If you are passionate about baking bread at home, if you aspire to bake the perfect baguette or artisan loaf, then you want to read these three books:
The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread by Peter Reinhart
OK, I admit that the first thing that caught my interest about this book was the front cover, the calm look of perfect satisfaction on the young lady's face as she holds a rough artisan loaf almost as big as she is! It is that kind of calm pride that I want, and sometimes feel, about bread that I bake, too. I had to find out what she knew.
What I found inside, is the wisdom of Peter Reinhart, baking instructor at Johnson and Wales University, author of several books on bread and co-founder of Brother Juniper’s Bakery in Sonoma, California.
The book starts with a recount of Reinhart's visit to Paris and his discovery of pain à l'ancienne, a baguette with an ancient name made with the help of a very modern invention, the refrigerator.
The book then goes into the ingredients and tools of bread making, and explains the Baker's Percentage method of measuring ingredients. The method takes a bit of work at first, but ultimately makes sense of what you need to know to make good bread, and to produce consistent results or create your own recipes. After a discussion of The 12 Stages of Bread, the steps to making a perfect loaf, you'll find formulas and instructions for about forty different breads. Each gives ingredients in standard kitchen units (cups, spoons, pounds) and in Baker's Percentages. Side-bar commentaries help with understanding, variations and hints to develop your skills.
The first bread that I made from this book was the Ciabatta, Poolish Version, which turned out exquisite. Open crumbed, crisp golden crust and a wonderfully complex flavor.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice, which was named cookbook of the year in 2002 by both the James Beard Foundation and the International Association of Culinary Professionals, is a must for the serious home Bread Baker.
Breads from the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton
Once you are comfortable with making a basic artisan bread in your home oven, and you want to move on to something more interesting, you will want to look at Nancy Silverton's book.
Pay attention to the start, to understanding your Loaf of Integrity and to the sections "Before You Eat ..." and "Making Your Own Bread Schedule". Perhaps one of the hardest skills in developing a pattern for making bread at home is understanding its rhythm and learning to accommodate it to your schedule and timing. Note what works or doesn't work with each loaf and what you have learned. Using Baker's Percentages you can tie together what you learn from Silverton with the detailed knowledge that you get from Reinhart.
Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf by Sara Mansfield Taber
When you tire of actually baking bread and are looking for that sublime loaf that will inspire you, turn to Taber's Bread of Three Rivers. In a journey to France, she seeks the secret of the perfect loaf. At Boulangerie Choquet in the village of Blain, in the Loire Valley, she learns of the life of the baker and his bread, an intriguing combination of tradition and innovation. From there, Taber follows the ingredients to the salt pans on the western coast and Monsieur Evain, then on to the local miller, Christophe Giraudineau who admits that he uses American wheat to strengthen the protein in French flour.
Next is a visit to the local water authority to learn about the source of Monsieur Choquet's water, and then on to Lasaffre Yeast Company, where she learns the story of yeast and how french bakers use a combination of industrial yeast and chef to create predictable, quality loaves.
Somehow, in all of this we feel that the search is rather like breaking the bread itself open and expecting the secrets to be revealed. Ultimately, the skill of the baker and the soul of the ingredients defines the perfect loaf. You know it when you see it, or in this case when you read it, but its essence eludes you. Bread of Three Rivers is the touching search for the perfect loaf, colored with the people and places Taber encounters along her journey.