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Baking

Cookbook Review: The River Cottage Bread Handbook

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Wed, Aug 11, 2010 at 6:59 AM

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The final chapter in the new U.S. edition of the River Cottage Bread Handbook, the second cookbook release this summer from River Cottage, England's answer to a working and teaching farm with a successful side biz in restaurants/publishing/food television shows, begins with this rather personal note from the River Cottage's on-site baker and culinary instructor, Daniel Stevens:

"If I were a lump of dough, proofing my final minutes away and contemplating the manner of my passing, I'd choose the old-fashioned way to go -- to be slipped, bare-bottomed, straight onto the ash-covered floor of a hell-hot wood-fired oven."

What follows is a 15 page step-by-step, complete with photos of Stevens at work building his (or perhaps your) backyard oven. Add in the previous 190+, bread flour-saturated pages, and you've got a remarkably compact, glove box-friendly guidebook to baking. Honest. This isn't blind baking oven love. But yes, Stevens now permanently has a spot on our if-you-could-only-invite-X-number-of-people-to-dinner list.

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Nor is this a beautiful, high-budget glossy baking book that fulfills your wildest sourdough dreams with unattainable photos. The handbook is aptly named, more of a bread survival book, the sort of thing you can count on when you can't handle forking over nearly $10 for another bag, no matter how great, of La Grande Orange's English muffins (page 99). Or when a British pal asks if you know where to find a decent crumpet in this town (page 165).

Stevens begins with his plea to buy good flour, "the best you can afford." He prefers to buy his from favorite British bakeries (if you find a baker in L.A. willing to sell you freshly milled flour, please do share) and eschews flours ground in automated rollers (most flour on the market) for stone ground. He also finds bleached flours "vain and unnecessary."

And so, The River Cottage Bread Handbook is a refreshing change from so many American cookbooks that magically transform copious recipes into 12 easy steps and still promise fail-proof recipes. Yes, you should be comfortable with pinches and dashes and the "to taste" of days past. Yet to an American audience, this book still feels fresh, with those Scottish oatcakes and bannock occasional appearances.

The first chapter, "Bread Making Step-by-Step," is text and photo heavy, making it handy for both first-time baguette bakers and those wishing to perfect their shaping techniques. From there, Stevens takes you "Beyond the Basic Loaf" (bagels, brioche, ciabatta) and into "Breads Made With Wild Yeast" (sourdoughs, pumpernickel). The remaining chapters are dedicated to breads, "Buns, Biscuits and Batter Breads" (croissants, tortillas, etc.), fry breads (doughnuts, churros), and a handy chapter on using up leftover bread that includes Greek taramasalata (smoked fish and white bread), brown bread ice cream and summer pudding.

Did we forget something? Ya, he's definitely still on our dinner wish list.

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