Friday, January 18, 2013

The Art of Baking Bread

The Art of Baking Bread
Publisher: Skyhorse Publishing (2012)

We are a culture built on bread. With the exception of a few Asian countries where rice is the basic staff of life, every nation in the world has their own creation of ground grain, water and (occasionally) yeast. Well made bread is becoming a luxury in these times of cheap, mass produced loaves – which while conveniently baked, pre sliced and wrapped for the eager sandwich maker, have the taste and texture of an old sponge. Making your own is simple in its most basal sense, but there are myriads of ways to recapture the ancient essence of the craft. Matt Pellegrini attempts to do just that in his book The Art of Baking Bread.
This book is definitely one for all bread bakers, regardless of experience. The first 35 pages are dedicated to ingredients and tools essential for proper bread baking at home, and these are followed by Pellegrini’s Eight Essential Steps of Bread Baking (p. 38) – a visual, baby-step like guide through the basics. Those new to the world of baking bread will find the full colour photographs in the tutorial invaluable. For experienced bakers, this will be old hat, though some of the more “professional” notes as to dough temperature and hydration are more geared towards die-hards or those with pastry school certificates. I was fascinated by the scientific knowledge included in Baking Bread, not so much for bettering my own loaves (though I'm sure it would come in handy) as for the sheer trivia of it all.

Some of the information in Baking Bread seems to be put there purely for the benefit of blossoming bread artisans or pastry students. While I appreciate that there are two “standard” ways to knead dough by hand (stand mixer kneading is left out) and there are as many bread shapes as bakers, the bulk of home cooks are not concerned with calculating dough temperature or hydration more than what the recipe states it should look or feel like. Nor do I know anyone who is about to MacGyver a lame or a proofing box just to churn out a loaf or so a week for sandwiches. But that’s not Pellegrini’s point. Showing how to create the best bread possible is, and bakers will undoubtedly modify and develop under their own circumstances.

This book does have the honour of finally teaching me about the Baker’s Percentage (p. 166), which as a math-hater I failed to comprehend when I saw it in other books or online. Pellegrini is correct in his statement that “the baker’s percentage is much easier to understand one you’ve looked through...the recipes covered” (p. 166). If I took away nothing else from this book, I mentally cemented his thorough, simple lesson and have since been able to apply it to my own loaves.

Pellegrini is passionate about technique and theory, and it shows in spades with Baking Bread. However, the book is not all “talk”. A small section contains simple, yet indespensible, recipes for a variety of dough “types” including basic lean, pre-fermented, enriched and sourdough. With these four basic recipes under your belt as a breadsmith it becomes merely a matter of adding and subtracting ingredients to create almost any flavourful loaf in the world.

Pellegrini’s tone can, at times, be condescending (he goes so far as to call non-converts of kitchen scales “fools”), he does manage to pass along a wealth of knowledge in a book half the size of its competitors. The trivia, techniques, patient coaxing and occasional criticism are nothing short of the treatment a college professor may bestow on a new undergraduate class, and the aim is identical – to bring out the best and forget the rest. If you are passionate about the world of flavourful, wholesome bread and are looking to bring the experience to the home oven, The Art of Baking Bread may just be your required reading.

Available on Amazon

Wednesday, January 16, 2013








Friday, January 11, 2013

Artisanal Gluten Free Cooking

Artisanal Gluten Free Cooking
Publisher: The Experiment (2012)

Artisanal Gluten-Free CookingIf you need to be on a gluten free diet, no doubt you’ve faced the temptation (or frustration) of confronting restaurant menus, grocery stores and celebrity chefs proudly declaring the joy of experiencing and selling artisanal food. From crusty, rustic loaves of sourdough to rough, bronze-die cut pasta cloaked in delicate sauce, crunchy grain filled crackers and blistered, brick oven pizzas, it seems that the label “artisan” is akin to “dough” – and a hearty, wheat-filled dough at that. However, artisanal simply means “made by an artisan” – that is, a master of their craft – and a myriad of delicacies can be made with integrity and passion, without a drop of gluten. Kelli and Peter Bronski have dedicated their lives to the art and science of gluten free cooking, and their second edition of Artisanal Gluten Free Cooking is clearly evidence of their passion.

With 275 recipes created from scratch, Artisanal definitely aims to bring the love of food and cooking back to the kitchens of those with celiac disease. While newbies to the lifestyle (especially those trying to cook for friends and loved ones) often see the diet as complex and difficult, the Bronskis detail supermarket tips, product recommendations, and gluten-free resources that ease the journey. Coupled with a signature gluten free flour blend that is a breeze to make in mass quantities, the family-friendly collection will help keep costs down and flavours up when compared to most store-bought specialty meals. Mindful of the other dietary restrictions that often accompany celiac disease, the omnivorous Artisanal includes Vegetarian Options (p. 317) and Useful Substitutions (p.321) sections as well.

Gluten Free Speculaas
Speculaas Cookies (p. 247)
Artisanal’s recipes span every meal, sweet and snacktime yearning the reader could ask for – from fluffy Belgian Waffles (p.22) at breakfast to Gnocchi (p.148) and Margherita Empanadas (p. 135) for dinner. Desserts and drinks aren’t excluded either – even Pie Dough (p. 265) gets the gluten free makeover. The recipes are fairly simple to put together, but items like the Pizza Dough (p.140) and the Tortellini (p. 156) are a bit of a process (but then again, gluten-filled versions of either recipe are too).  Thankfully, the recipes that take longer to prepare can be refrigerated or frozen for later enjoyment, so a quick pasta dinner is still an option. Artisan does have many quick and simple meal options as well, and the recipes channel cuisine from all over the globe. The results are consistently delicious and are almost indecipherable from “normal” home cooked meals, because that’s exactly what the recipes are –food made at home, with love.

One thing I noticed in Artisan which seems to be a running theme with many allergy-free cookbooks is the inclusion of recipes that were always gluten free, or so simple that I didn’t even know a recipe was needed to prepare them. While I appreciate their attempt to be like every other cookbook in it’s “normalcy” by including items like German Potato Salad (p. 108), the bulk of the “Sides” chapter is made of items like Grilled Asparagus (p. 112), Applesauce (p. 116) and various plain rice-cooking how-tos, and neither Pan-Seared Scallops (p. 168) nor Steamed Lobster (p. 170) are “recipes” per se, more techniques one could easily look up in any Joy of Cooking-esque book or learn via Google. I also wish there was more photography throughout the book, as the stigma of gluten free food as “boring” and “bland” is eradicated by the stunning photos already within the work’s pages.

Gluten Free Peanut Butter Cup Cookies
Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 238)
That said, the recipes (rather than techniques) in this book are worth their weight in gold when it comes to their flavour. The Brussels Sprouts and Tofu Fried Rice (p. 183) was delicious, especially with a dash more chili sauce – and was a great way to re-discover the vegetable. Both the Chocolate Chip Cookies (p. 238) and Speculaas Cookies (p. 247) were huge hits over the holiday season, and I even added the twist of chopped peanut butter cups to the chocolate chippers for one batch. Bear in mind that Artisan is not a “diet food” cookbook – butter, sugar, eggs, chocolate and cream are all used throughout, but considering the majority of those with celiac disease have trouble keeping weight on I’m sure this was  not an absentminded choice by the Bronskis.

If you are faced with the situation of cooking gluten-free, whether for your own health or the health of a loved one, there is no sense in sacrificing the foods you love to eat. Artisanal Gluten Free Cooking proves that easy, weeknight meals as well as those for special occasions are not only possible, but delicious. It is a wonderful way to bring everyone to the dinner table regardless of restrictions in a manner that doesn’t alienate the afflicted diners, and I applaud Kelli and Peter Bronski for this welcome contribution to my collection.

Available on Amazon