book reports

Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food, by Cheryl Sternman Rule (Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), $22.00

Historically, the substance we know as yogurt–that is, the unadulterated fermented and softly thickened milky matter–likely appeared in ancient times (recorded, for instance, by Pliny the Elder during his life in the 1st century A.D., and well before that), and by the author of Yogurt Culture: A Global Look at How to Make, Bake, Sip, and Chill the World’s Creamiest, Healthiest Food, Cheryl Sternman Rule, while working as an educator (with her husband) in the Peace Corps circa “mid-1990s.” Sternman Rule pushed the pause button in the ritual preparation of the ingredient at home, but revived it some years later. The result? A kind of renewed sweet and savory look at yogurt’s elemental goodness wrapped up in a book of 352 pages.
While the focus of the text revolves around plenty of interesting recipes that drive yogurt into a culinary composition either as a dairy ingredient or accompaniment (see, for example, “Burnt Sugar-Apricot Halves,” “Overnight Challah French Toast,” “Pomegranate Raita,” “Ginger-Vanilla Lassi,” “Yogurt-Plumped Lamb Kebabs,” “Mixed Fruit and Yogurt Sheet Cake for a Crowd,” and “Blackberry-Lavender Frozen Yogurt”), other portions of the book present useful at-a-glance information on such areas as nutrients, choice of milks, the “fat” element, and so on. But equally important for consumers, you’ll find an exceptionally helpful section titled “How To Read a Yogurt Label.”
Yogurt Culture finishes with instructions on making yogurt at home. The recipe for “Homemade Yogurt” provided a reasonably simple procedure for two different base amounts of milk (1/2 gallon and 1 gallon) and culture (2 tablespoons and 1/4 cup), plus specific thermometer readings and timing. My first batch using the 1/2 gallon milk/2 tablespoons culture produced lightly thickened yogurt (after the requisite refrigeration); for the second batch, I increased the culture to 1/4 cup (using the same 1/2 gallon-quantity of milk), and preferred it for its denser texture and tarter flavor.
With yogurt as a four-season recipe component, Yogurt Culture offers the cook/baker ways to whisk and blend it into regional favorites no matter its provenance.

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Ciao Biscotti: Sweet and Savory Recipes Celebrating Italy’s Favorite Cookie, by Domenica Marchetti (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015), $18.95

One afternoon not very long ago, I turned my kitchen into Biscotti Central by dipping into Ciao Biscotti: Sweet and Savory Recipes Celebrating Italy’s Favorite Cookie by Domenica Marchetti. Marchetti, describing the way through her tidy new cookbook, is responsible for a lot of mixing, baking and, finally, crunching going on–not to mention big tins of the cookie logs piled up on the counter top.
The crackle of the twice-baked is, in truth, irresistible.
Throughout each of the recipe chapters in Ciao Biscotti (“Classic Flavors,” “Chocolate and Spice,” “Biscotti with Fruit,” “Fantasy Flavors,” “The Savory Side,” and “Beyond Biscotti”) the author gently steers the reader/baker into learning the skills to prepare a slew of cookies. The recipe for the “Olive Oil and Citrus” version (page 36, and following page) turned out a lightly crispy and aromatic (thanks to the zest of both an orange and a lemon) load of biscotti, with the recommended accompanying beverage of chamomile tea (perfect!). The “Smoky Gouda” biscotti (page 117, and following page), made of a cheese dough tinged with a mix of smoked paprika and sweet Hungarian paprika, were gently zesty–I’m imagining them as a plate-mate to a composed salad in summer and with soup (hot or cold) throughout the year.
Unmistakably, biscotti are both rugged and charming, appealing for their sometimes sturdy, sometimes tender texture. Marchetti presents you with a plateful of ideas and the wise cook should follow her lead to transform basic pantry staples (plus a few specialty items, as needed, depending on the recipe) into a batch of cookies with only the loveliest form of staying power.

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Bouchon Bakery, by Thomas Keller and Sabastien Rouxel, with Susie Heller, Matthew McDonald, Michael Ruhlman, and Amy Vegler (New York: Artisan, 2012), $50.00

If you are a casual baker, spending kitchen time with Bouchon Bakery, the book that represents the outpouring of the establishment itself (the bakery exists in multiple locations, but the first was set in motion in Yountville, California), will rearrange your skills and deeply challenge any knockabout behavior. If baking is a powerful mainstay of your life (either professionally or avocationally), Bouchon Bakery will require you to rethink techniques and, along the way, likely adopt new strategies.
And, I say this as a compliment to the heavy-weight (literally and figuratively) book, the work will shift you from a speed-reader to one who turns pages at glacier speed. Truly. This is what happened to me.
Initially, the chapter divisions (“Cookies,” “Scones and Muffins,” “Cakes,” “Tarts,” Pâte à Choux,” “Brioche & Doughnuts,” “Puff Pastry & Croissants,” “Breads,” “Confections,” and “Basics”) seem simple enough. Once into a recipe, say for “Chocolate Chunk and Chip Cookies,” the concepts within will refashion the thought process of baking. It’s a lot to absorb, but the hows and whys are thoroughly explained. One perfect example can be found in the preparation of the dough for the cookies where the attention to adding eggs is critical: “Add the eggs and mix on low speed for 15 to 30 seconds, until just combined. Scrape the bowl again. The mixture may look broken, but that is fine (overwhipping the eggs could cause the cookies to expand too much during baking and then deflate).” The resulting cookie dough balls are arranged on prepared sheet pans and you are told precisely where to place them. I advise you not swerve from this direction. All of this technical hand-holding will not be lost, but instead, make you a better, more accomplished baker and allow you to implement the procedures elsewhere.
Deep within Bouchon Bakery, “Devil’s Food Cake” appears in the same section as “Palet d’Or.”  “Lemon Meringue Tarts” appear a page before “ Spiced Caramel Chiboust with Hazelnut Streusel and Peaches.” In “Basics,” look out for the likes of “Chocolate Glaze,” a flurry of pastry creams, and “Caramel Jam.” The jam is a thick, somewhat creamy substance–not a jam proper, but more like a condiment deployed within a recipe (a small amount is poured over mixed nuts in the “Caramel Nut Tart”). The fact that “Caramel Jam” appears in “Basics” should give the reader/baker some idea about the level of excellence Bouchon Bakery sets forth. You’ll acquire knowledge, be challenged (a positive) and, finally, have something remarkable on the cooling rack. (One last, and critical, shopping note: Buy a nest of strainers. You’ll need them.)

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The Baking Bible, by Rose Levy Beranbaum (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), $40.00

Nine recipes into the first recipe chapter of The Baking Bible, “Cakes” (and specifically “Butter and Oil Cakes”), Rose Levy Beranbaum offers the Pink Pearl Lady Cake, a perfectly restrained but beautifully executed confection that celebrates our longtime professional friendship. The cake is a sweet collusion of butter cake composed with strawberry mousseline (filling and undercoat) and wrapped in white chocolate fondant. We are baking pals–just like the cake, two fancifully-layered, multi-textural personalities–and have been for years, so now you know what might seem like an inherent bias as I describe Ms. Beranbaum’s new baking book.
It is not, however, a bias built on the classic notion of favoritism, but more of a bent on sharing a similar mind-set for the love of baking and offering recipes in our own detailed way. I admired Ms. Beranbaum’s work long before I was allowed the opportunity to publish books on the subject, for her intense focus and mastery of baking chemistry dazzled me. The Cake Bible gave a sense of credibility to baking and likely paved the way for authors to flourish in the field. The Baking Bible does no less, and much more.
In 560 hefty but velvety pages, Ms. Beranbaum teaches and entices in a friendly and, occasionally, studious way. You’d be wise to read (and perhaps commit to memory) “Rose’s Golden Rules” before measuring ingredients and preheating the oven so you know what is expected. This is a woman who advises on how to break and separate an egg (in some detail) and use a stand mixer or a handheld mixer to its best advantage. In case you’ve missed something along the way, “Highlights for Success” pop up in many recipes to explain the hows-and-whys of a particular ingredient or method. Deep within the instructions of each recipe is a baking lesson–even in the simplest one: In “My Chocolate Chip Cookies,” the butter is clarified and browned and the resulting dough is chilled; you’ll learn about the process to making a chewy-crisp cookie and reason for a particular technique along the way. (Result? This is a knock-out recipe.)
The chapters in The Baking Bible are set out in familiar categories (“Cakes,” “Pies, Tarts, and Other Pastries,” “Cookies and Candy,” and “Breads and Yeast Pastries”) but the recipes are not typically commonplace. Rather, the formulas are thoughtfully composed versions hand-picked from the author’s range and expertise. And it’s a wide, precise swing into her baking world.

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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.

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The Model Bakery Cookbook: 75 Favorite Recipes from the Beloved Napa Valley Bakery, by Karen Mitchell and Sarah Mitchell Hansen with Rick Rodgers (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), $35.00

Translating recipes from bakery scale to home kitchen is–usually–a daunting task. Ask any pastry chef or author of a pastry cookbook to authenticate the occasional dilemmas and worries. When a collection of formulas emerges that accomplishes this task in a genuine way, a fine body of work emerges.
Such is the case with The Model Bakery Cookbook: 75 Favorite Recipes from the Beloved Napa Valley Bakery–the recipes beckon you to preheat the oven, assemble ingredients, and mix up a batter or dough. Reading the table of contents, you’ll be intrigued and comforted by the heritage of items offered. Many happy baking sessions are sure to follow. A quick read-through of the chapters teases with the likes of Cinnamon Rolls, Cream Currant Scones, Sunny Lemon Cake, Chocolate Rads, and Tender Sugar Cookies. Enough to tantalize, or do you need to be told about the Buttermilk Biscuits and Carmelita Bars?
The chapter headings follow a traditional format: “Breads,” “Yeasted Sweets,” “Breakfast Favorites,” “Cakes,” “Pies and Tarts,” and “Cookies.” Introductory material covers “Ingredients,” “Equipment,” and “Basic Techniques.” And for those interested in the bakery’s history, the first few pages present the reader/baker with the story of how it came to be–from catering business to storefront, complete with the chronicle of renovating a historical building and all the challenges associated with it. In other words, it was a long way from renovation to Sticky Buns.
One cozy baking afternoon not too long ago, I baked a batch of Multigrain Muffins (page 97) made from cake flour and whole wheat flour, bran flakes (the cereal) and oats, plus dried fruit and nuts–delightful. In the head note, the authors describe them as “hearty” and this is accurate, and correctly not overly substantial. I would also characterize the lot as enormously satisfying, especially when served at breakfast. I could also imagine baking the batter in a single-layer to make a kind of “morning cake”–as I have done with many of my own muffin recipes (less work, big payoff).
Though not all-embracing, The Model Bakery Cookbook is largely a testament to the business drive, skills, and good taste of the owners and staff. In an interesting way, the bakery seems to dovetail local-with-classic and local-with-contemporary. Anyone who lifts their chocolate chip cookies (known as The Ultimate Chocolate Chip Cookies in the book, page 180) from the baking sheet to cooling rack will appreciate this book.

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Pretzel Making at Home by Andrea Stonecker (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), $16.95

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. This is not an exercise in speed, though your efforts will be appreciated by one and all.

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 be sure to make the pudding, but odds are they’re just too good to steep in custard (even if a beloved item in my kitchen).

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Slice & Bake Cookies: Fast Recipes from Your Refrigerator or Freezer by Elinor Klivans (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), $18.95

Cookie happiness means having dough at-the-ready, ready to portion up into proper thicknesses and bake off. Fresh. How do I love fresh.

Elinor Klivans, a prolific author, promises such cookie bliss in her new book, Slice & Bake Cookies: Fast Recipes from Your Refrigerator or Freezer. Along with both the “Introduction” and “Ingredients, Equipment & Techniques” chapters (pages 9 through 17), Slice and Bake Cookies takes the cook into the realm of “Chewy Cookies,” “Crisp Cookies,” Stuffed & Sandwich Cookies,” and “Savory Cookies.” An ample of number of recipes develops each section, accompanied by guidelines for forming, slicing, baking, and storing the doughs.

Recipes for bakers of all stripes include Chocolate Chunk Cookies (page 23), Tiny, Crisp Chocolate Chip Cookies (page 51), Sweet and Salted Chocolate Cookies (page 52), Chocolate and Peppermint Crunch Cookies (page 56, and following page), and Bacon & Cheddar Crisps (page 102). All are approachable, kitchen-wise, and would appeal to a range of tastes.

An accessible, sometimes novel-with-a-twist, and methodical take on a traditional way of treating cookie dough forms the groundwork for Slice & Bake Cookies. All that remains is assembling the dough and wrappings. Get ready to stash, bake, and best of all, nibble.

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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, though it would be great to have an automatic duster for those baking days.

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.

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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 nice hand-picked range of authentic formulas for sweet and savory breads. 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 or Rose Levy Beranbaum (and a few others) can execute. How thoughtful.

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