Book Reviews: Baking

I’ve had many jobs over the years and can wear many hats. One thing I will never be is a baker. Ever. At this point in my life I have accepted that it’s something I will never perfect, and really, why should I? So many of my friends are excellent bakers and authors on the subject, and I can just coast along with my sad baking skills and enjoy their expertise. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love reading about baking and eating whatever I can get my hands on.  Because I really really do. And I love photographing baked things because they are just naturally pretty. Unless I made it. Then it’s a trainwreck. Anyway, this week Kristina gives us baking reviews and I’m jazzed about it. There are some amazing book titles here and a word to the wise: stay away from Kristina when she’s mixing dough. It ain’t pretty.

Kristina: One summer, when I was living in Washington DC, I happened in a gourmet shop.  While talking to the Shop Guy, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, my new found interest in bread baking came up.  When his father had started the Marvelous Market, Carol Field had provided invaluable bread baking tips to help him out.  The Shop Guy recommended I use her book, The Italian Baker, to learn more about bread.  The next time I came back to the shop, he had special ordered a copy for me and gave it to me as a gift.  I methodically went through the book and worked on quite a few recipes until I learned to produce very good bread.  From there, I bought Nancy Silverton’s book, the Breads of La Brea Bakery, and started my own starter which stayed with me for two years until a subletter “threw away the foul nasty stuff” he found in my refrigerator.

This week’s books are about learning to bake, and represent a bibliography for all levels of interest.  I don’t get road rage, I wait til I get home and get kitchen counter rage and pretend that the dough is someone’s face I want to box in, as I develop the gluten.  I find that kneading to be quite therapeutic.  If you bake, or once you start to learn, you’ll know what I mean.  If you’re serious about baking and bread isn’t your thing though, don’t miss the last book.

Amy’s Bread revised and updated by Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree (Wiley books 2010; photography by Aimée Herring) This book, the book of Amy’s Bread bakery in New York, provides a good introduction to baking with useful photographs of the different stages of the proofing and kneading process so you can tell if you’re on track.  Because it is a bread bakery book, that’s all you get here.  The chapter on starters offers a range of them, some to be used within a few hours (poolish), and others which need a bit more lead time (biga), up to the sourdough starter.  This is a book for someone who wants to focus on a range of breads from white to sourdough, flavored, breads and doesn’t want anything too scientific or too technical.  Each recipe has tips and techniques as well, also quite useful as you’re learning.

Bread Matters:  Why and How to Make Your Own by Andrew Whitley (Fourth Estate 2006; photography by Jeff Cottenden, illustrations by Richard Bravery) I was first put on to the British artisanal bread movement by an article in Jamie Magazine (July/Aug 09) beautifully photographed by Chris Terry.  I wanted to know more, so when I took a trip to London later last year, I picked up this book.  It’s all about the evolution of the bread industry and the ingredients which go into industrial loaves and why you should prefer artisanal breads and even try making your own at home.  Whitley owned and ran a bakery from 1976-2002, and this comprehensive work, grew out of his experiences during that time.  I like the book because it thoroughly explains every aspect of bread making and its ingredients, what techniques and ingredients are necessary and which aren’t (‘debunking’ other bread book instructions), provides troubleshooting advice, and provides recipes for all great British baked goods.  The recipes uses quite a range of flours, and many of the recipes build on each other, so once you’ve learned the basics, you’re unstoppable.  For a beginner, this is a perfect book, and is not as technical as the Bourke Street Bakery.  What it lacks in terms of photographs of technique, it more than makes up for in clarity of text.  The images in the book are also quite beautiful.  Whitley offers “Bread Matters” courses at Macbiehill Farmhouse, Lamancha, West Linton in the Scottish Borders

Artisan Breads by Eric Kastel (part of the Culinary Institute of America At Home series; Wiley 2010; photography by Ben Fink) This is the technical and scientific book that Amy’s Bread is not.  It is practically a baking text book for the home baker.  This is the type of book you should have at least one of if you’re going to get into baking, and you should read through the notes in the beginning to have a thorough understanding of all of the elements of bread baking (environmental factors, wheat qualities, tools, temperatures, moisture, etc).  It is a comprehensive baking book, and one of the things I like most about it– something I missed in my own self-taught baking odyssey– are the photographs of the correct level of proofing, kneading, how to fold and so on.  This book, unlike Amy’s, is not limited to artisan breads however, and includes many many yeasted desserts like cinnamon rolls and sticky buns, cream cheese and pecan coffee cake, almond stollen, and there is a section on dips and spreads as well.   There is a professional version of this one as well, with larger quantities and more hard core specifications.  Also a useful reference for the knowledge hungry.

Bourke Street Bakery by Paul Allam and David McGuinness (Murdoch Books 2009; photography by Alan Benson). Ok, I saved best for last again.  And not just because Alan Benson photographed the book, but because when I read through this book, it makes me want to (a) book a flight to Australia tomorrow; (b) make my own pain au chocolat; (c) book a flight to Australia tomorrow.  Did I already say that?  As its ‘by-line’ suggests, this really is the ultimate baking companion.  In my line of business, I’ve learned a little bit about wheat, and a lot about Australians.  Enough to know that they know good bread (they have great wheat) and they know good baked goods.  Bourke Street Bakery cookbook takes you from savory to sweet dreams by way of conversational explanations, useful photography of techniques, and great stories to accompany the super range of recipes offered in the book (rye bread, Mr. Potato Bread, sourdough, semi-sourdough, empanadas, croissants, sausage rolls, meat pies, brownies, chocolate cake, custard tarts, bear claws, banana cake with caramel sauce…).  This isn’t really a book to take lightly though, as you will need to be disciplined in following the recipes.  Never fear, each recipe points out where the home baker may have a pitfall, and suggests how to avoid it/compensate for lack of industrial equipment. This replaces my King Arthur Flour baker’s companion book as my go to baking compendium because I find it a nicer read, a bit more sophisticated, and feel a better connection with the bakers.  It goes in front of, but doesn’t replace, my Baking With Julia because it offers more instruction, better photography, and more varied recipes.  Allam and McGuinness really did a fantastic job of putting their knowledge onto these pages, and Murdoch knocked it out of the park in the design and layout.

A final note for beginners, if you are intimidated by kneading, there is a book called “Kneadlessly Simple” by one of my favorite authors, Nancy Baggett which you may want to research and perhaps try as a way to build up to these other books.

Comments

  1. says

    Kristina – Bourke Street Bakery has been in my ‘basket’ for a while, but you just made me click the buy button! I feel some intensive bread making sessions coming in my kitchen :) thank you for the great write-ups as always.

  2. says

    Ah Bourke Street Bakery.. one of my favorite bakeries of all time. It was around the corner when I was growing up in Sydney. It’s one of the first stops I visit, when I head home every year.

  3. says

    This is a great list. I also love the Bread Bible. I used to find bread baking pretty daunting but it’s just like learning a language… with time you feel more comfortable.

  4. says

    Thanks so much for the recommendations. I was looking for abook to give my son for his birthday- he enjoys baking bread so I select one from your list.

  5. says

    I just found your blog and am enjoying it thoroughly. I started shooting food a year and a half ago for my blog and it has become an obsession. I look forward to what I will learn here!

  6. says

    Hi Kristina. Did I tell you that they’ve opened a Bourke St Bakery around the corner from us? It’s fab – I go there virtually every 2nd day. Their creme brulee tarts are worth coming for alone.

  7. says

    Chris – that’s the best reason so far I’ve heard for you to stay put! So I can come visit you and bring you Bourke St Bakery EVERY day!!!!

  8. says

    Hi Jeremy! we’ll get to the dessert baking books over the summer! Thanks for sharing that one though! It is a beautifully done book with some great recipes!

    k

  9. says

    Like yourself I fit rather neatly into the ‘non-baker’ category so this was a very useful post indeed. To Amazon!

  10. says

    Matt,

    Appreciate you reviewing the books before I snatched one up. Bread baking is a wonderful but frustrating thing, and most books call for a sponge and starter which needs to be fed every day, etc. and the oven to be misted often. Like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it gets. Thanks for highlighting these books.

  11. Kyra Antrobus says

    It took me five minutes from finding your blog to buying the ‘Bourke Street Bakery’ book. Seriously.
    Great site!

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