Sunday, December 6, 2009

Review: 'Bread Matters'

Bread Matters - The State of Modern Bread and a Definitive Guide to Baking Your Own. Andrew Whitley. Andrews McMeel Publishing. $34.99. (373p) ISBN 978-0-7407-7373-0

When I was a kid my sister and I baked all the time. That is we baked when weren't running all over Kingdom Come. We were latch key children being raised by a single mother. It was the 60s and 70s in small town California and it was safe to run all over K.C. with abandon, without worry. When we were old enough to care for ourselves my mother gave us house keys which we wore around our necks next to our skate keys on those metal ball chains like soldiers use to wear their dog tags. Running all over K.C. was pretty much a full-time activity but on those days when the weather was inclement, where we had to stay indoors, my mother often came home at five o'clock to two dozen chocolate chip cookies that we'd spent the wet afternoon baking. We simply followed the directions on the back of the Toll House chocolate chips package (still one of the best recipes for chocolate chip cookies ever!) and voila! Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. Even though my mother could barely keep up with it all she did manage to always have flour, white and brown sugar, baking soda and powder, oil, butter and Crisco on hand. If we were running low on a precious baking necessity Traci or I added it to the grocery list on the refrigerator. If we weren't making cookies it was cupcakes, or full on cakes from those Betty Crocker and Duncan Hines boxed mixes. We had no fear, we pretty much baked anything. Our solo forays did stop at yeast baking however but I do know that on more than one occasion we made bread with my mother. I have fond memories of slicing the still hot loaves and slathering butter all over them, and gobbling them down. Those were kitchen events where we all baked together as a family.

And then for some reason as an adult I did a whole lot less baking. I did bake massive amounts of sourdough bread at my first restaurant job as a cook which was both a challenge and a lot of fun. The place was called Sourdough Jack's and fresh-baked sourdough loaves were the first item put on a diner's table. But after that both personally and professionally I moved over to savory cooking; cooking the first courses, main courses, and sides. My culinary interests solidified. I didn't actually find the time for yeast baking and it sadly fell by the wayside. So when I received 'Bread Matters' to review from Andrews McMeel Publishing I was excited. I looked forward to reading it and to trying the recipes. 'Bread Matters' is not just a book about baking -- it's a book about a lifestyle. Author-baker Andrew Whitley has owned an award-winning bakery near Cumbria, England since 1976. He has devoted over twenty-five years to perfecting the craft of baking bread. In 2002 he founded Bread Matters, an organization devoted to improving the state of bread. He is also a founder of the Real Bread Campaign in Great Britain which started in 2003 and aims to encourage the increased and local consumption of 'real bread' in Great Britain.

The first three chapters of 'Bread Matters' are devoted to the issues surrounding the production of commercial bread. Whitley believes that store-bought bread has little nutritional value and unnecessary additives, and that it is made too quickly. He advocates that slowing down the process makes for better tasting, more nutritional bread. Chapter Three - Taking Control is a call to action: leave the store-bought, commercial stuff behind and buy or bake your own organic bread. The rest of the book tells you how with over fifty recipes. The book is for all levels of baker from beginner to expert. The first recipe I tried was from Chapter Six - First Bread and Rolls and is titled 'Basic Bread.' For not having made a yeast bread in a very long time it was just like getting back on the proverbial bicycle. It took several hours but they were relaxing hours; once I set the dough to rise on the back of my stove there was a giddy anticipation of will it rise properly, will it work? And it did, my basic bread loaf was a beautiful sight and tasted even better. Whitley's recipe and explanations were clear and straightforward. To have a complete experience I kneaded the dough with my hands vs. a mixer or Cuisinart and I am glad I did. It put me in closer touch with the process and it was fun!

What I like about the book is the detail to which Whitely goes to explain all the technical aspects of yeast cookery. Types of flour, water, yeast, baking equipment, essential ingredients, temperature, ovens, nutritional value, troubleshooting -- he even includes a section on gluten-free baking. While making my basic loaf I had a question about the process and quickly found the answer in another section of the book. I tried several other recipes including Baps (Small Rolls) and a recipe for calzoni; all worked beautifully. Next on my list of attempts will be something with sourdough and possibly croissants. The book is thorough, well-organized and full of great information on baking and yeast cookery. Whitley walks readers through the baking process with chapters like Starting From Scratch, Bread-A Meal in Itself, and Easy As Pie. If you don't already own one of the many yeast cookery books out there, or are looking for a good primer, I highly recommend Bread Matters. If you already have one or more of the others out there, this will make a perfect addition to your library. It's always good to have more than one source, isn't it? Andrew Whitley absolutely knows what he's talking about.

My Status: The cold weather is here in Southern California and I'm loving it. Time to pull put those winter dishes, recipes. Also new cookbooks to try, some to review; new kitchen equipment to try out. More cooking, eating, writing, blogging coming soon.

Upcoming Posts: my personal, childhood food history as told by my mother, Dawn Goodman. Reviews: Cooking Light, a review of the redesign of the Time Inc. magazine. Cooking The Cowboy Way, a review of the new cookbook by cowboy-chef Grady Spears.

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  1. Made me think about who got the bread maker in my divorce (to first hubby). I got the rice maker... but now I want that bread maker!

  2. Rice maker AND a new hubby! Not a bad deal. When I was recipe testing for this I just felt so 'domestic' - loved being at home baking! Go buy that bread maker - let me know what you bake. xx

  3. I was very happy with your first loaf. It was great as a sandwich bread. Keep baking!!

  4. Thanks Robert! Next time you can do all the kneading! :-)

  5. Great post Charles. It's funny that something so base and simple, like bread, is one of the hardest things to tackle for a lot of home cooks. Patience is a virtue, as is technique and bring love to every loaf. It wasn't until I really began to understand the importance of kneading, working the all-important gluten, and paying attention to what the dough is telling you, that I started making really good bread.

    Great review, and I always love reading new posts here. Thanks Charles! Keep baking!

  6. Thanks Phil! When I was testing the recipes in the book I found all the kneading, dough rising, etc. very therapeutic. As you say, you can't rush bread making.

  7. Sounds like a book I need. Still have to get into baking bread, but I'd like to do that someday.

  8. Natasha: You should definitely give it a try. It's actually a lot of fun and so rewarding when that fresh loaf of bread emerges from the oven.

  9. Charles, Love all your posts, they take me home!!!!

    I am not a baker, but having a fresh loaf of bread is one of my favorite on the dinner table.
    I have a bread machine I just have to buy the book.
    Thanks for sharing!

  10. Kingdom Come, I haven't heard of that place in years. It sounds like we grew up in the same neighborhood :)

    I haven't seriously baked anything in at least 5 years. I used to do it all the time. I guess laziness took over and we have a great artisan bakery with 2 guys that I want to support 'cuz they are better bakers than I am and because they are so cool and I am lazy!

    I love how informative your posts are! Now I am going to go look for this book.

  11. Thank you Afaf & Kristen. I appreciate your comments so much! xox