Short Reviews of Some of My Bread Books
Here’s my personal take on some of the bread books I own. You will be surprised at the length of some of these reviews. Is “Olney on Bread” really that much better than “Bread Baker’s Apprentice?” No, it’s just that everyone has heard of BBA, while Olney on Bread might be new to you, thus requiring more explanation. This list is subjective, since it’s based on my experience, likes and dislikes. I hope it helps you add a book or two to your bread baking shelf and maybe avoid a book that doesn’t fit your style.
The Breads of France and How to Bake Them in Your Own Kitchen, Bernard Clayton Jr.
Every baker has a special fondness for his first bread book, and this was mine. It’s not the most comprehensive, it’s got some recipes that offend purists and the recipes use volume measure. Still, if you can take a little time to convert the recipes to weight, most of them work, and work well. Look carefully at his Italian bread, Careme French, Normandy Beaten Bread, Honfleur Country Bread, several types of briosches and Pan Mie de Monaco. And the anecdotes transport the reader back to a simpler, slower, time.
Recipes I’ve made that deserve comment
I’ve been baking with this book since 1980 and I’ve made most of the recipes in the book.
- Poilane’s Peasant Bread. This was the first I had heard of Poilane and his famous bread. This recipe uses yeast, but it still turns out a very good loaf.
- The two Brioches, Nanterre and Parisian, both work very well, as does the Brioche au Fromage, the next recipe.
- Honfleur Country Bread. My description says simply, “The Best.” For several years, this was the bread I took with me to parties or dinners. It’s a big loaf with a goodly amount of whole wheat and a lovely design on the top.
- I’ve made the Mousseline Brioche many times and it has always worked well for me. I have trouble finding large coffee cans these days, everything is in 11 ounce of 3 pound cans. This makes a sticky dough, but it works.
- Normandy Beaten Bread is the opposite of what artisan bakers usually look for. It’s a dense, hard-shell little loaf with a delightful flavor. If you are feeling frustrated, this is the bread for you; it requires a long period of beating the dough with a stick!
- His small roll recipes make nice small rolls, one a little crusty, the other softer. These take a long time for the starter, so they aren’t spur-of-the-moment undertakings.
- The Pain Italien is the basis of my standard Italian Bread recipe. It’s strange that this recipe comes from Monaco, but that’s only 32 kilometers to San Remo and 230 to Milan. My original notes say to beware of burning on the bottom.
- Pain de Mie de Monaco is my favorite sandwich bread. This is a great sandwich loaf, but be careful loading the Pullman loaf pan. The deal is to put enough dough into the pan to fill the pan when the loaf bakes. I put too much into the pan on one occaision and the lid blew off about 15 minutes into the bake.
- His version of the Pain de Beaucaire are interesting little mini-loaves-not-quite-rolls. He mentions the traditional Beaucaire loaf but doesn’t give any indication of how large it is. No less a person that Raymond Clavel supposedly says this is one of the best breads in France.
- Pogne de Romans. What can I say? I’ve made and loved this bread for 26 years. It’s a real production, but what a treat!
- Les Pistolets, split rolls, are a standard. They are similar to many other small, crusted rolls, and they are good for dinner or small sandwiches.
- The three recipes and the commentary on the S.S. France are delightful. I can’t imagine what it must be like to have baked thousands of rolls and croissants every day on a ship. I’ve made these breads several times and they all turn out well.
The Italian Baker, Carol Field.
If you want to learn about Italian bread and how to make it, this is the book.
Okay, so it’s 20 years old. It’s still the best single book on Italian bread going.
She’s got ciabatta, the latest fad bread.
She’s got the rustic and artisan breads.
She’s got a coccodrillo bread that’s so wet you can’t knead it.
She’s got a whole bunch of other good breads that you might not even know about.
The recipes have both volume and weight measurement.
Some breads I’ve made from the Italian Baker and comments on them
- Como Bread and Ancient Como Bread. Two of my favorite breads. Slightly different, as befits breads made with different timings, but both very much in the tradition of breads made by artisans taking their time to do things right.
- Ciabatta may be the most popular bread of the past 10 years. Certainly, there are dozens of recipes floating around that all purport to be “the” true, real, honest-to-no-lie way to make ciabatta. Maybe so, but this is still one of the three or four that I work with when I want to make ciabatta.
- Pane di Terni, Terni Bread, is a traditional country or rustic bread. Her description of it as a saltless bread almost makes me want to try it without the salt. Almost. Fortunately, she provides a place for salt in the recipe.
- Coccodrillo, Crocodile Bread. This bread sparked hundreds of postings in the alt.bread.recipes bread newsgroup, and for good reason. It is an absolutely wonderful bread. It takes from two to three days to make and will sorely try your patience along the way. This bread is WET! But if you can master it, you’ll be treated to some of the finest bread you ever had.
- Her Altamura, Pugliese and Siciliano are, to me, The Big Three, as they follow one another in the book and all make fine bread. Altamura and Siciliano demand durum flour, so they are slightly specialty breads. However, durum flour is available in several places.
Olney on Bread, Judith Olney.
This is a book from the 1980s and the days when recipes were measured in cups. In spite of this, this is one of my favorite bread books. Just about every recipe I have made from this book has worked very well, even when I’ve modified the recipe to use pre-ferments. The instructions are clear and accurate. She covers all the basics and then shows how to make them look good, too, even disguising bread as a potato. The second half of the book contains quite a few breads made with nuts, fruit and jams and jellies. The jacket blurb says she’s “America’s most imaginative chef.” I don’t know about that, but this is a valuable book. If you can find a copy, it’s well worth buying.
Breads I’ve made from Olney on Bread
- Basic White Bread. The traditional water, flour, salt and yeast. She gives scaled recipes for one loaf to three loaves. And then shows how to shape the dough into various interesting shapes.
- Ciabatta. Hers is a good, traditional recipe, if something this new can have a traditional recipe.
- World’s Largest Hamburger Bun. Maybe it is or it isn’t, but the recipe is fun and it works well.
- Italian Picnic Loaf. I’ve made this twice and loved it both times. I don’t know how kielbasa makes it into Italian bread, but it’s good nonetheless.
- Sticky, Crusty Corn Bread. If you need a corn bread recipe, this is one to consider. It makes great corn bread and it’s easy to make, as corn bread should be.
- Both ryes, light and medium. Her rye breads tend to be a bit drier than a lot of ryes, and are easier to make.
- Swiss Potato Rolls in a Basket. Great little rolls, very soft and tasty.
- English Muffins. This is my standard recipe for English muffins.
- Rosemary Foccacia with Rosemary Garlic Butter. This is one great-tasting bread.
- Mustard Bread. A very different bread, comes out yellow and with a delicate tang of mustard. Easy to make and an interesting surpise sandwich bread.
- Boxty Bread. Another potato bread, this one from Ireland. It comes out fairly light and airy.
Crust and Crumb, Peter Reinhart
Many people have commented that this fine little book plays second fiddle to his magnum opus, The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. This is a misconception. Crust and Crumb was there before BBA, and is, in my opinion, just as deserving of a place on your bookshelf. It’s a fine book, more concerned with making bread, maybe, than with having a point of view. The ciabatta and rustic recipes are straightforward and accurate, as are the white bread and traditional French. It’s worth a careful look, if only to see what Peter Reinhart was up to before BBA.
Bread Baker’s Apprentice, Peter Reinhart
I almost feel I don’t need to comment on this book. It’s one of the two or three best books on bread and bread baking ever. Period.
The first 100 pages are simply one of the two best expositions on baking bread I have seen. Get this book. Study it. There will be a quiz this Friday.
Bread, Jeffrey Hamelman
This is serious competition for BBA. Again, I don’t feel a real need to comment on this book. The depth of knowledge and the thoughtfulness of the presentation speak of his experience and training.
The recipes mostly work. I had trouble with his section on sourdough, but then again, sourdough is a tough thing to master, so I’ll give him a pass here. His technique and technical sections are comparable to BBA; this is the other best book. Again, buy this book.
Local Breads, Daniel Leader
Dan Leader owns Bread Alone Bakery in Boiseville, NY. He is a very good baker (I’ve had his bread) and a very fine writer. This book is an exploration into sourdough and whole-grain breads from artisan bakers in the usual places — France and Italy — and in some places that are a little off the usual beaten path — Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. There are some recipes that use straight dough methods and some that require poolishes or bigas, but the majority of the book is given over to Leader’s first love, sourdough. I’ve made quite a few of the breads and will probably make all of them fairly soon, they are that good and the book is that good. Anyone who wants to bake whole grain breads as baked in the towns and cities of Europe should have this book. His instructions are clear and detailed, the pictures are lovely.
The Village Baker, Joe Ortiz
Many people have criticised this book for not being clear, or for having strangely-written recipes, or for being inconsistent between the amateur and professional sections. These are partially valid complaints, but what they miss is that this is a first-rate bread book, written by a man who was there at the start of the bread revolution, in the trenches and on the barricades. My copy of this book is in tatters. It’s got so many notes and additions to the recipes that I can’t read the original printing in some places. The pages are falling out. In short, I’ve used this book a lot and really like it.
The book is divided into two sections, one for home baking and one for professional baking. The professional section has large-scale recipes based on the ones in the home baker section, but beware: they aren’t the same. I’ve found that in many cases the ones in the professional section are more reliable and accurate than the ones in the home section. As a result, I use the recipes in the professional section whenever possible, and scale down to the size I need.
His recipe for Raisin Pumpernickel bread is worth the price of the book. It’s a dead-ringer for Orwasher’s Raisin Pumperenickel bread from the now-defunct bakery on the upper east side of New York City. However, if you decide to make the Raisin Pumpernickel, be very careful, as the home version is very wet and the professional version has numerous serious errors. Nothing about these two recipes is the same. In truth, these are two different breads with the same name. I’m working up a definitive version of this recipe, but for now, just be very careful if you try this recipe.
Artisan Breads, General Mills Corporation
Over the years, I’ve found that recipe books published by the food supply companies are usually very good and this little seven-page pamphlet is no exception. It’s a very straight-forward, simple set of instructions that tell you how to make French bread and Ciabatta. Nothing more. But, and this is the interesting thing, once you’ve made these two breads and mastered the technique, you’ll have mastered the basic technique of making most artisan breads. I highly recommend this little pamphlet. Get it from General Mills directly.
I created a minor tempest several years ago when I got this pamphlet, read it, and mentioned it on the alt.bread.recipes bread newsgroup. Seems GM was hit with a bunch of requests for the pamphlet, and they wondered “What happened?” They finally got things sorted out, but it was fun for a while.
General Mills has posted this fine booklet on the web.
Bread for all Seasons, Beth Hensperger
(Also her Bread Bible, although I don’t own it) When I want an idea for a different bread, something out of my normal pallet, I turn to this book. It’s glossy. It’s not got a whole lot of recipes. But the ones it does have are accurate and well described. The book has a lot of recipes for enriched or flavored or just different breads. I don’t know if this is a must-have book, but I’m glad I have it.
The Il Fornaio Baking Book, Franco Galli
A book by another veteran of the bread revolution, this time 1980 and the establishment of a US branch of a Milanese bakery. The breads are made using slow techniques, although I don’t think the Slow Food or Slow Town movements had started then. Galli makes use of preferments in a lot of the recipes, and a lot of the recipes are similar, differing mostly in handling or rise or shaping. In a sense, this is a textbook in how to use time and technique to make different breads from a common recipe. I bought the book for the recipe for Sfilatino and became enchanted with Pagnotta, Ciabatta, Etrusca, Altamura, Filone, etc. Not a lot of recipes, just the ones you need. Not many pictures, either, which is a shame. But it’s still a book I reach for more than by chance.
Cook’s Guide to Bread, Christine Ingram and Jennie Shapter
I found this little book in a book store on the table of books that appeared to have been commissioned by the store. It looks like a bright, light little thing, something that a charity group might put out.
Boy! Are looks deceiving! This is a serious little bread book. Lots of good recipes, weights in English and metric, a bunch of great pictures, etc. For me, as an American baker, it was a revelation to see the great number of English breads they present. Baps, Bloomers, Bannocks, Bara Brith, Sally Lunn — you get the idea. How about such things as Portuguese Corn Bread? Interesting little book, one of my favorites. My only quibble is that they mention several interesting breads and don’t follow up with a recipe. Minor quibble. The prime example of this is sfilatino. They show a picture, but fail to follow up with a recipe. I had to buy the Il Fornaio book to get the recipe, which put another good bread book on my shelf. On second thought, maybe that’s not all bad.
Pizza Napoletana, Pamela Sheldon Johns
Forget all the other pizza books. This is the one. Learn to make a pizza that’s close to DOC Pizza. Forget the olive oil, the secret ingredients, the mumbo-jumbo. This is the real goods. Get this book and learn to make the DOC pizza and you will be a convert for life.
Then, follow up with a visit to Jeff Varasano’s pizza site, and you’ll be in seventh heaven. Not many recipes, a few good pictures. What it is is an introduction to an older, more traditional method.
On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee
This is the standard reference to what it says, food and cooking. Not recipes, but the art and science of what they are. My edition is the original, 1984, but he has published a new edition. The section on bread science is very good. If you are a serious cook, you should have this book.
Treatise on Baking, J.A. Wihlfahrt
Yup, The Original. 1928, second printing. This book is in the FAQ for alt.bread.recipes, thanks to two hard-working people, Kathy Rapp, who did the OCR (www.katscan-ocr.com), and Dick Margulis (www.dmargulis.com), who did the proof-reading and corrections, and the kind permission of ACH Foods. For a glimpse into the world of the 1928 baker and his best practices, into a whole slew of good, solid recipes and a lot of sound bread writing, this is the book. You might be surprised at how much of the New stuff is really Old stuff. Give it a try on the bread board or buy a copy on eBay. It’s a real must-have for the serious baker.
Manual for Army Bakers. L.L Deitrick. War Department, Washington, D.C., 1916.
No, I’m not kidding. I found this oddity on the Seabee Cook (www.seabeecook.com) and fell in love with it.
It turns out that the soldiers of 1916 were eating some pretty good bread! It has instructions for doing the whole thing, from packing the wagon for a move to setting up a baking company area to the whole baking cycle for several different breads. I just bought a copy on eBay and it’s even better than I thought! It’s a whole manual on how to bake bread a la 1916, complete with admonitions such as “All flour, regardless of presumed conditon, should be carefully sifted before using. Small nails, pieces of twine, slivers of wood, etc., in addition to hard lumps, are frequently removed from flour supposed to have been put up in the most careful manner.” My kinda guy! Believe it or not, the methods presented here are very much in the latest modern idiom. Definitely worth a look.
One interesting point. Deitrick’s breads are made with sponges, at least for the first runs. Wihlfahrt, writing about American commercial practices just 10 years later, claims that sponges are passe, that the best bread is now (1928, remember) made using straight dough methods. Yet even he seems to waffle a bit. I guess this arguement has been going on a long time.
A Blessing of Bread, Maggie Glezer
If you’re interested in Jewish baking traditions and lore, then this is a good book for you. It’s a little short on recipes, but the ones that are here are excellent. And all recipes are in cups and weight, both English and metric.
She has a lot of variations of Challah, one seemingly better than the next, but there are some real surprises here. Glezer subtitled the book “Recipes, Rituals, Memories and Mitzvahs, ” then “The many rich traditions of Jewish baking around the world,” so I shouldn’t have been surprised to find North African and Near Eastern breads here, too, things from Greece to Syria, Morocco to Ethiopia, Israel to Uzbekistan, as well as the more familiar Austria-Hungary to Russia. Each section and some of the recipes are accompanied by a story of a person or family giving a bit of history or setting.
One interesting thing she does with many of the recipes is present a version scaled for five pounds of flour. I’ve never seen this done, but since I like baking large batches of dough (for a home baker) and enjoy the challenge of scheduling the dough through the process, this is ideal for me.
I’m just getting started with this book, but it promises to give me some favorites. If you can find this book, give it a close look; if you’re looking for some breads that are a little out of the mainsteam, this might fill the bill.