Bakers looking for A Project should look no further than Pretzel Making at Home by Andrea Stonecker, for a good pretzel is a treat, and a homemade pretzel a rare treat. Making a batch is an exercise in patience and, ultimately, refining your culinary experience over a pot housing a simmering (alkaline) solution. That is, once you’ve put together a yeast dough and moved anyone in the vicinity of the kitchen out of the way, in order to manage the twisting, dipping, and baking–quietly and without intrusion.
Book in hand, I mentally signed up for The Experience. In the end, and hours later, I arrived at a small batch of Traditional Soft Pretzels (page 26, and following pages), having digested, several times over, the section titled “Pretzel Basics” (page 12, and following pages). The author takes you through the process which is actually a lot of fun–once a certain rhythm is developed. While I may not yet swing a rope of dough into a twist like the pros do (one early–and enthusiastic–attempt actually turned it into a hair band of sorts, and another dropped it directly into the–ahem!–scoop neck of my shirt), the dough lengths were easy to reshape once rested. (Baking note: Pin back your hair and button that shirt right up to the neck.) After dipping, topping, then baking the pretzels, The Experience ended–deliciously.
In Pretzel Making at Home, Stonecker moves the baker in all of us into the territory of Hard Pretzels, and further to integrating your precious stash into the likes of bread pudding. If I ever have three soft pretzels left, I’ll make the pudding, but odds are they’re just too good to steep in custard (even if a beloved item in my kitchen).
Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera, by Delores Custer (Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2010), $75.00
Delores Custer, a food stylist, built a career on fine-tuning the look of food for television and publication, culminating in an instructional volume titled Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera.
In our visual culture, the audience for Food Styling is not only for professionals whose job it is to cook, bake, or otherwise fashion food-based items to be photographed. Any individual who needs to capture a pleasing food-related image should consider using this book as a reference for composing camera-ready food.
Taking a trip through the contents of Food Styling reveals the author’s range, with chapters devoted to all of the preliminaries (“The Medium is Everything,” and “Prepping the Assignment”), then moves on to cover aspects from advance preparation and working with a photographer to assembling the equipment necessary to actualize the job. All of this is a prelude to the meatiest section of the volume titled “Working with the Food: Overcoming Challenges”: This is a comprehensive view of styling in a range of categories, including food for breakfast, sandwiches, dairy products, main course proteins, sauces, and garnishes. The concluding chapters in this section concern “baked goods” and they are valuable reading for visitors of baking style diary.
In the baked goods sections (“Cakes: the pleasures and pitfalls,” Cookies: aiming for consistencies,” and “Chocolate: the problem child for the food stylist” among them), you will learn viable solutions for preparing beautiful bar cookies; creating just the right look for drop cookies; baking and presenting a flawless pie; ways to bake, assemble, and stage layer cakes; and how to form the best-looking dollop of whipped cream. One of the most intriguing sections is the information regarding the baking, styling, and presentation of chocolate chip cookies (page 266, and following pages). On those pages, we learn how certain ingredients, baking techniques, and background materials contribute to a different end result.
Food Styling is a resource book that is destined to become the industry standard of its genre.
Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free: 75 Recipes for Irresistible Desserts and Pastries, by Karen Morgan (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010), $24.95
Going gently into the world of gluten-free baking, bakers should first research ingredients and methods to understand their interplay. With a copy of Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free: 75 Recipes for Irresistible Desserts and Pastries in hand, you can explore–engagingly–specially formulated diet-related recipes and related components.
The contents of Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free spans “biscuits, muffins & sweet breads;” “cookies & bars;” “tarts, pies & cobblers;” “cakes, big & small;” “crepes & pâte à choux;” “custards, puddings & ice cream;” and “dinner-party showstoppers.” A chapter titled “notes on ingredients” is a helpful guide to gluten-free flours and other items (such as guar gum); the “resources” section offers sites for ordering and researching both ingredients and equipment. Throughout the cookbook, the author offers baking tips randomly at the end of recipes (how to customize a recipe, swap a pan size, and explain a particular storage or time-saving technique, among other details).
Dipping into the recipes chapters, I began free-and-easy, with a spin through the sunday morning pancakes (page 21) and millet power bars (page 79). The pancakes are made with almond flour, millet flour, glutinous rice flour, and guar gum, plus the usual leavening, eggs, butter, and buttermilk–resulting in a griddled bread with a pleasing texture and good flavor. For the bars, two significant items, puffed brown rice cereal and puffed millet cereal, form the basis for a stir-in of a warm melted marshmallow mixture (flavored with orange blossom honey) plus almonds, dried cherries, and dried blueberries–delightful and undemanding.
Overall, within the realm of gluten-free baking books, Blackbird Bakery Gluten-Free presents an indulgent, rather than confined, approach.
The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook: Recipes and Pairings for the Perfect Glass of Wine, by Mary Cech and Jennie Schacht (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2005), $24.95
The flavors and ingredients of baked goods are explored and paired with dessert wines in this modern cookbook, as recipes include explanatory matches with dessert wines (noted within the all-important “making the match” section). For example, a lovely recipe for Cocoa Walnut Biscotti yields a fine batch of dipping cookies, ready to be mated with, say, an orange muscat, ruby port, or cream sherry. Who would argue with having cookies and a matching wine on the end table after dinner?
In all, the confections and their corresponding pours in The Wine Lover’s Dessert Cookbook provide interesting reading, in addition to nibbling-and-sipping (and all of you bakers out there will learn how to take the dessert course to the next and most elegant level). Specifically, the splendid sections on caramel, honey, and spice; dried fruits; nuts; and cream draw me in most of all for their luscious, thoughtful pairings.
The Sugar Cube: 50 Deliciously Twisted Treats from the Sweetest Little Food Cart on the Planet, by Kir Jensen (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2012), $24.95
Of her food cart, baker and author of The Sugar Cube: 50 Deliciously Twisted Treats from the Sweetest Little Food Cart on the Planet, Kir Jensen, writes “It’s my domain, like an artist’s studio, where I have space to create.”
And create she does. To that end, get ready to read about and bake Twisted Toll House (page 45). A Twisted Toll House cookie contains chopped bittersweet chocolate, flour, leavening, and all the classics (butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, eggs, vanilla extract) with the exception of one not-so-usual item, hazelnut flour, and one of-the-moment item, fleur de sel, for sprinkling on the warm, baked treat. These are quite thin, and almost like brittle.
Moving on, it’s the spin that moves The Sugar Cube onto another baking level and into the personal realm of this baker. Let your baking mind imagine, then absorb, the idea of Truffle-Honey Popcorn (page 117) and you’ll understand the focus of this cookbook. Carrot cupcakes get the curried treatment and a batch of brownies (The Ultimate Brownie) is moistened by coffee syrup, topped with chocolate ganache and, yes, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with fleur de sel.
Wait a minute. The brownie recipe (page 85) stopped me in my tracks. Though never one to shy away from chocolate-on-chocolate (I’m a frosted-brownie kind of girl) and salt-on-chocolate (various types of salt live on a pantry shelf), I don’t think I’ve actually ever moistened a brownie or drizzled one with olive oil. So I did it all–brushed Jensen’s baked brownies with syrup, topped the muffin-cupped confections with ganache and a flicker of olive oil, and finished each by fluttering over a tiny bit of salt. My People, steadfast visitors of baking style diary, this is recipe worth baking and ooohhhing/aaahhhing over.
The recipes in this volume (sorted into chapters like “Breakfast of Champions” and “I Did It All for the Cookie“) speak to the trend of combining textures and flavors. It’s all from a woman who bakes in a teensy (pink!) space no matter the season and generates her own fantasy-world baked goods–a delightful visit to Planet Sugar Cube (fleur de sel and all).
Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, by Ken Forkish (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2012), $35.00
Portland baker and author of Flour Water Salt Yeast: The Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza, Ken Forkish, is responsible for some really flour-clouded dust storms on my kitchen counter tops. Some days, before I wiped clean the surfaces, you could draw your intials in the haze of flour. These are loving words, of course.
In Flour Water Salt Yeast, one learns–in this order–the hows and whys of artisan bread-baking, all about levain (“…a natural culture the baker uses as a leavening source”), establishing and maintaining the levain, using the levain to create such wonders as Walnut Levain Bread (page 151, and following pages) and Overnight Country Blonde (page 168, and following pages), in addition to pizza and focaccia-making. In the mix, you’ll find some recipes that (thankfully) begin and end in one day, such as Forkish’s The Saturday White Bread (page 81, and following pages) or The Saturday 75% Whole Wheat Bread (page 85, and following pages). I took the author’s suggestion to divide up the The Saturday White Bread dough and bake one round bread, then use the remaining refrigerated dough a day later to create his Iron-Skillet Meat Pie (page 247)–the latter, a pizza in a skillet (oh-so-good).
Developing and nurturing levain is a combination of art, science, and a certain measure of baker’s sensitivity, but the exploration is worth the time and scheduling involved. If levain-building is not your style, Forkish also offers less-complex pre-ferments (biga, poolish) for forming the basis of final doughs. Flour Water Salt Yeast reads like a “wish list” for all bakers that aim for pulling a crusty, singing-with-crackles loaf from the oven, requiring patience, understanding and, most notably, a good teacher like Ken Forkish.
The New Whole Grains Cookbook: Terrific Recipes Using Farro, Quinoa, Brown Rice, Barley, and Many Other Delicious and Nutritious Grains, by Robin Asbell (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2007), $19.95
Does your pantry need revisiting with regard to its contents? If so, it’s time for an upgrade in order to prepare Maple-Cinnamon Granola Bars (page 32), Farro-Studded Focaccia with Herbs (page 51), Composed Salad of Grains with Hazelnut Vinaigrette (page 90, and following page), Saffron Quinoa con Pollo (page 138), or Scotch Oat Cake with Broiled Brown Sugar Topping (page 153). A delicious–and occasionally unusual–grainy education is in store.
With The New Whole Grains Cookbook: Terrific Recipes Using Farro, Quinoa, Brown Rice, Barley, and Many Other Delicious and Nutritious Grains in hand, and author Robin Asbell guiding the way, you’ll be acquainted with a how-to dictionary of culinary grains and recipes for integrating them into breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals. Asbell makes a delicious case for rediscovering core ingredients once cast aside, and embraces them nicely in this volume–beginning with measured descriptions (helpful and clear), nutritional analyses, and essential cooking methods. Though published several years ago, The New Whole Grains Cookbook does not in any way seem dated and is a handy companion volume to Asbell’s Big Vegan: More than 350 Recipes No Meat/No Dairy All Delicious.
Thoughtful cooks will appreciate a certain economy in Asbell’s recipes–case in point, the Leftover Grain Scramble with Cheese (page 114). With this recipe, I could use up a small container of cooked brown rice and a small assortment of vegetables stashed in the refrigerator, and turn it all into a warming bowl of goodness for lunch (it would also make a fine light supper). The stir-fried vegetables and brown rice were lightly bound by an egg and shredded cheese. I absolutely agree with the suggestion in the head note to the recipe: “Once you’ve made it a time or two, you’ll be improvising with whatever moves you.” And I did just that, on several (tasty) occasions since.
Sweet Maria’s Italian Cookie Tray, by Maria Bruscino Sanchez (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1997), $13.95
Oftentimes, a cookie-baking collection becomes a historical bookmark on a certain trend–hopefully, in a positive way. Moving well beyond the beloved brownie and chocolate chip cookie, cooks love to explore the sweet interpretations of various cultures.
Biscotti notwithstanding, bakers in this country are fond of embracing cookies of all forms and flavors. I am so one of them. The tradition of creating a cookie tray, a layered edifice of multiple varieties, continued to be a tradition for Ms. Sanchez and she has devoted a slim–but festive–volume to offering recipes for constructing one. She even describes the concept of “traying” a mound of cookies–what fun! But back to the kitchen, where you can take the author’s lead and bake all kinds of cookies to architecturally assemble on that big doily-lined platter or plate you’ll need to have on hand: molded, drop, rolled and filled–all of these are enthusiastically offered in Sweet Maria’s Italian Cookie Tray.
Multi-layered cookies (and yes, there is an art to composing and positioning them–hint: shape, structure, and color all go into the building equation) look so appealing and, perhaps best of all, become their own edible art form.
The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods, by Sarah Forte (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2012), $25.00
My hangout during the last few days has been in The Sprouted Kitchen–both a lifestyle book by Sarah Forte and one author’s personal approach to cooking at home. The Sprouted Kitchen: A Tastier Take on Whole Foods welcomed me right in.
The 241 pages straddle a sort of you-can-do-it exuberance with a sustainable, non-preachy way for eating well. This is an individual who gets along with a limited number of tools (that list includes “five good knives”) and, by contrast, a generously-appointed pantry. Nevertheless, Forte’s kitchen turns out an admirable mix of sweet and savory items. Keepsake recipes include Creamy Coconut Barley with Pomegranate Molasses, Goat Cheese Panna Cotta with Roasted Figs, and Flourless Chocolate-Banana Pudding Cakes with Cinnamon Cream. As a Coconut Person-to-the-Max, I have long been stirring coconut milk into a saucepan of simmering porridge as an enrichment for a wonderful depth of flavor. In Forte’s barley version, the light coconut milk seems to freshen the taste of this basic cereal grain; the warming barley composition gets a boost from pomegranate seeds and splashes of pomegranate molasses. Very, very nice.
While salads, side dishes, soups, noodle-y things, and crunchy tidbits highlight the author’s reach, the baked treats appeal the most for their collective imagination and good taste. A visit to The Sprouted Kitchen will result in adding a measure of spirit to your baking and jumpstart everyday cooking. Stay awhile. It’s an inviting place.
Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day: Fast and Easy Recipes for World-Class Breads, by Peter Reinhart (Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 2009), $30.00
In Peter Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day: Fast and Easy Recipes for World-Class Breads, Reinhart expands his range of techniques for producing handmade breads with flavor and texture, resulting in a volume that plucks the best from the author’s baking experience.
In the volume, you’ll learn methods for creating “French Breads and Sourdough Hearth Breads” (such as Pain au Levin, page 61, and following pages); “Enriched Breads” (such as Soft Sandwich Bread and Rolls, page 105, and following pages); and “Rich Breads” (such as Sticky Buns, page 145 and following pages).
Though not an extensive volume of bread recipes, the contents represent a hand-picked range of authentic formulas for breads both sweet and savory. Threaded through the book, you’ll find images representing completed breads and various stages of dough in preparation, as well as procedural shots for hand-forming dough into shapes. The images are not there just for enjoyment, for they also serve to give you a good look at a talented baker’s rendition of the recipes.
The recipe for The Best Biscuits Ever (page 175, and following pages) propelled me into the kitchen to freeze and grate butter, add it to a leavened flour mixture, and bring the dough together with acidulated heavy cream. The dough is then treated to several rolls-and-folds and cut into individual biscuits. It has a lovely texture and scent and, once rested, the biscuits are baked. I put together the Soft Sandwich Bread and Rolls (page 105, and following pages) over a period of two days and ended up with a golden batch of butterflake rolls.
The two recipes I followed were easy to accomplish. The biscuits, while a little more involved, added lovely flaky layers on baking. I, too, have spent kitchen time rolling-and-folding leavened doughs destined to become biscuits or scones–a worthwhile step. The rolls made from the enriched milk dough recipe were soft and tender. The bonus of this recipe is that all of the mixing can be accomplished on one day, yielding a dough that rises in the refrigerator; a few hours before baking, the dough is portioned out, formed, and set to rise before the final bake-off.
Reinhart’s thorough knowledge of the mechanics of bread-baking is insightfully presented. It’s as if he has traveled into the network of dough and presented the results to you, the baker. This is not an easy trip to make, dear readers of baking style diary, for bread-baking has its edgy, complicated moments that only bakers like Reinhart (plus Beranbaum and Glezer, among others) can execute. How thoughtful.