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Spring Books 2004

HOT from the OVEN
Three books bring home the fine art of baking
Though they take very different approaches, these new books — a "bible," a back-to-basics compendium and a worldwide exploration — all help cooks discover the pleasures of baking.
IN THE SUMMER of '73, when I was just shy of 14 years old, my sister's best friend, Kelly, who loved to bake, took me under her wing. It seems that in a series of visits, she had discovered two things: a) my sister didn't really like to bake, and b) I did.

After making fig bars from the fruit that grew in our back yard, Kelly was ready to initiate me into the finer art of yeast breads. And I was eager to learn.The next day, we perused a 1969 edition of "Homemade Bread," by the food editors of Farm Journal, and picked a recipe for Whole Wheat Bread. We rode our bikes to the local grocery for ingredients and got down to business. We dissolved yeast in warm water. "Stir it gently so you'll know when it starts making its own bubbles," Kelly said. We stirred in brown sugar, salt and shortening. "Use real lard," she insisted. "It has more flavor than that vegetable shortening." Finally, we kneaded in flour and left the dough to rise under a dampened tea towel. We repaired to the back yard to eat more figs and wait for the time to shape the loaves.

 Whole Wheat Bread
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Over the summer, we baked dozens of breads, most of them from the same recipe book. While it was a good guide, bread books these days are bigger, better and more demanding. Even without a friend like Kelly, beginning bakers could find their way into the world of great home-baked breads.

Consider "The Bread Bible," by Rose Levy Beranbaum. With 150 recipes carefully detailed on 544 pages, this magnificent tome by the award-winning author of "The Cake Bible" definitely lives up to its name. Beranbaum's text walks readers through every step of some very complicated procedures. With this guide, home cooks can create artisanal breads worthy of master bakers. Some of the detail is necessary — we are less familiar with basic kitchen skills than we were in 1969. But if the world now is less knowledgeable in the kitchen, it is far more savvy about food. And the recipes here reflect that.

For readers intimidated by too much detail, "Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World," by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, presents a compelling alternative. Not devoted exclusively to bread, this book explores all manner of baking in a style unique to its authors, the same couple responsible for the remarkable "Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey Through Southeast Asia." When they started producing cookbooks together in 1995, Alford and Duguid practically created a genre. Seemingly without any preconceived notion, they travel, shoot photographs and allow their subjects to unfold, providing the reader with a shared sense of adventure. This time, the recipes range from the fairly familiar to the utterly exotic — Taipei Coconut Buns and Provençale Quince Loaf — and back again to Sandwich Bread and Chocolate Chip Cookies.

How did they achieve such an artful selection of recipes? "We have confidence that the world, which is out there in all its complexity, is a generous place," Duguid said. "And while it can look pretty uniform sometimes, pretty evenly carpeted if you will, it's actually full of surprises. If you go to the edges and lift the corner of the carpet, you'll find something you might not have been looking for, and that makes all the difference."

If two great books are not enough, there's more! "The King Arthur Flour Bakers Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook," by the King Arthur Flour Co., may be just a collateral piece for the folks who publish one of the most comprehensive baking-supply catalogues in North America. But it is a huge and delightful collection of straightforward American recipes for breads, cakes, cookies and pies that might just lead some young 13-year-old into the world of home baking, even if they don't have a friend like Kelly to encourage them.

The new books will keep me baking for years to come, but for anyone curious about the bread that got me started, here it is.

Greg Atkinson, writer and culinary consultant, can be reached at Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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