When I was putting together an order from Amazon for yet more bread books, as an afterthought I added one from their suggestions. Wasn't expecting much, but "what the heck, I'll throw it on there." It's unlike me to do that - usually when I buy a cookbook I check it out thoroughly first and make sure I really "need" it. But the devil took hold of me and - click -- Daniel Leader's "Local Breads" was in that shopping cart too.
Speaking of the devil and being on the subject of bread, did you know that the word pumpernickel is derived from pumper which means fart, and nickel which connotes a demon? But I digress...
To show you how long I've been at this bread book thing, my collection goes back to "Beard On Bread" (P-p-publication date N-n-n-nineteen seventy three). This recent purchase included Nancy Silverton's "Breads From the LaBrea Bakery", Peter Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads" and "Crust and Crumb."
Then something unexpected happened. This little add-on became the one I kept baking from, kept reading, fell in love with. While the others gathered dust, "Local Breads" gathered flour.
Now it's risen to the position of my favorite bread book, and I would recommend it equally to home bakers and pros.
It's in the tradition of Joe Ortiz's "The Village Baker," where a top artisan baker travels to other great artisan bakers, seeking the techniques and secrets of their renowned breads. So these are not your run-of-the-mill basic recipes.
Leader not only tells you about his operation at his NYC bakery. Bread Alone, but brings back full details of these great European breads, narrated as a wide-eyed observer who is learning along with the reader as he takes you along in his travels.
The first four chapters, 59 pages, are an excellent tutorial about bread baking in general. I have respect for Leader's advice in areas that other bread bakers have covered. Having baked a great deal, and having tried the various options, the ones Leader settles on are really more advisable choices.
For instance, on getting steam into your home oven, many bread writers (including Silverton and to an extent Reinhart) recommend opening the oven repeatedly to spritz water. Leader tells you to forget that nonsense. He advises to use a cast iron skillet preheated on the bottom rack, and to throw ice cubes on it as you slide your bread onto your baking stone. It is safer and more effective, and maintains temperature better. As someone who has blown apart the inner glass of her oven when it was on 550F and a droplet of water fell off the spritzer, I was glad to leave that method behind, and agree with Leader's advice to nix the spritz.
Leader's introduction also has excellent FAQs and a troubleshooting guide. Then when he travels to various regions, at the end of each chapter there is another FAQ for that region and those breads in particular.
The whole effect of this book is to be very inviting and non-intimidating to home bakers who are enthusiastic about artisanal bread. Unlike Silverton, who can make the process stressful and oppressive experience for the average home baker, Leader's book is an affirming experience a pleasant, well-explained journey through the world of breadbaking. .
Don't get me wrong about Silverton, I'm glad such a great artisanal baker has published a book of outstanding breads, but it's in stark contrast to Leader, who presents the information in a user-friendly, organized fashion--- with lots of checks and instructions to make sure you're doing it right as you go along (and even what to do if you screw up). Someone recommended to me that with Silverton's recipes, one has to read them a few times, and type out the instructions yourself in a better format. Then as you bake there might still be vagueness and unanswered questions.
While Silverton's book has no color pages and is almost entirely without photos, Leader's book has 32 full page color photos of jaw-dropping bread pornography. I just about fell off my chair at the sight of the Chocolate Sourdough Croissants!
But when I started baking from "Local Breads" is when the book really started to shine, like the glaze on those croissants. I started with the pizza from Antico Forno in Rome, with a funky technique of a really watery batter, beaten at high speed in a Kitchen Aid for more than 20 minutes. The Italian I tried it out on was in awe of the crust. The exterior was almost like a puff pastry, with a delicate but flaky, crispy golden crust, soft and wonderfully chewy inside. I'll always make pizza now by the method in Leader's book -- it's displaced my "go to" pizza formula, and that one was from Wolfgang Puck.
Then bread after bread turned out great. The Rosemary Filone from the Tuscan hill town Donnini with that soupy, huge-holed texture of a great ciabatta and a whopping 1/4 cup of rosemary. The Genzano Country Bread, with its thick dark "European bake" crust. When I grabbed a three day old Genzano loaf and took it to some friends, they devoured it, and raved about its rich flavor.
When it comes to whole grains, I've learned to lower my expectations, but the Kamut Levain from Alsace and the 100% Spelt Bread from Paris both turned out well and were really nice breads, the spelt with some sweetness from honey, and the kamut with an almost buttery flavor.
You see the trend here, everything turning out well.
There are two others that just knocked my socks off. One is the aforementioned Sourdough Croissants, made with a liquid levain. Like the Roman pizza, I have now permanently changed the way I make croissants. I had never made croissants with a natural starter before, the flavor is outstanding with more depth. The Chocolate are a "variation," they were great, but I really enjoyed them plain (with an egg, heavy cream and sugar wash).
The other knockout was a mushroom focaccia from the village of Altamura, on a 100% semolina sourdough, made with an interesting starter culture from yogurt, semolina and water. Leader has adapted this local specialty for American bakers. The locals do it with copious fresh porcini, but Leader has compromised by soaking the more readily available dried porcini, and sautéing them with cremini, olive oil, garlic, fresh thyme, sea salt and pepper. This will become another favorite I continue to bake. The complexities in the golden sourdough semolina, with the woodsy and earthy herbed mushroom sauté, make this a memorable focaccia. And should my memory fade, I'll look forward to making it again and again to remind me.
The only section I haven't delved into yet is the one where the author becomes Daniel Leader-hosen and romps through Germany and Austria in search of authentic ryes. I've got my eye on the Bavarian Pretzels, soft and chewy like a good bagel. He tells of bakers in Munich baking all night then having a hearty breakfast of those pretzels with mustard, sausages and beer. I bet some pumpernickels follow.