Recommended

Exceptional Breads by Dan Lepard and Richard Whittington

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Dan Lepard’s books are universally excellent, and this is possibly my favourite. With Richard Whittington, he has produced a short but immensely useful guide to baking bread that is packed with information, tips, guidance and excellent recipes. The writing style is engaging and easy to follow, sufficiently technical that it tells you what you need to know, but not off-puttingly detailed. They begin with explaining the basics, working through the essential ingredients for baking bread (flour, salt, yeast). I particularly like the section on flour types, which guides the reader through Canadian strong to French T55 to the wholemeal end of the spectrum. They explain the features of each and their impact on a recipe in such a way that the new baker will be informed but not overwhelmed.

Then comes the most useful, and for some revelatory, section of the book. Many of us would have begun baking bread having been told simply to knead it then put it in a tin, but as any experienced baker of bread knows there is far more to these steps that this advice suggests. How does one knead a wet dough? A drier dough? When is it done? Lepard and Whittington explain, accompanied by simple, informative pictures.

Answers to these questions are vital, but for me reading this book for the first time the most valuable thing I learned was the importance of shaping loaves before the second prove. Without proper shaping, the loaf will not rise properly. Anyone who has placed a hand-shaped loaf on a tray, only to find it a flat pancake an hour later will understand. Lepard and Whittington offer clear, step-by-step guidance on how to shape different types of loaves which is worth the purchase price alone.

The section on starters removes the mystery from this daunting aspect of baking, and the recipes that follow offer a fantastic range of breads to practice your new-found skills on, ranging from simple sourdoughs through the flavoured breads and some using commercial yeast.

There is something for everyone, from the new baker to the more experienced. Highly recommended for anyone interested in baking their own bread.

Lepard maintains a website which is well worth a visit. He’s also a regular columnist for The Guardian and he tweets, if that’s your thing.

How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

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Ah, Nigella! I do love her, I really do. I’m not so keen on her later books, and the excessive use of soft-focus in her shows is truly fascinating. But her early books are superb. The writing is tremendously engaging. She writes as though she’s in the kitchen with you, glass of wine in hand, chatting about anything and everything. Early on, this was natural — I think she really was just writing in that way, but as time has passed it’s become a little laboured. I can forgive her anything, however, because How to Eat and How to be a Domestic Goddess are both superlative examples of food writing. I’ve whiled away hours just wandering their pages on a Sunday morning (mostly pre-children, when I actually had time to do anything relaxing on a Sunday morning).

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So, to the book at hand. It is a joy. There are a number of things I despise in baking books (or cookbooks generally). One is recipes that are barely more than a list of ingredients, with the space taken up with pictures of the food (or worse, the author… especially at the expense of pictures of the food!). What I want is either lots of technical detail that helps me really understand how to replicate what I see in the photograph. Or, I want a recipe I can actually read. Nigella’s no scientist (‘for some reason I can’t fathom meringue does’t freeze’), so she’s not big on technicalities, but she does usually provide enough information that you know what you’re doing. But what I love is the introduction to each recipe. Sometimes, it’s a little bit of history about where it comes from. At others, it’s possible variations, short cuts, or tips for success (eating or baking). She’s at her best, though, when she’s writing personally about eating and baking. For example, of Passionfruit Cheesecake she writes:

I’m usually such a purist about cheesecake, loathing those which look as if they’ve got a tin of pie-filling all over them, that I don’t quite know what’s come over me here. I was in a passionfruit phase when I first made it, and suddenly knew that a cheesecake flavoured with the juice of this fragrant fruit, sharpened with lime perhaps, would be wonderful. It was.

or:

If greed alone were the spur and measure, these would be my favourite biscuits.

The recipes themselves are excellent, almost all that I’ve tried work very well (though I think there’s too much raising agent in the recipe for Lily’s Scones for my taste). They run the gamut of cakes, biscuits, chocolate and savoury bakes, so it really is a book that covers the baking ground well. Her tone is reassuring when thing sway into slightly untraditional waters (though they rarely do), but the ‘we’re in this together’-ness of her writing avoids it all sounding too Delia-ish. For example, of Rosemary Loaf Cake, she writes:

Don’t be alarmed at the idea of using a herb usually associated with savoury cooking: there is something muskily aromatic about it against the sweet vanilla egginess of the cake.

The styling is great. A page per recipe usually, and pictures are good. You get a real book here — lots of content, lots of recipes. It’s a book in which you’ll find a great many things you might actually want to bake. It’s certainly not one of those books that looks pretty, yet you get to the last page and realise there’s nothing in it you’ll ever make. How to Be a Domestic Goddess is the opposite — it’s a solid, useful book dressed up in elegant yet still cosy prose. I use it almost every week.

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And clearly I don’t believe in keeping recipe books in pristine condition!

 

 

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

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The Flavour Thesaurus is a unique and wonderful book, and a must-have for anyone seriously interested in developing their own recipes. I have no natural aptitude for pairing new flavours, I really don’t, and hence this is exactly the book more me. In it, Niki Segnit takes the innovative approach of creating a ‘flavour wheel’, in which similar flavours are placed near one another. As you move round the wheel, you move through one type of flavour to another to another. These are grouped by a general type. So for example, you can see below that hard cheese sits next to soft cheese which sits beside mushroom and then comes aubergine. Each flavour shares qualities with both its neighbours, and within its group (here ‘Cheesy’ and then ‘Earthy’).

Segnit flavour wheel

Segnit flavour wheel

Why is this so useful? Well, I’ll let Segnit explain how she came to create the thesaurus:

It was at a dinner … that a friend served a dish two ingredients it would never have occurred to me to pair. How, I wondered, did she know that would work? There was something in the air about surprising flavour matches, the kind of audacious combinations pioneered by chefs like Heston Blumenthal, Ferran Adria and Grant Achatz. What lay at the heart of their approach to food was, as far as I could see, a deeper understanding of the links between flavours. Being an ordinary, if slightly obsessive, home cook, I didn’t have the equipment of resources to research these; what I needed was a manual, a primer to help me understand how and why one flavour might go with another, their points in common and their differences.

So she set about creating just that. Starting with a list of 99 flavours, which she then sorted into categories based around the concept of ‘flavour families;: citrus, floral, roasted, spicy etc. She explain that within these families, the flavours share particular qualities:

Take the Citrussy family, for example. This covers zesty, citric flavours like orange, lemon and cardamom. Cardamom, in turn, has flavour compounds in common with rosemary, which is the first flavour in the next flavour family, Bramble & Hedge. At the other end of Bramble & Hedge, blackberry leads to the first flavour in the Floral Fruity family: raspberry.

From this point, she worked through flavour pairings, and this forms the bulk of the text. Under each flavour entry, she discusses various pairings. But fear not, this is no dry, scientific tome that systematically explains each pairings merits and demerits. Rather, the explanatory text is rich with historical background to the pairing of particular flavours, wise tips for how to combine to best effect, and fascinating facts about why some things work together and others do not. For example, the entry on ‘Chocolate & Peanut’ commences:

According to Alexandre Dumas, the Spanish called peanuts ‘cacohuette’ because of their resemblance in flavour to cocoa. He goes on to note that they took advantage of this flavour harmony by mixing small amounts of expensive cocoa into a peanut mixture to make a sort of cheap chocolate. Fifty years late, in 1912, the Goo Goo Cluster, a mixture of chocolate, peanuts, caramel and marshmallo, became the first combination chocolate bar in the US.

But from this interesting forray into the history of chocolate / peanut pairings, she then explains just why peanuts and chocolate are such cordial flavour-mates:

the success of most peanut-chocolate combinations if down to the formation of pyrazines during the roading process, which are harmonious with roasted notes in the chocolate.

And this, in turn, explains why chocolate and unroasted peanuts are far less appealing.

The text is evocative and great pleasure to read. While this book is overtly a reference text, it is also a simple joy to wander through the pages and immerse yourself in Segnit’s elegant prose. Mint, according to her, ‘is moody’, and has a ‘sweet melancholy’, which is ‘cheered up’ when partnered with strong flavours. An especial favourite, of rose’s floral muskiness, which can:

unless you’re careful … recall nothing so much as being pressed to your auntie’s perfumed cleavage.

A warning, then to pair the cloying sweetness of rose ‘bitter-edged spices like clove’.

The book is also impeccably organised. The sections follow the wheel, but an alphabetised index via flavour, with pairings below, allows quick access to whatever combination you’re hoping to explore. Meanwhile, a fuller index guides one to the many and varied topics Segnit manages to cover in this short, but detailed and hugely well-researched tome.

 

 

McGee on Food and Cooking by Harold Mcgee

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Harold McGee’s Food and Cooking is peerless. It is the alpha and omega of food science writing. If there is anything you want to know about the whys and wherefores of cooking, you will find the answer here. Want to know the temperature at which eggs coagulate? It’s here. Want to know what happens to gluten as you knead? McGee explains. With pictures. It is a staggeringly useful book that should be on any serious baker’s shelf. The strength of McGee’s book lies in its thoroughness, but this alone would not make it a classic. McGee manages to explain complex chemistry in a way that even the most defiant science class truant will find engaging and easy to follow. He achieves this by integrating clear charts, tables and diagrams throughout the text, illustrating each concept as it is introduced.

He also ties the science to what is happening for the baker, making the information practical and applicable. For example, in the section on cooking eggs he does not simply give the temperatures at which they coagulate, he provides a complete overview of how eggs turn from liquid to solid and the effects of various liquids on this process. He explains why eggs coagulate differently in water and milk, vital information for the custard-maker. He outlines the impact of different proportions of whole eggs to milk on the texture of custard in a section wonderfully titled ‘Custard Theory and Practice’. He then works through the various types of custards and creams individually, explaining their nature and why they must be made as they are. This section was invaluable for me when investigating how to perfect creme patissiere. The entire book is marked by this level of detail combined with practical, clear application of the information. He covers dairy products, eggs, meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, spices, seeds, grains, sugars, chocolate, and alcohol. If you have a cooking question, the answer is almost certainly here.

You can learn more about the inimitable Harold McGee at his website.

Crumb by Ruby Tandoh

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The Great British Bake Off has become a bit of a phenomenon in Britain, now into its sixth season and the fever for all things Bake Off is showing little sign of abating. Ruby Tandoh was a finalist in Series 4, and her bakes were notable for their excellent flavours and sometimes inventive design. She was also really really messy. I loved her, and now I love her book. Baking books are sources of information, it’s true, but what sets apart truly great baking books (or indeed cook books in general), is the writing. The really wonderful ones are not just collections of recipes, they are filled with stories, with wit, and with passion. Nigella’s How to Eat is such a book, and Tandoh’s has a similar feel to it. Tandoh’s writing is evocative, sensual but also sensible. For example, of her Morning Muffins she writes:

They’re substantial without being stupefyingly rich: a welcome alternative to buttery pastries and full fry-ups, yet without the dour frugality of a bowl of porridge. The wholemeal flour lends them a reassuringly virtuous edge … Grapefruit, zested into the batter and decorating the tops of these muffins, gives a citrus kick. Don’t be fooled into thinking that they’re a healthy breakfast superfood, though: no matter how you dress it up, it’s still cake for breakfast.

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She clearly loves to bake, and the entire book is infused with this love of the art of blending a few simple ingredients to make something entirely pleasurable. She bakes for the joy of it, at once delighting in the practice, and no nonsense in her approach to getting it right. To this end, throughout the book are useful explanatory sections to help the reader find out what went wrong and how to avoid it next time.

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There are clear instructions and useful pictures to help readers see how things should look to achieve success.

The book also looks beautiful. Sitting alongside the lovely, lilting words are gorgeous photos of the food that will make you want to bake them. Gorgeous, but achievable, in fact. So whereas Herme’s books might terrify you into giving up before you start, Tandoh’s bakes seem within reach but still inspiringly delicious to gaze upon. The supportive, ‘you can do it’ tenor of the text will lend the timorous reader an added leg up.

The book is filled with recipes that, just as Tandoh hopes, will ‘make it to your table over and over again’. There are the requisite standard recipes — Chocolate Fudge Cake, Everyday Bread, Puff Pastry — but what should earn this book a place on your shelf is the multitude of bakes in which Tandoh infuses an old classic with inventive flavours to breathe delicious new life into familiar cakes, muffins, breads and tarts. In the Cakes section, Chocolate Lime Mud Cake, Passionfruit Curd Swiss Roll and Camomile Vanilla Cupcakes, to name just three, are enticing twists on old favourites. When it comes to Bread, Tandoh ventures not only into different flours (rye, spelt), but introduces fruit and spices with great success in her Wholemeal Walnut Cobs, Cherry Spelt Loaves and Olive and Orange Crown. I’ve yet to bake the Three Cheese Brioche, but the very thought of it fills this cheese-lover with joy. This book is not only beautiful, it is filled with a wealth of great recipes that will have you dipping into it over and over again.

Tandoh also writes a column for The Guardian called Ruby Bakes and it’s well worth reading. Crumb is a delight from start to finish.

 

How to Bake by Paul Hollywood

In Britain, where I’m based, Paul Hollywood has become one of the most, if not the most, well-known names in baking. He’s one of two judges on the wildly popular TV show The Great British Bake Off, on which he dishes out harsh but fair and very knowledgeable comments on the bakers’ efforts. Prior to becoming a judge, Hollywood had already made a name for himself as a well-respected and successful baker, supplying British institutions such as Harrods and Waitrose. In 2008, he had the rather dubious claim to fame of having produced the most expensive loaf of bread in Britain — a roquefort and almond sourdough loaf, a snap at £15/loaf and which he referred to as the ‘Rolls Royce’ of breads.

So what’s his book like? It’s good. Pretty good. Not bad. Not amazing. I’m rather keen on a bit of food porn, and on this front How to Bake doesn’t really cut it. Hollywood stares out of the cover, all silver spiky hair and piercing blue eyes, which apparently some find rather dashing. He was greeted by screams when he took the stage at the Cake and Bake Show.

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Inside, the styling is ok but not inspiring. Fairly standard baking shots, layout is clear and nice fonts.

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In terms of content, again it’s ok but not amazing. It’s a solid book. It begins with a walk through of ingredients, and gives a good explanation of flour types, protein content, yeast, fats and so on. Hollywood explains the role they play in breadmaking in a simple, short way. For example, he tells you that salt is important for ‘strengthening gluten’ but doesn’t go further than that. If you want a basic introduction, this is it. For the amateur home baker, it will be sufficient.

The section on techniques is good, with clear pictures showing you how to mix, knead and so forth. His lack of an apron always makes my teeth itch slightly as if that were me, I’d be covered in flour all over my nice stripey shirt.

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There’s a good selection of recipes, starting with basic breads like white tin loaf, a white cob, a wholemeal loaf and so on. He ranges as far as a fougasse and baguettes. It’s standard stuff and a good range of the sort of basic breads most home bakers will want to make. The recipes work well and the instructions are good.

So far, so standard. How to Bake picks up a bit when we get to the flavoured breads. Hollywood offers some interesting flavour combos — Stilton and Grape Flatbreads, Flatbreads with Epoisse and Bacon, and Gorgonzola, Pear and Walnut Bakes. If this is your thing, then there’s a nice selection of recipes to try.

Moving on from the flavoured breads, Hollywood delves into sourdough and things get more interesting. There’s basic instructions for how to get started with sourdough — making a starter, proving and the like. There are basic recipes for baguettes, pain de campagne and seeded sourdough. The chapter comes into its own when Hollywood explores flavoured sourdough. Then we get into sourdoughs combined with lemon and rosemary, chocolate and apricot, bacon and garlic and my favourite – sourdough filled with Epoisses cheese. There are some truly fun, inspiring recipes here for the sourdough enthusiast.

The final chapters cover sweet yeasted doughs. The recipes are sound — the Danish pastry one works well — but the photography is a little on the bland side for my taste. Here you’ll find recipes for most of the classics — croissants, danishes, brioche, pain au chocolat — which rounds out the collection well, making How to Bake a useful, comprehensive first book on bread baking. It’s good for the newcomer, but has some interesting recipes to stretch those with more experience. It’s a book I turn to when I need a recipe for something fundamental, and I’m usually confident that the recipes are well-tested and likely to succeed. It’s not a book for poring (and salivating) over, but it’s a useful, well-produced collection that will be a good addition to any baker’s library. And the creme patissiere recipe is a knock-out!

Book recommendations

Baking books are a joy. And addictive. One is never enough. There’s always another take on an old classic to explore, or new flavour combinations to inspire. Increasingly, too, there are tomes covering the technical aspects of every arm of baking to get one’s teeth into. And the food porn! Oh, the delight of a wonderfully photographed baguette, with all its golden crust and airy interior spread across the page in close-up detail. The sheen of icing, the drip of syrup, the voluptuous bulge of cream oozing from a cake, all presented in glorious Technicolour on the pages of the newest book to drop through my letterbox. I love a good baking book, and here are some of my favourites.

Pastry, Crust and Dough by Richard Bertinet

How to Be a Domestic Goddess by Nigella Lawson

The Handmade Loaf by Dan Lepard

Pastries and Macarons by Pierre Herme

How to Bake by Paul Hollywood

Exceptional Breads by Dan Lepard and Richard Whittington

Crumb by Ruby Tandoh

McGee on Food and Cooking by Harold McGee

The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit

Laduree: Sucre The Recipes by Philippe Andrieu

Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking by Herve This

Cooking for Geeks: Real Science, Great Hacks and Good Food by Jeff Potter

Books

Exceptional Breads by Dan Lepard and Richard Whittington

Dan Lepard’s books are universally excellent, and this is possibly my favourite. With Richard Whittington, he has produced a short but immensely useful guide to baking bread that is packed with information, tips, guidance and excellent recipes. The writing style is engaging and easy to follow, sufficiently technical that it tells you what you need to know, but not off-puttingly detailed. They begin with explaining the basics, working through the essential ingredients for baking bread (flour, salt, yeast). I particularly like the section on flour types, which guides the reader through Canadian strong to French T55 to the wholemeal end of the spectrum. They explain the features of each and their impact on a recipe in such a way that the new baker will be informed but not overwhelmed.IMG_4941

Then comes the most useful, and for some revelatory, section of the book. Many of us would have begun baking bread having been told simply to knead it then put it in a tin, but as any experienced baker of bread knows there is far more to these steps that this advice suggests. How does one knead a wet dough? A drier dough? When is it done? Lepard and Whittington explain, accompanied by simple, informative pictures.

Answers to these questions are vital, but for me reading this book for the first time the most valuable thing I learned was the importance of shaping loaves before the second prove. Without proper shaping, the loaf will not rise properly. Anyone who has placed a hand-shaped loaf on a tray, only to find it a flat pancake an hour later will understand. Lepard and Whittington offer clear, step-by-step guidance on how to shape different types of loaves which is worth the purchase price alone.

The section on starters removes the mystery from this daunting aspect of baking, and the recipes that follow offer a fantastic range of breads to practice your new-found skills on, ranging from simple sourdoughs through the flavoured breads and some using commercial yeast.

There is something for everyone, from the new baker to the more experienced. Highly recommended for anyone interested in baking their own bread.

Lepard maintains a website which is well worth a visit. He’s also a regular columnist for The Guardian and he tweets, if that’s your thing.

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