book reports

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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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.

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Tartine Book No. 3: Modern, Ancient, Classic, Whole, by Chad Robertson (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), $40.00

In Tartine Book Nº3: Modern, Ancient, Classic, Whole, Chad Robertson dives deep into baking with whole grains (including ancient grains), turning the tables on classic pastries (take a good, tasty look at his Chamomile-Kamut Shortbread on page 251 and Buckwheat-Hazelnut Sables on page 261) and reinvigorating traditional breads with blended grains (a spectacular example of this is the author’s recipe for Spelt & Toasted Corn-Flour Baguettes on page 59, and following pages, and a veritable textbook on how to achieve the best “crumb” and flavor in a creation based on a multi-layered process and likely appealing to only the most passionate–and possibly advanced–of bakers). Even if you only put together Robertson’s 50/50 Sablé Cookies (page 258, and following page) and read through this work at leisure, you would come away deeply admiring the scope of the topic and love of the art Roberston conveys.
This is an exciting book. It may shake up some time-honored formulas and techniques–but only if you are not wedded to exploration.
The dynamic quality of Tartine Book Nº3 is evident throughout many distinctive chapters, like “Hearth Loaves with Sprouted Grains” or “Pastry.” Expect to add to your baking education–and the pantry–significantly by creating perfect crispbreads, scones, or tarts. And prepare to take your notion of the peanut butter cookie and have it turned completely upside-down (hint: Robertson’s take is made with oat flour and the cookies make one huge jump into confection immortality).
My suggestion: With a copy of Tartine Book Nº3 in hand, travel into this author’s mixing bowl to learn his philosophy and methods. It may take several reads to absorb the material. Even if bread is not your thing, perhaps he can lure you with Salted-Chocolate Rye Cookies (page 248, and following page). Unlike his Golden Brioche (which uses four different flours and a poolish, in addition to kefir butter), the cookie-making is a way-briefer, easier event, makes you rethink rye flour entirely, and produces swoon-worthy results.
All bakers beware. This book enchants.

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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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Crackers & Dips: More than 50 Handmade Snacks by Ivy Manning (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2013), $19.95

Summer perfect: Crackers & Dips: More than 50 Handmade Snacks by Ivy Manning is a gift to all bakers and cooks wanting (and willing) to upgrade their snack offerings. Suggesting to some cooks that they create, say, Paper-Thin Semolina Cracker Sheets (page 45, and following page) to accompany, perhaps, the Rosemary Cannellini Dip (page 114) might be a stretch but would be rewarded with two lovely, handmade somethings to serve with cocktails or simply as a savory snack.

If you think of a cracker as a cookie of sorts, then you’d likely be interested in baking a batch of flatbread, crisps, or shortbread (savory)–to name a few categories. Crackers & Dips will inspire you to do just this by looking over the chapter headings: “Light and Crunchy Classic Crackers,” “The Global Cracker: Crispy Snacks from Around the World,” “Healthful Snacks and Wheat-Free Crackers,” “Quick anmd Crunchy: Easy Crackerd to Make in Minutes,” “Sweet Treats: Dessert Crackers,” and “Dips, Spreads, and Schmears: Delicious Ways to Dress Your Crackers.” Introductory material reads upbeat and the chapter titled “Techniques for Perfect Cracker Baking” is thoughtfully put together and helpful in its content (like learning how to thin dough with a rolling pin or a pasta machine).

On baking, I found Caesar’s Sablés (page 48, and following page) to be a delight. The shortbreadlike slice-and-bake cookie dough contains olive oil as the dominant fat and is flavored with ingredients found in versions of Caesar salad–garlic, anchovies, Parmesan cheese. The dough can be made in advance and, in fact, cuts neatly if prepared at least a day ahead of baking. Other recipes worth exploring include Irish Blue Cheese and Walnut Shortbread (page 55), Brown Butter-Hazelnut Crackers (page 63, and following page), and Skinny Mint Chocolate Grahams (page 96, and following page).

The solution to boring, everyday crackers? Crackers & Dips: More than 50 Handmade Snacks.

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