Pros: Some interesting insights from a long-time professional baker and instructor.
Cons: Target audience is ambiguous. Aimed at the home cook new to baking, much of it assumes knowledge and abilities possessed by the experienced bread make
Reviewed by Brook Elliott
A year ago we started looking at the Culinary Institute of America's "At Home" series of books, of which there are currently five, with more on the way.
The series started in 2003, when CIA decided to make it's teaching methods and approaches available to a broader audience. "We wanted to take our professional textbooks to the home cook," says Nathalie Fischer, CIA's Director of Publishing. "These aren't recipe books, per se, but techniques books that take the home cook to a new level."
If you've been following along, you know that, in general, we found the first four disappointing. Indeed, the first three weren't even tested on home-kitchen equipment. And the recipes were wanting, at best.
Artisan Breads At Home, unfortunately, suffers from the same flaws. And then some. Overall the book tries to capitalize on the current craze for artisan bread making. But it can't decide whether it's talking to a beginner, looking to expand horizons, or to an experienced baker who can adjust and modify formulae as necessary.
For instance, at no time in his introduction does the author use jargon, or introduce any of the cant so popular with advanced bread makers. That's to the good side. But he then says, "if you are new to bread baking, some of the above-mentioned terms my sound unfamiliar." Well, maybe if you've been living under a rock, and are confused by such esoteric terms as "flour," and "yeast."
But, let's accept for the moment that there are unfamiliar terms. Obviously, then, this isn't a book aimed, as Nathalie Fisher described it, at somebody with some baking experience ready to move on to the next level, but to the raw beginner. By itself, that wouldn't be bad. However, it proves to not be the case.
Later on, while talking about mixers, Kastel concedes that "ancient bakers produced loaves for the multitudes without ever using an electric mixer. But," he asks, "why do it that way if you don't have to?"
The answer to that is simple. If you're actually a raw beginner you will never develop a feel for what a proper dough is unless you get your hands on it. So, in the absence of physical restrictions, novices should knead by hand. Or at least finish the last few minutes by hand. Once they've learned, via tactile impressions, what the consistency of dough should be like, moving on to a mixer is fine.
Later on Kastel talks about the "gluten window," presumably the more commonly named "windowpane test." But he never gets around to defining it. He does refer the reader to a rather arcane discussion on gluten development, where he uses the term "gluten window" several times. But he doesn't quite define it. I've read that section five or six times and have no idea what he's trying to describe, because he specifically says not to stretch or pull the dough, which are the traditional methods of testing gluten.
In the other At-Home books, we felt that the explanatory text and techniques-oriented material was worthwhile, even when the recipes were lacking. Alas, we cannot say the same for this one. The text runs back and forth between addressing the needs of the beginner while assuming things only an experienced baker would know.
His section of the 12 steps of bread baking is more clear than not. But it doesn't provide anything new. Other books, such as Peter Reinhart's The Bread Bakers Apprentice do a much better job.
In short, this book is, as my old drill instructor used to say, "neither fish, nor fowl, nor good red meat."
There are many books, nowadays, in which the techniques of artisan bread making are explained. So we could forgive Kastel's ambiguity if the recipes were more focused. Alas, that's not the case either.
For starters, despite what CIA and Kastel both claim, I don't believe they were prepared using normal home ovens and equipment. For example, virtually every recipe includes a direction such as, "Twenty minutes before the end of the final fermentation, preheat the oven to 475F." The fact is, few home ovens, even those not equipped with a baking stone, can reach, and stabilize, at those high temps in only 20 minutes. Forty minutes is more likely. Add in a baking stone, and you're actually talking about an hour or more. Indeed, most serious home bakers I know turn on the oven the same time they put the dough up to rise the final time.
Then there's the matter of hydration. I'm fully aware that high hydration is the modern style. But Kastel gets rather carried away with this. Handling slack doughs requires more advanced knowledge, and the beginner is likely to just get frustrated.
For example, the first bread I tried was the recipe for Nan, the Indian flatbread. I choose that because I've made Nan in the past, from several recipes, and know what it's supposed to be like. Kastel's formula produces a dough so slack as to be nearly impossible to handle the way Nan is.
Keep in mind that Nan is traditionally made by forming the flatbreads, then slapping them onto the inner walls of a tandori oven. Just try and move his dough, from the work surface to a sheet pan, and it stretches and misshapes. If you tried moving it to a tandori it would touch the ground before you got it inside.
Best I can figure, once you add in the water, yogurt, olive oil, etc., the hydration level is about 83%.
When I expressed that and other concerns to Ms Fisher, at CIA, she had Kastel contact me to discuss them. He got very high handed, stressing that all his hydration levels (along with everything else) were "exactly right." In this case, he insisted, that because the yogurt, olive oil, and malt syrup do not behave like water, they were not part of the liquid content. This flies in the face of every baker I know, who certainly thinks of them that way. Only two types of ingredients go into a dough; dry and wet. Anything that isn't dry….well, no sense belaboring the point.
Almost every recipe I tried (five of them, in fact, each made several times) resulted in similar problems. Doughs were too slack, or required more yeast, or the suggested handling methods needed modifying. With one exception, all of them required adaptations that any experienced baker would automatically make. But, again, if you already know how to do that you don't need a book supposedly aimed at beginners. Especially not one with a $35 pricetag.
To be sure, there are some real highlights. For instance, I've seen many references to using lye when making soft pretzels. Artisan Breads At Home is the only book I've seen which actually provides all the details of that process. And Kastel does explain it in a clear, unambiguous manner.
Throughout the book there are moments of such brightness. But they are few, and far between, and small enough in number as to not illuminate the entire book.
If you're an experienced artisan baker looking for some new breads to try, Artisan Breads At Home might be worth a look-see. Just be prepared to do some serious adaptations. For the actual beginner, there are better choices available.
When we set out to look at the At Home series there was one primary impetus. Periodically, on our forums, there are discussions about the best cookbooks for beginners. It seemed odd, to us, that the At Home books were never included. After all, we reasoned, if the number one culinary school in America sets out to produce instructional material for new cooks, you'd think they'd rank at the top of the heap.
After examining all five of the current titles, disappointment barely describes our reaction. As a whole, they are poorly written, poorly edited, and have not been tested on home-kitchen equipment. While the conception of these books makes sense, the implementation doesn't. And it's become abundantly clear why our members have never recommended them.
In the planning stages are redos of the first two books (Cooking At Home and Baking At Home). These will be issued under different titles, and, intentions are, will serve as the flagship titles. Hopefully, CIA will take the problems of the first five to heart, and produce more useful books for the at-home cook.
Maybe it's presumptuous of me, but I'd like to offer two pieces of advice:
- CIA staffers are, it goes without saying, experts in their craft. But that doesn't mean they are communicators. CIA needs to hire writers to work with the actual authors, to produce works that are clearly written, unambiguous, and useful to the beginning cook.
- Before actual publication, copies of the manuscript should be provided to a focus group of new cooks, to field-test both the techniques info and actual recipes on home equipment. If that is, indeed, the target audience, feedback from such a group will quickly uncover flaws and errors that make the current books less useful.