Two cookbooks sit before me that both speak to big parts of my cooking personality: the need to have food that explores life and identity and journey, and the need to have food that speaks to tradition, the past, heritage, and family. On the one hand, there is Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes that Saved My Life, and on the other, The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook: Artisanal Baking from Around the World by Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez. Julia Turshen, and the bakers of Hot Bread Kitchen. Both have qualities I salivate over: They have physical heft, they are a complete narrative, they tell interesting stories and teach both basic and advanced techniques in balance. And that matte finish... I love that it makes food seem doable and real—not like it's made from glue and mirrors.
Ruth’s book is an incredible braid of her Twitter poetry and recipes she loves—the favorites I made were her apricot pie, bulgogi, and “The Diva” of Grilled Cheese. The whole book is very personal—the pictures show her hands and her hair—as if you are sitting with your head pillowed on her kitchen table. The words float like thoughts; they are just silky enough. She discourses on moments from the end of Gourmet to the moment she let a bear eat her caramelized Vietnamese pork. It’s funny, confessional, and almost feels as though I have found a secret journal that I shouldn’t be reading but that was meant for me to find. I like this book, and I like the journey it takes me on.
She tells you the secret behind each recipe, and lets you know when sauces, temperatures, and ingredients are “forgiving.” My favorite recipe line—and I read every single recipe, because it’s Ruth Reichl—is “Unless you have a very large wok and a ferocious source of heat, the recipe does not double well; you want the pork to get really crisp.” What an elegant, delicate way to say, “Baby, now don’t get cute!” That recipe—her Easy Vietnamese Caramelized Pork—is a revelation, a meal for two made up of pantry goods and a few simple fresh ingredients. In ten minutes, she brings together a dinner that melds. There’s a lot of wealth in this cookbook; a lot of food genius made practical.
I left My Kitchen Year and her wonderful—almost as good as Mom’s—recipe for apple crisp feeling as though I wish I had three years, three cycles of kitchen time, to spend with Ruth. She does a gorgeous job of inviting you into her mind for the way the seasons impact not only her larder but her mood. I’m a sucker for psychologically-tinged cooking—and this is it. There are memories here, and Ruth Reichl serves them up to you with poetic sparkle.
But then, I sometimes like the book that gives me a challenge. And to me, baking is a serious one—it’s not my strong suit, and it can be incredibly daunting. It is left-brained, mathematical, unforgiving—all tight-bunned hair and searing eye flashes and judgement. I avoid it when I can. And yet, The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook is the first baking-centered book that pushed me right into the kitchen and made me preheat with anticipation.
Relatively free of jargon, the text has a tip- rather than technique-driven approach, giving it a “you can do this!” vibe. It follows a skill-building spiral curriculum—building you up from “primordial” flatbreads to leavened flatbreads, to tortillas and injeras, to filled doughs and quick breads, and finally, a collection of recipes to harvest every crumb and scrap of dough and stale slice of bread leftover. I liked the everyday people feeling of the pictures throughout—they evoke the human feeling of a family working together to prepare a meal. That was such a warm invitation to do what I have always done: put myself in the shoes of other people from other cultures and borrow their lens.
The real life narratives in Hot Bread Kitchen are critical. I am a kindred spirit with the author in that I believe that the food is not the be-all and end-all of conversation. The food is the vehicle by which we acknowledge its creators and their stories. The authors treat the narratives as essential to the recipes rather than as a gimmick; social justice is a staple ingredient in this book, and that’s fundamental to the current zeitgeist. The people on these pages not only share their recipes—they use them to uplift, and through that, they use them to inspire.
What’s more, the non-bread recipes do not feel like filler—they feel like necessary cultural context. How should we enjoy the delightful m’smen? (I drizzled mine with agave and maple syrup.) How can we push it to the next level as a cheese and vegetable bread? What stews and soups might go with that for a traditional and soul-satisfying meal?
When I started to play around with Hot Bread Kitchen, I made sure I made four breads and four accompanying dishes or beverages. I attempted the flaky, burek dough-based Albanian Cheese Triangles and acted the iconoclast and brewed some mint tea—they were delightful at 4’oclock in the afternoon! The Bangladeshi curry with whole wheat chapatis—yum—made me feel like I was re-embracing the concept of the meal as it was born… something communal, round, complete. The traditional challah wasn’t my favorite challah, but when I took the cue to turn the same dough into parker rolls, it was a revelation. Later, the crumbs were reincarnated as chicken schnitzel coating. And then there were boules and batards—I took a deep breath and baked. Not once, but three or four times—until what I was baking was as passable as what I saw in the book. For the first time in a long time, I felt a gentle push from a cookbook—a subliminal desire to really master and not just prepare the formulas before me.
The greatest strength of this book is that it feels like a friend rather than a know-it-all dispensing impractical lessons—a friend who feels like they are teaching you to fish rather than just giving you their catch. I really appreciated the specificity about ingredients, the explanation about which flours and oils and salts work best. And yes, the dreaded command to have a kitchen scale is there—I haven’t purchased one yet—but it isn’t snobby or dictatorial. Focaccia and garlic naan soon made appearances at my dinner table, again made by me—because after that pesky batard, I knew I could.
The spirit of heritage and cultural preservation is one of the biggest wins for this book. Having just come off working on articles on the culinary history of New York, there was something refreshingly global and yet very New York about the way The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook takes you from Ellis Island to JFK without being blatant about it. Every mother and grandmother is in this work—their fingers and fingerprints, down to the indentations in the dough. And somehow, this book manages to do that while telling me all the things they didn’t know how to say: the science, the troubleshooting, the digital imagery.
So, I love Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. I would be a fool not to. But I’m not making sea urchin spaghetti any time soon, and I know I will never have gnocchi as pretty as hers, or half her kitchen wisdom gleaned from straining and sieving the food world. But to my complete delight, The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook wins the day. This is what I needed: less passion, more perseverance, more preservation, less pretension than one usually gets in a bake-book. Our world just got smaller, even as the vision of our kitchen just got larger.