In 1984, Karen Mitchell rented the St. Helena Bakery with its massive brick ovens dating back to the 1920s. Her goal was to recreate European breads using European artisan baking techniques and brick hearth ovens. Renovating the hundred-year-old building proved an enormous project; Karen wanted to create an open space with the feel of a 1930s café. The temperamental nature of the brick hearth ovens required experimentation to figure out the correct firing techniques and oven temperatures. In a delightful turn of events, the bakery, known as the Model Bakery in the 1930s, once again took on that name, turning out a wide array of artisan breads, cakes, pastries and pies. Two decades in, Karen's daughter Sarah moved back to Napa Valley and joined the family business.
I haven't had the pleasure of visiting the Model Bakery (I briefly visited California for the first time last year), but I learned about their eponymous cookbook on Rick Rodgers' Facebook page (Rick is one of the book's authors; his amazing Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from the Classic Cafés of Vienna, Budapest, and Prague is one of my favorite pastry books out of the dozens I own). I was instantly drawn in by the many classic recipes for breads, yeasted sweets (croissants, pain au chocolat, bear claws, cinnamon rolls), cakes, cookies, pies and tarts. These are simple, traditional, dependable recipes (no fancy flavorings, rare ingredients, or unusual baking equipment required!) that will be sure to delight.
With a straightforward table of contents that conveniently fits on one page, it's easy to quickly locate recipes. Each chapter ends with a helpful "how-to" section that addresses certain aspects of food science (fermentation, enzymes, wet vs. dry doughs) and practical tips and tricks that will be especially helpful to new bakers (baking one sheet of cookies at a time for best results, parchment paper instead of silicone mats for crisper cookies). A compact look at ingredients (Karen and Sarah recommend Guittard French Vanilla as their chocolate of choice, whole-fat dairy instead of reduced fat, and European-style butter with a high butterfat content) and basic equipment will start bakers off on the right foot. For instance, they point out that "the thin and shiny cookie sheets that many home bakers have encourage burned cookie bottoms." Instead, they recommend using half- and quarter-sheet pans. As a serious home baker with an arsenal of professional pans, I strongly recommend the USA Pan 6-Piece Bakeware Set from USA Pans; the pans bake evenly and include a nonstick silicone coating that allows your baked goods to slide right off. Ingredients are given in volume and metric.
I have worked with many yeast doughs for pastry over the years, but am fairly new to yeast breads. Even though I have a stand mixer, I prefer to work my doughs by hand, so I appreciate that every bread recipe also includes instructions on how to mix and knead by hand. I recently purchased an Emile Henry Flame Bread Baking Set - Black, and am looking forward to trying out some of the Model Bakery's artisan breads like the country olive pain au levain with rosemary. Their baking method involves heating an inverted ovenproof pot to 500; I think I'll take my chances with the cloche! I also loved the wild yeast grape starter; it is unlike any other starter I've seen in my many baking books. It's a bit harder to track down organic wine grapes in my neck of the woods, but it is worth the effort to do so.
The sections on yeasted sweets, breakfast favorites, cakes and cookies were familiar territory for me; I own close to 40 baking books alone, so I am always excited to find new versions of classics. I LOVED the soda bread; moist and fruity (I added the optional currants and caraway seeds), this was addictive and so easy to make. Their take on bear claws was also a bit different than other versions I've made (this one has coconut and cake crumbs in the filling in addition to the almond paste). I was also thrilled to see schnecken dough featured.
From the cake section, I tried the lemon pound cake (baked in my Nordic Ware Lemon Loaf pans for a pretty presentation) and the pumpkin gingerbread cake (baked in Nordic Ware Platinum Collection Pumpkin Patch Pan). I also had to try making the chocolate rads after hearing so much about them; the first batch I made as large as directed (and they are HUGE, easily a good six or seven inches across, see photo), then made the rest of the dough in "normal" sized cookies for easier storage and freezing. There's a pound of melted chocolate in the dough and 2 cups of chocolate chips for only 12 cookies, so any diehard chocoholics in your life may have finally met their match! I found that even after chilling the dough for longer than recommended, it was still messy to work with as far as slicing; I might try placing it in the freezer next time to firm it up a bit more.
The lack of diagrams and step-by-step photos (particularly for laminated doughs) may make this a little challenging for novice home bakers, but the many tips and hints offer practical insights that I haven't seen in my many other baking books. I loved some of the old-fashioned touches like the berries and cream cake (you have the option of using white or buttermilk cake), coconut cake, and their unique take on lemon squares: instead of making a separate lemon curd, you make a filling that is poured directly into the prebaked crust and baked until set, making it much quicker than other recipes I've tried. I also discovered some new European favorites like the gateau Basque, a double-crust almond tart filled with cherries and pastry cream.
Verdict: "The Model Bakery" is a wonderful reference for classic artisan breads, yeasted sweets and cookies, brownies and cakes (including a homemade two-tiered wedding cake for the truly ambitious) that is accessible by bakers of all skill levels. The many stories add a personal feel, and this is comfort baking at its finest.
(Review copy courtesy of the Model Bakery - thank you Karen and Sarah!)