Quick update first: I finished Kavalier & Clay today and hope to post a writeup before Thursday’s Klawchat, which will be at 1 pm. Also, my ranking of the top 100 prospects is tentatively scheduled to go up on January 22nd.
I got two bread-baking books by Peter Reinhart for Christmas: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice and Whole Grain Breads. Having read both and made two recipes from them, I can give both a very high recommendation.
I’ve made two recipes so far from the whole grains book: pizza dough and hearth bread, both with 100% whole wheat flour. The recipes worked as advertised, which, for bread recipes, is in and of itself remarkable. Pizza dough has long been a culinary bugbear of mine, as a pizza dough that can be stretched to authentic Italian paper-thin proportions must have excellent gluten development to avoid tearing during the stretching and shaping process. I’ve tried many recipes – including two stalwart sources, Joy of Cooking and Alton Brown – and none has worked; in fact, Reinhart argues that using table sugar in bread doughs is a waste of time, because it’s too complex for yeast to eat, which explains why Brown’s pizza dough (which includes 2 Tbsp sugar) doesn’t rise well and ends up very sweet. So for the last two or three years, I’ve bought white-flour doughs at Trader Joes and Whole Foods; I’ve tried Trader Joes’ whole-wheat dough, but it really lacks gluten and tears too easily to stretch it.
Reinhart’s whole wheat pizza doughs rolled thin enough that I could see light through them and they were almost cracker-like after baking, which is a very Italian-style pizza crust. (I do like New York-style pizza, where the dough is thicker and has a little more tooth, but Italian pizza is my favorite.) If that isn’t enough to sell you, consider this: Reinhart’s “delayed fermentation” method, which he uses for all of his breads, requires less kneading than any other bread recipes I’ve seen by relying on time, refrigeration, and the power of water to break down the starches and sugars in flour to give the dough strength and flavor.
The Apprentice book focuses on bread-making basics, with an emphasis on method and formula rather than just recipes. Reinhart discusses the twelve stages of bread-making; necessary (and unnecessary) equipment; and the science of bread, with explanations of the different types of yeast, flour, sweeteners, and so on. (The whole-grains book goes into more detail on the differences among ingredients.) He also walks you through creation of a wild-yeast starter and through the basic steps to create sponge starters like bigas and poolishes, on which he builds most of the breads in the two books.
The books include just about every yeast bread I could want to bake, including hearth breads, sandwich breads, rye breads, challah, brioche, bagels, English muffin, and baguettes, as well as several international breads with which I was unfamiliar. He also includes a few crackers, including graham crackers and seeded whole-wheat crackers, and corn bread, which is chemically leavened. Together, they form a reference work that gives a real education in the art and science of baking great bread. If you don’t care about whole-grain baking (it’s not just 100% whole wheat, but multigrain breads including all sorts of grains in flour and kernel forms), just get Apprentice, but I recommend both if you want to add more whole grains to your diet.