Friday, February 29, 2008

Book Review: The Breadbakers Apprentice

Master Baker Peter Reinhart knows how to write a good cookbook. Full of step by step photos on everything from shaping a batard to proofing a ciabbata, and clear explanations on the science and art of baking bread, his new volume, The Breadbaker's Apprentice, is one of the best books that I have read in months. Not just the best cookbook-the best book. The Breadbaker's Apprentice radiates Reinhart's knowledge, excitement and enthusiasm as he invites you to join him in the grand adventure of breadbaking.

And what an adventure it is! After grabbing our attention with his excellent semi-autobiographical essay "What is it about bread?", Reinhart takes us on a fascinating tour of breadmaking, starting with the science and history that underpins this culinary art. This section of the book, titled "Deconstructing Bread: A Tutorial" is divided into two parts. One deals with mundane but necessary things such as the composition of the wheat grain, weights, measures, bakers percentages, different types of flours and whether or not you really need that pizza stone after all.

The other explains the 12 Stages of Breadmaking in clear and useful language. (These are, if you were wondering, Mise en place, Mixing, Primary fermentation, Punching down, Dividing, Rounding, Benching, Shaping and Panning, Proofing, Baking, Cooling, and last but certainly not least, Storing and Eating). Detailed descriptions and excellent photos illustrate every step and Reinhart's clear prose would set even the most amateur baker at ease. Despite one's rush to get to the recipes, one can't help but be impressed by the detail and fine writing in each of these chapters, which somehow manages to make flour percentages sound interesting to even the casual baker.

After learning all we need to know about enzymes, starches, sugars and "coaxing" the maximum amount of flavour out of a grain of wheat, we move on to the main entree-the breads themselves. Reinhart is the inventor of my absolute favorite, foolproof pizza dough, which is one of 47 recipes in the book. Here I must add that although this book is a bit light on recipes compared to some others, I find the clear explanations of technique, along with the formulas for different kinds of pre-ferments and sourdough starters, to more than make up the difference. Once you have some of these pre-ferments under your belt, you can just start experimenting and see what you come up with.

Every recipe is amply illustrated with excellent photos and come with a handy side-bar that explains how long the bread will take to make and gives useful tips and commentary. Measurements are listed in cups and ounces, but unfortunately the metric system is completely ignored, which I hope is an oversight that will be rectified in future editions. Step by step instructions are clear and easy to understand and photos illustrate any tricky shaping techniques. The recipes are clearly adapted for home baking and Reinhart offers useful tips and suggestions on how to bake artisanal, bakery quality bread in a lowly home oven.

The recipes in The Breadbaker's Apprentice all seem wonderful, if a bit on the white flour side of things. My only gripe about this book is that there aren't more whole grain recipes. While he does include a recipe for light wheat bread, which is made with 1/3 whole wheat flour, and for one 100% whole wheat loaf, I wish that some of Reinhart's other recipes listed ideas for how to punch up the whole grain content a bit. Otherwise I have no complaints. So far I have tried the amazingly delicious and simple Pain a l'Ancienne (see the photos above) and the delectable sticky buns, and his Neapolitan pizza dough is my go-to recipe. Next up: cinnamon walnut bread, bagels, focaccia and some plain sourdough! I have starter waiting patiently in my refrigerator as I write this.

Do I recommend Reinhart's book? That would be a resounding yes. This big and beautiful hardback was definitely worth my money. Let me know if you agree once you have tried your first taste of Pain a l'Ancienne.

1 comment:

Cynthia said...

It is the best book on bread. I treaure my copy dearly.