The Piglet2016 / Semifinal Round, 2016

A Bird in the Hand vs. The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook

A Bird in the Hand

Diana Henry

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The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook

Jessamyn Waldman Rodriguez and Julia Turshen

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Judged by: Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman

Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman write, cook, and eat in Berkeley, California. Michael's books include Telegraph Avenue and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay. Ayelet is the author of the novel Love & Treasure and of The New York Times bestseller, Bad Mother: A Chronicle of Maternal Crimes, Minor Calamities, and Occasional Moments of Grace. 

The Judgment

The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook is authored by a Canadian named Waldman, so my first Piglet tournament task was to call my father in order to figure out whether the author and I are related. The answer to my question required a disquisition on the lives, personalities, and marital misadventures of my paternal grandfather’s sisters Rachel, Bertha, and Fanya, despite the fact that none of them produced any offspring named Waldman. Eventually, it was determined that like the “Fish Waldmans,” who own a successful chain of poissonneries in Montreal, Jessamyn Waldman Rodriquez is not related to the family of my grandfather, better known as the Impoverished Schmatte Waldmans.

Then I made some bread. 

Or, rather, I began what’s essentially the two-day procedure of making bread, mixing up the pâté fermentée that is the base of many of the bread recipes in the book. Almost immediately, I became annoyed by the finickiness of the measurements prescribed by The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook. The recipe for pâté fermentée calls for 2/3 of a teaspoon of yeast. I have no 1/3 teaspoon measuring spoon! Do you? Do measuring spoon sets usually come with 1/3 teaspoons and both of mine are just missing?

That was the first of a series of measurement annoyances encountered while cooking with this book: What the hell is up with calling for a cup plus 1 teaspoon of water? I mean, does anyone in the entire universe measure water that accurately? I get that in your professional kitchen you usually work with weights, and when you make whole-wheat challah you make 98 loaves, not 1, but is this cookbook for home cooks or not? I spent a lot of time over the two weeks I spent testing muttering things like, “You can’t just divide your goddamn recipe by 98 or 908 and call it a day, damn it.” 

And another annoyance: There are otherwise easy-to-follow instructions for mixing bread, including the windowpane test for checking gluten, which involves stretching the dough and looking through it, a method that, Waldman explains in the introductory how-to section of the book, doesn’t work for whole grain doughs. Yet in the recipes for both the whole wheat challah the whole wheat pita bread, she tells you to do the windowpane test! Which didn’t work no matter how much I kneaded. As I grew more familiar and intimate with my sense of irritation with Ms. Waldman and her damn windowpane mishegas, I began to suspect that we must, in fact, be related after all.

Though the book itself was well-designed, with plenty of photographs and illustrations, my mood in baking the hamburger buns (or writing this review), was not improved by having to wake up and start baking at what felt like dawn (but, okay, may have been 9 A.M.—I’m a late riser) in order to make sure supper would be on the table at a normal hour. It was hard not to think somewhat bitterly of the gorgeous Acme Bakery rolls lolling fragrant and golden in a bin in the grocery store around the corner from my house. I experienced an even more dramatic sense of the futility of my efforts when I dropped by Oasis Food Market on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland for some of their delicious hummus and labneh—I would be serving falafel and was in the middle of a rise for the whole wheat pita—and noticed the beautiful pitas floating like puffy whole grain clouds out of the Oasis pita oven.

But here’s the thing: The breads we baked out of Hot Bread Kitchen tasted amazing. People actually said things like, “This is the best pita I’ve ever eaten in my life.” The challah buns were stunningly beautiful and off-the-hook delectable. This might be because we used the best flour, locally grown and milled by Full Belly Farm. Sure, the cost per bun came to the low three figures, but who cares! They were delicious, and we made them! 

Okay, Imaginary Cousin Waldman, your cookbook stressed these non-bread bakers out, but the final product? Amazing. 

On to the second cookbook, A Bird In the Hand: Chicken Recipes for Every Day and Every Mood, by Diana Henry. From the first, though we tried to preserve open minds and a sense of adventure, we found something uninspiring, conceptually, in this cookbook. God knows there is no shortage of moods in our household, but so few of them have to do with chicken! Chicken recipes, furthermore, are among the easiest to find—if anything, we are awash in recipes for chicken, and have a hard time keeping track of all the very good ones we have tried over the years. Input the word “chicken” into the recipe database of this very website and you turn up 4,610 results. 

Still, we took our roles as judges with due solemnity and sense of obligation. And so we proceeded. 

We started with Thai chicken burgers, to be served on the aforementioned irritating yet glorious Hot Bread Kitchen buns. Again with the bizarre measurements! 1 pound, 2 ounces of ground chicken? Seriously? You couldn’t just go with a pound? And, Ms. Henry, does one really need exactly 10 1/2 ounces of carrots for the accompanying (tasty if not revelatory) slaw recipe? Wouldn’t “five or six medium carrots” do just as well? It’s a slaw, for heaven’s sake, not the formula for Semtex! Such hyper-precision may be the result of metric conversion—Henry lives and cooks in Britain—but to even the moderately experienced cook, the carrot is, in itself, among the most reliable of vegetables, practically a unit of measurement in itself.

We were puzzled by the fact that a burger recipe which claimed to serve six would only call for the aforementioned annoying 1 pound plus 2 ounces of protein. Six burgers around here usually takes at least two pounds of protein. It was only belatedly—and not, alas, without a certain amount of strife—that we realized the secret of Ms. Henry’s mysterious, scant 18 ounces: Her burgers are mostly bread! 

I’m sure Ms. Henry had no intention of precipitating a marital squabble, but I blame her anyway. When I saw Michael, who was in charge of the burgers, toasting all that bread for breadcrumbs, I said, “Ew! What are you doing?”

“Following the recipe,” he said. 

“It’s too bready.”

“It’s the recipe.”

“No way.”

I snatched the book. The recipe called for a cup of breadcrumbs! For a little over a pound of meat! You won’t be surprised to read that the burgers were spongy, cottony, and, well, bready. Not really burgers at all. The flavor was nice, gingery and bright, but they had the unmistakably stretched quality I remembered from the breadcrumb-heavy “hamburgers” my compulsively thrifty grandmother used to make. My Savta learned to cook during the Great Depression. Perhaps Ms. Henry was giving a Thai twist to some old wartime Ministry of Food "The Kitchen Front"-type rationing recipe? 

Henry’s instructions are easy enough to follow, as they were in the rye schnitzel with mustard sauce we made—though my family much prefers it with breast rather than thighs, and the sauce was a bit heavy on the cream—and her prose is serviceable. However, though the photographs in A Bird in the Hand are lovely, there were too few of them. Puerto Rican Chicken and Rice, for example, might be delicious, but we found it just too hard to get inspired by a chicken recipe without a picture sexing it up. 

In the end, though the recipes we tried were by and large more than acceptable, nothing from A Bird in the Hand impressed us or our family of taste-testers like the various breads and buns from Hot Bread Kitchen.

The winner—in spite of certain stresses and irritations—The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook.  

And the winner is…

The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook

The Hot Bread Kitchen Cookbook

Get the Book

Do you Agree?


Lisa W. April 1, 2016
Haha, its great we can all have a laugh at our "first world problems". Here's to The Piglet!
Rachel P. March 27, 2016
Can I just point out that the original Bird In The Hand was written in grams as it is a British book? Of course the measurements are going to sound stupid translated into ounces, because speaking as someone who has lived and cooked in both Britain and America, we have different standard packet sizes of things like minced chicken!
chez L. March 24, 2016
This is a very funny review. I loved it. You negative nellies need to lightenup!!!! I have enjoyed everyones review.
Sue Q. April 1, 2016
It's not funny and no-one needs to lighten up - this review is ignorant, lazy and insulting to respected food writers.
Sue Q. March 18, 2016
What an outrageously weak and awful 'review'. Poor show Food52.
AntoniaJames March 17, 2016
Lest anyone be put off by the 2/3 teaspoon of yeast referred to above: it just happens that 2/3 teaspoon of active dry yeast is quite close to being equivalent to 1/2 teaspoon of instant, which I use all the time interchangeably (sometimes adjusting the volume or mass, but often not worrying about it). Ratios of flour to liquid are important but minute differences in yeast, for this purpose, just don't make that much difference.

Also, after some quick research I could not find a 1/3 teaspoon anywhere, but there is, for some reason, a 2/3 teaspoon included in quite a few of the "odd size" measuring spoon sets available.

The reviewer's point is well taken; one would hope that Clarkson Potter's and other publisher's editors converting commercial formulas to recipes for home bakers will keep it in mind. (I'm a bit surprised that during their testing process it wasn't mentioned. Perhaps Clarkson Potter need to get some less experienced bakers involved, to catch such user experience issues.)

That kind of detail doesn't bother me, because I have a lot experience baking bread, grappling with conversions and figuring out workarounds, but I realize not everyone else does. ;o)
penelope March 16, 2016
This review epitomizes the phrase "phoning it in".
Bear March 17, 2016
I have to agree. Given some of the reviews earlier in the "rounds", this one was one of the weakest. Pathetic really.
Stacey M. March 16, 2016
I laughed through this whole review! Having cooked with recipes that call for ridiculous measurements, I appreciated the humor here.
James F. March 16, 2016
Where's the final round?!
Leil March 16, 2016
Hasn't happened yet!
MRinSF March 16, 2016
I think I read something, tucked away somewhere, that the winner is announced at midnight tonight, at the Piglet Party in NYC.
alygator March 16, 2016
I also didn't like the tone of this review but I went home and looked through A Bird in the Hand again before commenting. I thought there were plenty of pictures so I didn't think that lack of pictures was a fair criticism. Yes, I also would have liked a photo for the Puerto Rico Chicken and Rice simply because the recipe sounds so good! Also, Henry's recipes are clearly adaptable for tastes and she often writes that she will make a substitution (breasts for thighs, omit cream, etc.) depending on her mood. I like that the book is flexible. Originally, I also thought "Oh, just chicken recipes? Why bother?" until I read the Piglet reviews and was convinced to pick up a copy. I am so glad I did! That is what I love the most about a good Piglet review - an objective, respectful and fun review of a book I might otherwise never consider buying. This review was disappointing with its negativity but maybe it is simply because all the other Piglet rounds this year have been so outstanding!!
Malia March 15, 2016
Just wondering how the recipes in Hot Bread Kitchen compare when using regular flour, not top-of-the-line flour (which of course makes bread taste amazing). Anyone?
James F. March 15, 2016
I made the basic batard loaf two weeks ago. I used normal flours - I tend to have King Arthur and Trader Joe flours in the pantry. They're probably older than you're supposed to have flours. Bread tasted good, not out-of-this-world great, but that's more a case of I like a tangy-er sourdough usually. But the recipe worked perfectly. The window pane test worked perfectly - it's actually a neat way to see if it's kneaded enough. It's a fun book to bake from. Though Made In India is a book I use more - because I cook more than I bake. (Tonight I was cooking from Fuchsia Dunlop's book, which in many ways is like Made in India, but for Sichuan cuisine!)
Tabledeckers March 15, 2016
I agree with many of the previous comments; this review's tone is snarky and mean spirited. The reviewers didn't come across as people who enjoy cooking or reading cookbooks. As others have pointed out, the odd measurements are a result of the conversion from metic measures, while maybe not make-it-or-break it when it comes to carrots in a slaw, it is essential in baking. One of the best aspects of the Piglet is the fact that not all judges are in the food world. That said, I do think a judge should like cooking. For example, Ari Shapiro's review was one of the best, in my opinion. I have both cookbooks, I have cooked from "A Bird in the Hand" multiple times with great success and have read "Hot Bread Kitchen" and can't wait to bake some bread!
booglix March 15, 2016
Lighten up, people! These are not the National Book Awards.
Pastraminator March 15, 2016
I keep on hearing Larry David when I read this review.
Sauertea March 15, 2016
As Larry David or as Larry David as Bernie Sanders???
LauriL March 15, 2016
That's it!!
Pastraminator March 15, 2016
lol is there a difference?
Sauertea March 15, 2016
I think there is a slight difference in volume and the degree of nebbishness, but either one would do.
witloof March 15, 2016
Maybe you have to be Jewish to appreciate the kvetching, which I found amusing.
creamtea March 16, 2016
I agree, witloof, I thought this review was so funny. The tone was down-to-earth. Lighten up, people.
Ashley M. March 16, 2016
I loved the kvetching- it was a funny review and they were keepin it real. I still feel excited about both cookbooks.
Amy L. March 15, 2016
So, I don't want to completely bash the reviewers here, but it feels to me that the writing style just isn't in the spirit of The Piglet. Food52 likes to say that all of these books are winners, and I've been impressed with the reviews who can give that sense in their writing. Do I really want to read a downer review on both books? Not really. Let's give them their due- tsking at 1/3 tsp is one thing, but having the entire review come out negative is another.
Transcendancing March 15, 2016
This was my feeling as well - I've waited most of the day to read this article and instead of feeling excited about the books and cooking I feel the opposite. The enthusiasm within the comments for the books has helped to make me smile, and I also agree that criticisms of a book for various reasons are valid but... I never want to be cringing as I read thinking that it's a bit mean and wanting to make the authors of the books, and the admins of the competition dealing with the backlash, a cup of tea (or maybe a g&t, depending on the time of day, a soothing beverage is what I'm getting at).
ms.v. March 15, 2016
I didn't like the tone of this review at all. I feel like the least worst book was picked, which is amazing considering the value of both Hot Bread Kitchen and A Bird in the Hand. HBK is a special book...I'm glad that it won despite the disdain shown for it. I will be purchasing Diana's book to see what I'm missing, what beauty the reviewers omitted.
Joe March 15, 2016
Cook it to bits. Start with the Turkish chicken thighs, a rescue-meal in my house. Cook as much as you can from it, as often as you can. Livesaver- book, it is...
HerBoudoir March 16, 2016
I haven't had a cookbook with as many recipes I've wanted to cook out of Bird in the Hand in a long time. It's become my go-to weeknight dinner cookbook. We've always eaten chicken (especially the dark meat, which is glorified in this book) 2-3 nights a we have even better chicken 2-3 nights a week.
bookgeekgirl March 15, 2016
This is an absolutely terrible review. Please never, ever, EVER bring these reviewers back! The author's grumpiness is over-the-top, and there is nothing remotely entertaining about the review. Why are you even testing cookbooks since you clearly despise them? And when you don't seem to ever use them -- the unusual measurements the author complains about are super-common! It's one thing to have crappy, non-food-oriented judges in the early rounds, but this late in the game? What a huge disappointment, Food52. Try to do better next year.
Joe March 15, 2016
AMEN! This is exactly the type of review I'd expect from someone whose creations couldn't crack the New York Times Top 100 list...
jksfgc March 17, 2016
I agree. This competition is supposed to be irreverent and lighthearted and all, and I've had some eye rolling moments reading comments from people who seem to be taking it far too seriously. But this review was just flat out unpleasant to read. It's not about the fact that the authors panned both books, or did so in a certain style (or with lack of style, as the case may be). It's about the fact that this is not interesting. It's whiny. No one likes whiny. Bad form.
Joe March 15, 2016
Hilarious? Entertaining? Lazy & irritating would b better descriptors. A single recipe from each title was tested, with Waldman's grumpiness from struggling with the baking clearly spilling over into her attempt at cooking with source of protein that doesn't inspire her.

You need to do better than this if you want any modicum of informed and reliable judgment pass, Food52. Especially this late in the competition, and especially when most of the reviews prior to Phyllis Grant's had little enjoyment or depth to it.
Cary March 15, 2016
Actually, at least two from each were tested (as required) schnitzel and burgers, pita and challah buns. It may have been a bit flippant for your taste, but I did get another angle on these books, both of which I still intend to try. I imagine I will have some of the same frustrations, but clearly even for a cook like me and the author it will be worth it in the end. Good to know.
Joe March 15, 2016
I'd suggest you buy both books and cook them to smithereens. I have- my copy of A Bird in the hand needs replacement. As for The hot bread kitchen cookbook, I appreciate the accuracy in measurement- in baking it's vital. But my opinion of the review stands: it's lazy-arsed.
Cary March 15, 2016
Thank you Joe, for the response... I think I will buy both!
Joe March 15, 2016
Do that - they're worth it. I now have 12 of the 16 Tournament books, and I've enjoyed all. Piglet remains a highlight of the year. But goodness, Food52 folk, choose your reviewers more carefully.
Morningside H. March 16, 2016
I so agree and can't get over how enjoyable it was to read Phyllis Grant's review compared to this. This review was even worse than Julie Klam's. I know they are trying to include a diverse range of reviewers but I don't like reading reviews of cookbooks from people who don't like to cook. Who has time for such unenjoyable reading?
Radish March 15, 2016
I make chicken from Diana Henry's book every three weeks.

I have many bread books, The best of which is Flour, water, salt, yeast. But that is a very cumbersome group of recipes. If the reviewers thought Hot Breads was overly complicated, and she should use a scale, it is pretty concise for a bread book. I was looking for a book that was very flexible with time, and did not have my kitchen covered in flour. Once she got me over the disdain of using my mixer for home baked bread, it was smooth sailing. There are many kinds of bread in the book. I will never make stuffed bread, and likely not tortillas, but she almost has me convinced. There is an actual recipe for sandwich bread. She also has a technique for adding soaked grains, which is very easy and in other bread books would take two pages.

I really admire the author working with immigrants, and what she has created.
I really like both books, but currently I am glued to Hot Breads.
ChefJune March 15, 2016
This was a hilarious review. Having been a bread baker all my life, I take ingredient amounts for bread recipes with a grain of salt, but I agree -- 1/3 teaspoon? Now I'm waiting with bated breath to see which book Andrew Zimmern crowns.
garlic&lemon March 15, 2016
I agree with ChefJune. I laughed out loud from the introduction on with this review. As a regular baker, I know how to work around silliness like 1/3 tsp., but many folks get intimidated. I blame that on the editor. My household also has an overabundance of chicken recipes so it would take an awful lot to convince me to buy BITH. But it looks like HBK needs to be my next purchase!