheat. The other (Chicken liver, buckwheat & crispy shallots) has a photo that clearly shows buckwheat groats -- so the answer to the question is found right in the book with a tiny bit of investigation.
beejay45 February 29, 2016
I haven't seen either of these books, but I will say that photos with each recipe can really help avoid confusion with unfamiliar ingredients or processes. I liked their review and thought it was balanced, and can one really blame them for going with the more comfortable, more ensured of success, for them, book? I got enough about both books to make a decision on if either of them would appeal to me. Thanks, ladies!