Top critical review
20 people found this helpful
on 11 February 2013
The singular book for Italian baking written in English, it covers a gamut of doughs: modern and traditional, plain and flavoured (tomatoes, peppers, olives, herb, etc), big and small, multi-grain (rye, corn and wholemeal predominantly, no spelt, sorghum, khorasan and other artisan, mysterious, niche, 'new' flours), flatbreads (pizza and focaccia), festive breads, cakes, pastries and biscuits. So far, so good. Intimidating and inspirational is the immediate feeling. That is, once you've perused the preliminary chapter on ingredients and worked out equivalents (it's aimed at the US market). Due praise for its ambitious scope, one is uncertain how traditional or modern her techniques and recipes are without an English language precedent set. Everyone I asked said for direction in Italian baking said, 'Oh, have you seen The Italian Baker?'. Well, I have and that was over a year ago.
A weighted tome with insufficient pictures, the excessive, pedantic precision given to measurements and repetitive nature to the recipes disqualifies this as something only to impress your neighbours. The detail gives me a headache. Call me dumb, call me slow, call me a simpleton, but I seek clarity. Ironically, but by exhausting the maths, she only discombobulates in U.S. lingo. I'm no professional baker, but I see the wisdom of baker's percentages to empower the novice at home. There are none, fine: I've got a little brain, a little calculator, a little maths in my head: one could work it out basically. (A bit like Marmite one concedes, you either take to percentages or you don't, but the more you bake, the more you'll desire them: don't fight it, 'tis a baker's truth). So if you plan to spend a whole lot of money on this book, get yourself digital weights to use this book: it's redundant without. Actually, if you bake by that impressive, natural hand 'feel', forget it. (Or cheat, with a set of cup measures (US not British cups).
As for her authority? She's spent a stint in Italy to research her book, presumably watching the local, traditional home-bakers (one remains unconvinced many urbane Italians have the time, impetus or knowledge to bake today) and in modern Italian bakeries for their 'secrets'.
Personally the use of this book to date is nought. (A year old, I've attempted an impressive three, that's right, three recipes to the last word when an inexplicable surge of desire caught my baker's arms. One (Walnut Bread) was a success to admire, alas, not to my palette. I have not cared for the pizzas: how many variations can there be? Nor the biscuits, pastries and cakes. This may change.
I've already bored you too much, but to detail in rank in order of importance/annoyance:
1. Imperial and metric measures and conversions are wildly excessive. Grab yourself a coffee and some time with a calculator, you'll likely want to check her (alas, the sentiment she inspires) and yourself before you set off on those mammoth 'pani festivi' and make a mess of it. Baking is an art after all. Refute it, and you'll soon mess up faced with something new. Every recipe converts ingredient in cups, tablespoons and teaspoons, imperial and metric. Don't mistake, I welcome this, what I don't welcome is the messy layout. You're eye is drawn to every equivalent. It's a useless exercise simply 'browsing' her recipes, and going 'Oh, what do I fancy making?' because your mind goes into over-drive working out all the maths. A standard conversion at the front/back would have sufficed.
2. Erroneous measures: someone doing the maths needs a new day job, I simply cannot trust her calculations. I've even found a missing decimal point for a yeast measure (a cardinal mistake, yeast being crucial to erm, yeast-baking), Imagine, if you're new to baking, unfamiliar with the imperial system or are just plain tired and 'not thinking' (it's cool, it happens to us all), or simply just going along with the metric you're familiar with, you'll err. For the Pane di Altamura (95) the biga reads: '1/2 tsp (0.05 oz/14g)' active dried yeast. If you weigh 14g active dried yeast, your sponge will take off into space. A mockery, but the following page reads the correct conversion for the dough: '1/2 tsp (0.05 oz/1.4g)'. One needs to trust the publishers: they're as trustworthy as shifty-looking men at your door.
3. Many recipes are indirect sponge-doughs stages. With a lack of percentages, do you have an entire afternoon working out the 'Total Percentages'? For purposes of scaling, interest, and simply learning, one needs TP's. More maddening, they do not even tally. I've contacted the publishers, but I've yet to respond with ALL the mistakes. Not surprising, and pardon me, but what are you paid for? For example, I've encountered a disparity with the Pane al Latte: measures and instructions do not correlate. It could do with a revision (it eludes me how this is a second edition!) or dare I say it, re-write from scratch. Do you want to be checking the accuracy of all her measures? Once you found one, well, boy, you're looking at the rest with a sceptical eye.
4. Her measures for flour and liquids are variable. Sometimes a cup (the primary measure) of flour is 120g, sometimes 140g. Consistency is, ahem, not a strong point.
5. Her techniques are rigid. In fact, for some only the food-mixer can be used. (If you buy this with ciabatta specifically in mind, forget it. Both ciabatta recipes cannot be kneaded (the Polesana, 81, calls for 600g flour, 585g water, yes it's 87.5% hydration). But those equipped with a wooden spoon and bowl, and practiced in 'kneading' for short bursts will overcome this. Shame she doesn't accommodate those among us. Most use a sponge-dough. Others are straight doughs. Simple enough. Bottom line: they're not innovative, modern or exciting. Compared to my Ciabatta, hers fell short on savour (the biga is to be made only 12 hours before).
6. Batches sizes are larger than us Brits are used to, some over a kilo of flour. Fine, scale them and finely judge the yeast. First, one must work out some weights.
7. The ingredients are American, you need to know when to use your high-gluten bread flour from you AP flour. Don't make the mistake of taking AP flour for plain, an authentic sub. is naturally doppio flour. Not only this but she uses Graham flour ('Brown' nor Wholemeal is an happy equivalent unless the wholemeal is superfine), separate cake and pastry flours (in the UK, cake and pastry flour is sold as one to my knowledge) semolina flour (I'm only aware of the meal in different grades), durum flour (a super-hard flour apparently for dried pasta) and more. Fine if you can work out our equivalents or source them. Again, it;s a shame she doesn't make use Italian '00' flour widely available here. But then in the US, I believe the imported stuff is still quite pricey.
8. The use of dried yeast. This is subjective, I use both fresh and instant. It may suit you.
9. Not all recipes are illustrated. A given issue with cookbooks I believe, but for £30, I demand at least a small pictures of those unfamiliar breads like the Crocodile. You know, just to know what the supposed loaf is meant to look like.
10. The repetitive nature of her recipes. A lot could have been cut.
12. Recherche ingredients: not easy to get hold of candied citron, turbinado sugar, and all manner of Italy's scrumptious cheeses. At least her love of malt extract is easy enough to find.
As for redeeming features:
1.The simplicity of her technique: compared to professional baking books requiring you to make and tend a barm, biga, different number of blobs of old dough, and any manner of starters fed on countless different stoneground/organic flours, bottled water/liquids and any other bits and bobs floating about your kitchen, even before you start, she only has the one: the freezable (clap your hands!) biga. (Oh, not to neglect that natural biga that's not much in use in her recipes. By the way, it's not even natural. It's yeasted. As she says, it's 'almost natural'.) You can dig in once some biga is made. That can't be said for many baking books.
2. That requisite 'Leftovers' chapter. All bread baking books should have one.
3. As with a lot of cooks, they love us to toil and suffer at home making what can be shop-bough in two ticks and couple of pounds, all for the sake of that holy grail, 'superior taste' they chant. So arm yourself for making candied peel, blitzing oats to flour, charring and sweating your own peppers when a jar will do, stoning olives (sorry, I've no stoner, help...), grinding your own spices (yes, pestle and mortar required). I agree though, sometimes it's worth it (it's simply a matter of knowing when to and when to forgo it).
3. The range of Italian breads and sweetbreads. It's not all about the French: one must sit back and admire. (What their breads lack in form and aesthetics, they certainly compare in terms of flavour). It's seemingly all in there: the saltless Tuscan bread, the pane Pugliese, cornbreads, grissini, pandoro, panettone, Colomba pasquale, Panforte, Savoiardi and Baci. Some are simply gorgeous to behold: wreaths, spirals, elaborate artichoke shapes.
4. That's all I can think of.
Quite a joyless book really. Like a child, I like to look at the pictures. (I go elsewhere for inspiration and Italian recipes.)
I wouldn't recommend this to novices. I wouldn't recommend this to more experienced bakers. I wouldn't recommend this.
There's certainly 'market space' for an alternative, user-friendly Italian baking book. Is anyone out there? You can put my name down.