Pros: A basic introduction to baking.
Cons: Not tested in home kitchen environment
Written by Brook Elliott
A couple of months back we began our review of the complete Culinary Institute of America’s “At Home” series.
As a quick recap, these books are designed to bring the CIA’s proven instructional approach to a broader audience; to wit, the home cook. The first books were, by intent, aimed at the raw novice. Then each book contains progressively more advanced techniques. The presumption being, of course, that you’ve already learned the basics with earlier works, or that you’re a more experienced cook looking to expand your skills.
“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.”
There currently are five titles in the series: Cooking At Home; Baking At Home; Hors d’Oeuvre at Home; Chocolates And Confections at Home; and the just published, Artisan Breads at Home. Nine more titles are in the planning stages, with publication dates ranging from the beginning of next year through 2013. The first seven of these will deal with more tightly drawn topics, such as Healthy Cooking At Home. The final two will be revisions of the first two, under new titles, and are slated to become the flagship titles.
As we discovered with our review of the first title, Cooking At Home (http://www.cheftalk.com/products/cooking-at-home-with-the-culinary-institute-of-america/reviews#3722), there were significant problems with the early works, the primary one being that there was no way, at the time, to test recipes using home-kitchen equipment. According to Fischer, that was rectified when she became Director of Publishing, and all recipes in the later books are tested that way.
Our conclusion, with Cooking At Home, was that the techniques material was excellent, and would serve as great instructional material for the novice cook, but that the recipes were disappointing and rift with errors. So we were particularly concerned, when starting to explore Baking At Home, that this would also be the case---only more so, because baking is so much more precise than stovetop cooking. As we’ll see, our concerns were partially justified.
First, though, let’s look at the book per se.
Without question, Baking At Home is beautifully formatted. It’s richly illustrated with photos, both food porn and how-to instructional series, while the lay-out and design make it easy to use and highly legible. Even more than Cooking At Home, it defines the format of the series. After a general introduction and baking how-tos, it’s broken down into chapters based on the type of baked product involved. There are ten such chapters: Yeast Breads, Quick Breads, Cookies, Pies and Tarts, Cakes and Tortes, Custards and Puddings, Frozen Desserts, Pastries, Chocolates and Confections, and Icings, Glazes and Sauces. There are two rather invaluable indices, one of which shows the conversions and equivalents of various baking pans, the other a trouble-shooting guide for when things go wrong.
Each chapter is divided in two, leading with techniques unique to that product type, followed by actual recipes. Recipes each have a side-bar discussing the dish, providing tips for making it better, offering historical tid-bits, explaining culinary trends represented by the recipe, and referring back to the techniques sections where appropriate. Many of the recipes also include variations on the theme.
“In the creation of this book,” CIA says in the introduction, “we have drawn extensively from the school’s first-ever text for bakers, Baking and Pastry: Mastering the Art and Craft, a book developed by the school’s faculty for its students. In preparing this book for the home baker, we concentrated on teaching the same skills and techniques employed by professionals, but carefully adapted to work in the home kitchen.”
Unfortunately, not adapted carefully enough!
There is a fundamental problem trying to convert culinary school teaching techniques to a cookbook. The school’s curriculae is based on a demonstration model. That is, a chef instructor shows the students how to combine ingredients for a desired effect. If you ever watch some of the celebrity chefs on TV, you get a feel for this. Take Emeril, for instance. He stands there telling you to combine flour, with a little of this, and some of that, and so on. No ingredient amounts are discussed, most of the time. That’s basically how CIA teaches.
You can appreciate, I’m sure, the difficulties taking such open forum lectures and putting them into a text form understandable by the home cook. Almost definitionally there will be ambiguities, and superficialities, and internal contradictions. For instance, there’s a recipe in the book for Lavender Flans. The sidebar next to the recipe tells us “Flan and crème caramel are closely related. Both are a type of baked custard, made in a mode with a crust of caramelized sugar.” There is no such crust on the Lavender Flans, which could be confusing to a novice.
I don’t mean to overstate this. Generally speaking, the instructional material is pretty helpful, especially for somebody like me who is a casual baker at best. I certainly learned a lot from it. But, overall, the how-to information is not as good as that found in Cooking At Home. For somebody looking for an introductory text to the world of baking, it serves fine. But if you’ve a real interest in any of the baked-product types, you’d be better off with a how-to book dealing specifically with that topic.
On the other hand, the recipes actually are, in general, better done than in the first book. I suspect this is because baking requires so much more precision that a straight mathematical adaptation works well.
To be sure, numerous problems remain. These can be divided into three groups: 1. Differences in approach, as are normally found, one baker to another. For example, in their Rugelach recipe, I’d have divided the dough before chilling, for ease of rolling. 2. Poor or contradictory instructions, as with the sugar-crusted flan. 3. Out and out errors in ingredient amounts, directions, and expected yields.
A recurring problem is one shared with Cooking At Home. Whoever did the typesetting seems to confuse ¼ and ¾. Or, if not confuse them, use them interchangeably. Time after time we found one of them used when the other was obviously meant. For instance, in the otherwise great recipe for Cream Scones, the instructions say to roll the dough into a 10-inch disk, ¼-inch thick. Even the CIA cannot repeal the laws of physics, however, and a disk that size will be ¾-inch. This transposition---and others like it--- appears often enough to make us wonder if anybody proofread the book?
Speaking of the Cream Scones, it presents an interesting technique. The formed scones are individually wrapped and frozen, and you then bake as few or as many as you wish at one time. I do question the idea of letting them cool fully before eating, though. Scones should be served warm!
The aforementioned Lavender Flans, which make a very nice light desert, directs you to make a bain marie by first laying a dish towel down in the baking pan, putting the molds on it, then adding hot water. Frankly, I’ve never seen a more ridiculous instruction in my life, and it’s a technique guaranteed to produce unevenly heated, molds that tend to shift around in the pan and produce uneven flans. The molds can also be filled more than the instructions suggest. Filling them only three fourths yields eight flans, rather than the six suggested in the recipe.
Perhaps the most disappointing recipe, of the six we tried, was the one for Madeleines. Tastewise they were fine. However, virtually every Madeleine recipe I’ve seen says to drop the batter by tablespoons. CIA says to pipe it into the molds. That would be fine, except the instructions tell us to fill each cavity. This results in overly puffed up cookies, more like miniature footballs than the classic seashell.
If that’s not enough, I have to wonder who did the math on this one. According to the recipe, this makes 48 Madeleines. Yeah, right! We barely stretched the batter to fill eight cavities. If they’d been ¾ full (there’s that number again), it would have made a dozen. Even assuming the authors intended using the miniature molds (which certainly wasn’t specified), we’d be looking at about half the suggested yield.
The bottom line is, that while there is a lot of valuable information in Baking At Home, there is too much wrong with it to be valuable to the novice home baker. The more advanced home baker, it’s true, can find some interesting and useful tricks and techniques. But there aren’t enough of them to justify the $40 cover price.
½ cup sugar
3 ¾ cups bread flour
2 tbls baking powder
2 tsp salt
2 tbls grated orange zest
1 cup dried sweetened cranberries
2 ½ cups heavy cream, chilled
Cooking spray for greasing
Egg wash (1 large egg whisked with 2 tbls heavy cream)
Combine the sugar, flour, baking powder, and salt in a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment on medium speed until well blended, about 1 minute. Blend the orange zest and cranberries into the flour mixture. Add the cream and mix on medium speed until just combined.
Remove the dough from the mixer, pat into a 10-inch diameter round ¼-inch thick (reviewer’s note: should be ¾-inch) thick, and divide into 12 equal wedges. Wrap in plastic and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours and up to 4 weeks.
Preheat the oven to 350F. Lightly grease a baking sheet. Arrange the frozen scones on the baking sheet, brush with egg wash, and bake until golden brown, 35-40 minutes.
Let the scones cool on the baking sheet for a few minutes before transferring to a wire rack. Let cool completely before serving.