Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Two Unusual Cookbooks

Last month I acquired two books on baking- two completely different approaches to baking- each with something new to tell me.

The first, How Baking Works (by Paula Figoni), is a scientific treatise on the mechanism of baking - how the ingredients, equipment and kitchen conditions work together to give a particular product. Each chapter has simple, scientific explanations as well as exercises (several involving math) and suggested experiments to understand various aspects of baking. This makes it easier to break down and understand recipes and also evaluate different recipes (for example the role of eggs in a recipe - how much egg does one use? Is the whole egg needed or just the yolk or white? Is it to be diluted with water?). Based on the science, there are also a large number of helpful hints thrown into each section - these are truly helpful. Though the book is intended more for baking schools or shops, it is useful for all those who are interested in approaching baking professionally without having access to training under master bakers or professionals.

The second is a book on artisan bread making called Tartine Bread (by Chad Robertson with wonderful photographs by Eric Wolfinger). This describes Chad's journey in exploring bread making, from apprenticing with some of the best artisan bakers in the US and France to setting up his own (very successful) Tartine Bakery in San Fransisco and ultimately developing a method of replicating this process of bread making for the home baker. There is also a section on how Chad asked a range of people (some already familiar with baking and some novices) to try making this bread from scratch - and the insights received as a result of this process. The last part is a collection of recipes on using days-old bread - a rather gourmet section, not surprising as the author and his wife are both professional bakers. The photographer, Eric, offered to teach Chad how to surf in exchange for learning how to make bread (in true Californian spirit).

I am not sure when I will begin to make use of these recipes but they provide a very different perspective on bread making and on the importance of the process of leavening. I had no idea, for instance, that brioche and croissant were, at one time, made using natural leavening and that they tasted and kept very differently from the ones we see now in bakeries.

I quote below from each of these books, to give a flavour of their approach to baking. They have taught me to think differently about baking and I hope soon to actually put some of these thoughts into practice.

"The food scientist uncovers how different ingredients are processed, views ingredients as made of individual components, and views processes and procedures in the bakeshop in terms of interactions between these components. If ingredients can be viewed in this way, their behavior in the bakeshop begins to make more sense. How they will react under new conditions and new situations can be predicted better, and failures in the bakeshop can be averted. The goal of this book is to share the views of the food scientist with bakers and pastry chefs.

Beyond the practical usefulness of science, there is a beauty to it, a beauty best appreciated when science is applied to the everyday world. I hope that this book allows those who might not yet see this beauty to at least see the possibility of it.

...Numbers can sound deceptively precise. For instance, the temperature at which yeast cells die is often cited as 140 degrees F (60 degrees C). But was the heat moist or dry? Was the temperature brought up quickly or slowly? What strain of yeast was used and how much acid, salt and sugar were present?

The actual temperature at which yeast cells die depends on these and other factors, and that temperature is not necessarily 140 degrees F (60 degrees C)."
(How Baking Works)

"Traditional, intuitive bread making does not lend itself naturally to a written recipe. Before the study of microbiology, bakers understood the subtleties of the process. The nature of fermentation was second nature to their own. That is, they understood fermentation in relation to the rhythms of their own lives. It is necessarily the same with modern artisan bakers.

Tartine Bread is devoted to the use of natural leaven, often called sourdough. I promote using a "younger" leaven with very little acidity. It's a sweet-smelling, yeastier relative of the more sour and vinegary-smelling sourdough. When making bread with nothing more than flour, water and salt, aspiring bakers should apply their attention to learning how to control the process of fermentation. The concept is not without precedence.

...In France I had fallen in love with the sweet, creamy flavor of bread fermented with wild yeast leaven that contradicts the widespread perception of "sourdough." I wanted anything but sour bread. I wanted a deep auburn crust to shatter between the teeth, giving way to tender, pearlescent crumb. I wanted my baker's signature, the score made with a blade on top, to rise and fissure, and the crust to set with dangerous edges. Rustic forms from the forge of the oven would be the final expression of the process. To gain a following from these large, crusty loaves, I would make sure to bring the bread that was still warm from the ovens to the markets."
(Tartine Bread)

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