Thursday, September 9, 2010
Book Review: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart
Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: Ten Speed Press (November 14, 2001)
Rating (1 to 5*): *****
Many friends and acquaintances know that I have a fair collection of cookbooks. So, when gift-giving opportunities come along, often they want to contribute to that collection (something that makes me shudder), and they ask, "What sort of cookbooks do you like?"
When it comes to gifts, I generally respond that I like local color cookbooks – things like the recipes from the Presbyterian Ladies' Auxiliary form Baton Rouge, c. 1919. My secondary answer, and what I really prefer from generous gift-givers, is anything that is old. 19th and early 20th century cookbooks and receipt books are the best!
Finally comes the answer that I am most leery about. I am averse to giving it because this is a category of book that is best purchased for one's self because there are few, if any, people who know you well enough to pick it out. The category of cookbook that I refer to is the "advanced" book. Escoffier's La Guide Culinaire is a prime example, and Ali-Bab's Gastronomie Pratique is another. These are works that challenge the cook to advance his art. Techniques must be learnt and employed scrupulously for things to come out well – shortcuts are not part of the plan in these works.
Another exquisite example of the advanced cookbook is Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. This is not Reinhart's latest work, but it is a wonderful volume because, much in the spirit of Pepin's La Methode, it teaches the technique of baking fine quality artisan breads. As an apprentice takes baby steps in learning the correct way to execute difficult and complex recipes, this book walks the novice bread baker through the steps. When the new baker has worked his way through the book, he will not merely be able to execute a handful of bread recipes, but, rather, will understand what makes bread work. As a result, the new baker is on his way to creating recipes of his own. Or, better yet, when he encounters bread recipes from a hundred years ago, he will be able to execute the sketchy instructions with confidence and a degree of expertise.
As with other advanced cookbooks, this is not for the "modern cook, on the go", or any such drivel. It may take a couple of weeks to get a good sourdough started. Once it is correctly started, however, it is a treasure to be kept for years to come, improving hugely with age. Not all the ingredients in this book are going to be found in the Mega-Lo-Mart, but they can generally be had locally, with a bit of looking. Reinhart discusses the virtue of specific ingredients and equipment, and offers numerous tips for those baking in household stoves.
Despite having a decent cooking education, and having worked in fine kitchens both in the United States and in Europe, I have never been much of a baker. Whilst I love devouring a really good chocolate cake, I have little desire to make it myself. I have, however, always been entranced by good bread. I love the textures of the crust and the crumb. I love the way a sharp bread knife shatters the surface, to open the treasures hidden within. I have, however, had little luck with baking breads myself for a variety of reasons. Peter Reinhart has changed that. I am still on my bread-baking journey, but I now have an expert guide to show me the path. I recommend this book without reservation.
I am not providing an isolated recipe from The Bread Baker's Apprentice because each recipe requires the foundations laid by Reinhart earlier in the book. You cannot, for example, use a package of Old San Francisco Sourdough Starter in lieu of the genuine article and expect a fine quality artisan loaf to result. Just get the book. You may likely find it in your local library for starters – once you have started, it will sell itself.