One of the things I thought I’d do this month is a few brief reviews of some of the baking books that I own. As with any cookbooks there are some that I use very regularly, some that I like to look at because they are beautiful but that I never bake from and some that just sit on the shelf minding their own business.
The first book that I am going to look at definitely falls into that first category! This wasn’t the first bread book that I bought but it was the one that properly got me into baking and, more to the point, helped me understand what goes on inside the dough.
The River Cottage Bread Handbook by Daniel Stevens is one in a series of small cookbooks from the River Cottage juggernaut but, as with all their stuff, it is very well thought out and is very clear in its aims.
It is detailed without being overly technical, it is specific enough to help the beginner while encouraging flexibility and experimentation in the more experienced baker. It is still my go-to book when I want to try out a new type of bread or dust off (often literally!) an old recipe.
The book begins with a short section on why eating real bread is important before launching into the usual chapters on equipment, ingredients and techniques. These are written in a very clear and easy to read style while still containing a lot of detail for those who are looking for it. The following quote is a good example, it contains a lot of detail but it is easy to skim through and pick up the important details:
Whether you use hard or soft water will make hardly any difference to your dough. Hard water is a little more alkaline than soft, and yeasts work a little more happily in a slightly acid environment, but it also has a higher mineral content, particularly of calcium and magnesium, which have a tightening and strengthening effect on the gluten. So, between hard and soft water, it’s pretty much honours even.
(Stevens 2009, 24)
Another good thing about this book is that it doesn’t launch you straight into more technical breads from the start. It eases you in with an extensive (36 pages), and well photographed, ‘Bread Making Step by Step’ which is followed by a chapter of basic bread recipes which regularly refer back to the more detailed section. Once you’ve got the hang of the basic loaf you are then introduced to some of the more popular variations such as Ciabatta, Breadsticks, Bagels and Pizza.
Each of these recipes has a short, and often entertaining, introduction. My favourite is for the Vetkoek (an African bread which is deep fried):
I once knew a guy called Andre, a South African taxidermist, who lived in a tiny caravan. He made me four things: a badger tooth necklace, boiled rabbit, coffee so strong you could chew it… and vetkoek. The vetkoek were excellent.
After these variations on the traditional yeasted bread you are finally introduced to the mysteries of sourdough. Again this section is written in a clear and easy to understand way which makes you want to try making a sourdough starter rather than putting you off!
The next two chapters are ‘Breads Made Without Yeast’, which includes soda bread, rotis, tortillas etc., and ‘Buns, Biscuits and Batter Breads’. This is perhaps my favourite chapter of the whole book because it introduced me to the wonders of Churros! These tubes of deep fried sugary wonderfulness have become a staple breakfast on valentines day and birthdays in our house.
This chapter also contains the best hot cross but recipe I have tried (and believe me I’ve tried a lot!). It is the one I use every Easter when I am baking hundreds for church and it is great!
The penultimate chapter contains some recipes for using up leftover bread and in true River Cottage style contains some unexpected gems including Beetroot Houmous and Nettle Pesto alongside some classics like Pain Perdu and Bread and Butter Pudding.
The final chapter is a tantalising outline of how to build your own clay oven. Although the instructions are fairly detailed I am not sure I’d want to attempt it using this book alone. Nonetheless it is a fascinating chapter and is good for daydreaming about! I’d love to try building one at some point but I don’t think we’ll be settled anywhere for long enough for a while so it’s a good job we have our own portable pizza oven to keep us going in the meantime (more on that another day perhaps!)
So there we have it. The River Cottage Bread Handbook is an indispensable guide to the art and craft of breadmaking and If I could only keep one of my baking books this one would win hands down.