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Book Review: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart (Ten Speed Press, 2001).

There are thousands of cookbooks on the market and they seem to be getting bigger and more expensive.  In order to secure a spot on our cookbook shelves a particular volume should do a really good job of informing and guiding our cooking experiments.  As cookbook publishers continue to sell their product with relative ease their offerings seem to be segmenting and diversifying.  Some volumes are really only about the pictures, others offer a look into the canon of a particular chef or his restaurant’s menu, a long-standing slim minority feature interesting writing about food and the experience of cooking but few recipes, and finally some are a catalogue of recipes.  For the cookbooks which are best seen as a collection of recipes their well-thumbed pages should be filled with weekly standbys (the Best Recipe collection put out by the people at Cook’s Illustrated)  or those perfect special occassion recipes that make entertaining easier (anything by Ina Garten).  The directions should be clear enough for a rank beginner (at least one who is vaguely concentrating and adequately equipped) to follow but also interesting enough to hold the attention of the same cook as he becomes more confident and advanced.

A recent cliche adopted by food writers and chefs (both celebrity and armchair) has been this idea that food tastes better and the experience is more rewarding when we “cook without a recipe”.  This is intoned by a wispy voice in the intro to Michael Smith’s latest, Chef at Home  and then again ad nauseum by the chef himself on just about every episode.  (I enjoy the show quite a bit except when it’s time slot early on weekend mornings, the super-tight and off-kilter camera angles, and night-before revellry combine to produce nausea.)  I’m not sure how I feel about this maxim.  On one hand I agree with Chef Smith that I would much rather see people stress less about what goes into a particular dish and cook adventurously for themselves more often but on the other hand I know from experience that my biggest successes when cooking have come when I have found a really great recipe and followed it almost exactly.  Let’s say for now, that this is an open question and also thankfully take advantage of the exception granted by these cliche wielders to those who are baking when considering the recipes offered in the Bread Baker’s Apprentice.

Really good focaccia made from Bread Bakers Apprentice

Really good focaccia made from Bread Baker's Apprentice

I have been cooking from the Bread Baker’s Apprentice (BBA) for more than six months.  In February I wrote a post with a quick rundown of my experiments with the book to that point.  Since then I have done a post that featured an adaptation of the pizza napoletano recipe from BBA (the easiest pizza dough I have ever worked with) and have also tried the focaccia (rich, delicious and very satisfying), pugliese (excellently crisp and thin crust), and have made the whole wheat bread almost a dozen times (much better than store-bought but straightforward enough to make often).

The whole wheat bread from the BBA baked in a square brownie tin became our every week bread.

The whole wheat bread from the BBA baked in a square brownie tin became our "every week" bread.

Unlike The Bread Bible this baking reference doesn’t take a standing mixer for granted.  Maybe everything is easier with a KitchenAid but I like recipes that don’t require one.  Mixing and kneading dough are activities that lend themselves perfectly to meditation and the little bit of exercise is nice.  Almost all of the world’s best bakeries mix and knead dough with the help of a machine but they are producing a range of products that have remained relatively the same for at least the past hundred years–well before the power-assisted option was available.  The machine admittedly makes the same set of recipes easier but not better and it doesn’t add any new ones to the set.  BBA helped me come to this realisation with the technique offered in two recipes in particular: focaccia and pizza.  These are both relatively wet doughs that consequently are very sticky but Reinhardt offers the useful pair of options of either using a moistened hand in a claw shape or a similarly-moistened metal spoon (my preference) to imitate a standing mixer’s dough hook.

Techniques are explained with more detail than most cookbooks provide.  For instance, the tops of loaves are slashed to allow steam to escape and therefore the bread to rise evenly and regularly in the oven, but we are also told that if these slashes are made on an angle we get the grigne or ear form around the slash marks that really distinguish great homemade (or bakery-made) bread from its mundane supermarket cousin.  The author puts it better: “The blooming produces what the French call the grigne, an ear of crisp crust that neatly separates from the loaf like a proudly curled lip.”  As well, Peter Reinhardt discusses why it is important to create a humid environment in the oven–with a steam pan and a spray bottle–as soon the bread-to-be goes in the oven.  I know that these steps help with crust formation but had been under the misperception that steam would crisp the crust by conducting more heat than dry air could.  In fact the steam lowers the oven temperature and delays crust formation so that the bread inside can expand before it is contained by a sturdy crust.

When creating this book Peter Reinhardt (or his editors) did a good job of separating its two principal functions so that they complement without confusing.  The first two parts of the book are excellent discussions of the history, philosophies, science, and general techniques that support bread making.  This is the type of important information that should be read at least once, referenced from time to time but I’m glad that it is not allowed to clutter and confuse the recipes (or “formulas”) offered in the third part of the book.  Somehow, because the recipes are concise and to the point I don’t feel as daunted or inconvenienced by the fact that most of them require at least twenty-four hours from the first step to the finished product.

This lead time is inconvenient but worthwhile and it encourages an outlook that considers baking bread part of life.  Tellingly, while BBA remains the second most popular bread book on the most popular, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking, takes a very different but parallel approach whereby dough is mixed, refrigerated continually, used when needed and refreshed periodically.  Both approaches recognise the importance of time and refrigeration (colder temperatures slow yeast down) for flavour development, but while BBA prefers the authenticity of different processes for different breads, Bread in Five Minutes chooses the convenience of always being a couple hours away from good-tasting bread.  Incidentally, the comparison is a bit unfair to the book I’m reviewing because while it was published back in 2001, Bread in Five Minutes has only been on the (virtual) shelves for less than two years.

Along with the long total times for the recipes I have another bone to pick with Bread Baker’s Apprentice.  I like that the recipes list ingredients by weight but I am annoyed that these weights are only given in ounces.  I know why this is the case but it seems that if a cookbook’s audience will accept measurements like 0.11 ounces of instant yeast they could also live with recipes that that state the same in milligrams.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice accomplishes what all good cookbooks should.  It is well-produced and visually stimulating without sacrificing its intense and informative usefulness.  Both by reading it and using it most cooks will find their senses and curiosities satisfied in the same way that a well-crafted loaf of bread satisfies.

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