Successful baking is the result of carefully mixing equal parts science and passion— a balancing of flour and fat ratios with the sweet joy of creation.
Sadly, too few cookbook authors manage this delicate blend, producing instead either tedious textbooks or gushy remembrances of pies past. Neither does much for getting great goodies onto your table.
This year we are lucky to get two masterful takes on baking, books that deserve to be dog-eared, speckled with flour and spattered with batter.
First is Carole Bloom’s “The Essential Baker,” an exhaustive (225 recipes) and intuitive book pros and novices alike will be comfortable with. The author’s simple, evocative prose makes it hard not to be drawn to the recipes.
But the brilliance of this book is its structure. The recipes are sorted according to key ingredients. The “Fruit and Vegetable” section is divided in chapters on stone fruits, dried fruits, berries and grapes, for example.
In recent years more cookbooks have adopted this approach (and even more should), which syncs so much better with how real people cook than more traditional approaches to organizing recipes.
Bloom’s recipe structure also is excellent, favoring a “Joy of Cooking” style that meshes the ingredient list with the method (rather than the more common list of ingredients followed by the instructions).
Some readers may initially find the recipes visually intimidating, but Bloom’s deft hand at guiding the reader through the recipe ensures success.
Proof of that is her recipe for Devilish Chocolate Layer Cake with Caramel-chocolate Buttercream, a complex five-page recipe that despite its many steps was clear and easy to follow. It also was remarkably good.
Bloom’s recipe for gingerbread produced a simple, moist and delicious cake-like bread, and the cardamom and pear crisp is a great fall dish.
Equally deserving of space in your kitchen is “Peter Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads,” a thoroughly illustrated introduction to professional bread baking techniques adapted for the home cook.
Like “The Essential Baker,” Reinhart’s book interweaves method and ingredients. And as with Bloom, it works. his technique is thoroughly professional, but his style is quite personable.
Reinhart, who is a baking instructor at Johnson and Wales University, is a wonderful teacher, patiently providing the readers with the nuances and clues needed for successful baking.
While you could read the first 91 pages of the book, which focus on method and technique, you would not be lost jumping directly to the recipes. Reinhart’s guidance is so sure, first-time bakers should have little trouble.
Experienced bakers will find Reinhart’s approach varies from conventional bread recipes. He relies heavily on bigas and soakers, so-called pre-doughs that are made with little effort and are incorporated into the dough later.
This results in sophisticated tastes and textures otherwise difficult to achieve, especially in whole-grain baking. His recipes cover a broad swath, from sandwich loaves to challah and bagels to crackers.
Try the delicious and tender whole-wheat cinnamon buns (add even more sugar for extra decadence) or the whole-wheat sandwich bread.
Other books worth considering:
? Patty Pinner’s “Sweety Pies” offers simple, appealing pies with a hearty side of “womanish observations” — the sort of tales that often involve baking for and from the heart and people with names such as Chestermae and Miss Mattie. Her Redemption Hazelnut Pie was amazingly sweet and nutty. The book also contains many unusual pies, such as Sister Shirley Woods’ Navy Bean Custard Pie and Miss Eudora’s Cream of Wheat Custard Pie.
? Ron Silver and Jen Bervin’s “Bubby’s Homemade Pies,” a collection drawn from the menus of Bubby’s, an almost iconic New York destination for homestyle cooking and pie. It offers excellent recipes and technique for making pie crusts, with dozens of options for filling them, including a chapter of ice cream pies. Some recipes run to the esoteric (such as the Apple-Roquefort-Bacon Pie, which was oddly delicious).