THIS IS A BOOK that a lot of us home bread bakers are likely to find under the Christmas tree this year. It is handsomely packaged - a super-jumbo-sized paperback of coffee table proportions (at a semi-cloth-bound price). It is printed on the kind of thick, creamy paper pioneered by The Tassajara Bread Book. It has stylish typography and is lavishly illustrated with line drawings, old prints and photographs. The first half gives the history, folklore, regional varieties and chemical properties of bread. The second half gives 150 recipes from all over the world. It's really two books in one.
And that's one of its problems. It reminds me of those fashionable kitchens designed by non-cooking architects - where you have to take the pantry door off its hinges to open the oven. Those handsome coffee table dimensions take up most of the kitchen counter; it refuses to lie flat when you open it up; you get eggs and butter and crumbs on the creamy paper trying to follow what the recipe says. It demands two levels of judgement, and it would be useful if you could saw the thing in half.
On the literary level, writing about home baking seems to set people searching for deeper meanings, and Adrian Bailey is no exception. He ascribes "the renaissance in the ancient craft" to "emotional needs and a loss of security." Home baking, he says, "generates an atmosphere of domestic sanctuary." Well, that's not how this home baker feels about it, or any of the other home bakers I know. We agree with Betsy Trace, who turns up on page 174.She told him flat out that she doesn't bake for "the joy of kneading." She bakes because "commercial bread is lousy, good bread is expensive to buy and it is much quicker to bake a loaf than to search and find good bread in New York City."
Bailey is an alumnus of the Time-Life cookbook series (his Cooking of the British Isles appeared in 1969), and his narrative style bears a bland resemblance to the mother lode. He takes to story of bread almost further back than you want to go - back when the Ice Age was "losing its grip," and "packs of hyenas hunted the woolly mammoth" where Paris now stands. We work our way through the wild wheat grass and wild barley of Mesopotamia, both "thought the early harvests of the Natufians, who lived 8,500 years ago in the Middle East. We progress from crushed grains to the first leavened bread. We learn what kinds of breads the Egyptians ate, and the Greeks and the Romans - with timely quotes from the poets and philosophers of the time. He is utterly dauntless. He covers immense territories with a sweeping stride.
He tells how baking techniques developed and how different countries developed their own styles of bread. You can find out here that the white bread craze stems from the Roman aristocracy in Julius Caesar's day; that rye was first used in Bronze Age Czechoslovakia; that Louis XIII not only like to bake bread and make jam, but knew over 100 ways to cook eggs, and that bits of horse manure contributed to the "nutty flavor" of early U.S. bread. You learn that the pain perdu of the French was "Poor Knights of Windsor" - to the English - and French toast to us.
I lap up this sort of thing. But these are bright grace notes in a drab landscape. The author's problem seems to be - and we encounter it again among the recipes - that he's not very interested. He keeps making little jokes so the class won't fall asleep. "A European harvest scene of 1800 was scarcely different from one of ancient Egypt - minus a few pyramids, of course."
He touches on the controversy betweeen white bread and brown and the theories of various nutrition buffs from William Cobbert, who railed against the "accursed soul-degrading potato," to Doris Grant, who claimed that white bread contributed to juvenile delinquency and urban violence. And you'll find The Doris Grant Loaf among the recipes.
He gives a lucid explanation of the kinds of flour that are best for baking bread, but when he introduces his recipes he vaguely suggests "strong white bread flour, unless stated otherwise." Some of your dedicated home bakers feel a stronger than that about the flour they use. It better be stone ground and unbleached . Some of the local hard core send away to Pennsylvania and Texas for their bread flour. But the supermarkets have got the message, so you don't even have to go as far as the health store any more.
The scope of the recipes is nearly as vast as the history of grains. This must be the only book around where you can find, all in one place, a bread collection that runs from the Cappadocia favored by stylish families in ancient Rome and Spanish churros, French bread, Portuguese bread, pita, Scots Selkirk Bannock, Welsh Bara Brith, Indian Chupattis, Challah and Jelly Doughnuts.
But again, I don't get the feeling that he bakes much himself, or cares that much about bread. In his text, he describes the wonders of whole grain Irish soda bread, and yet the recipe he supplies amounts to a large, white biscuit, without even a currant to liven it up. The plain old Joy of Cooking does better than that. His pumpernickel recipe is so pale that he suggests using coloring to darken it . He should have stolen James Beard's recipe when he interviewed him. He gives a simplified three-egg brioche recipe, when the real thing calls for seven (and one false move and you re-do the kitchen). He supplies a chart of common bread problems, and warns about scorching the Scots Oatcakes, but he rarely advises of hazards in the recipes themselves - which is what you need to know. Still, it's beginning to read the bread of ancient Greece, "whose exquisite and perfumed flour was delicately kneaded with the precious honey of Mt. Hymettus" - and then to find the recipe on page 249. I had some Hymettus honey in the house, so I went straight into the kitchen and tried it. Turned out fine.
So, if you find The Blessing of Bread under the Christmas tree this year, it will be a blessing. But a mixed one.