A Baker's Half-Dozen

The best books of the season on breads, pastries, and desserts

A Baker's Half-Dozen

As a baker by trade, I am regularly amazed at the number of books produced on the subject of baking, pastry, and desserts year after year. I keep thinking every recipe variation must have been discovered, every possible technique explained, but then other bakers consistently manage to surprise me with something new. This year's crop of worthwhile titles are pretty evenly divided between books that made me want to curl up and read and those that had me rushing to the kitchen, butter, sugar, and eggs in hand. Whether you've got a passionate home baker, a culinary historian fascinated by international baking recipes, an armchair cook, or a restaurant pastry chef on your list, there's a good gift idea for you here.

A Sweet Quartet: Sugar, Almonds, Eggs, and Butter: A Baker's Tour Including 33 Recipes (North Point Press, $15, paper): San Francisco baker and food writer Fran Gage defines sugar, almonds, eggs, and butter as the most important "sweet quartet" in the baker's orchestra. In this imminently readable book, she offers chapters of information on each subject, in which each section is part travelogue, part historical essay, part investigative reporting, and all fascinating. The book provides an in-depth understanding of the provenance of key baking ingredients and a few reliable recipes with which to savor them.

Great Cookies: Secrets to Sensational Sweets (Clarkson and Potter, $35): Carole Walter is one of the most accomplished pastry arts teachers and writers on the East Coast. This new cookie book is the third in her "Great" series (Great Cakes won a James Beard Foundation Award, while Great Pies & Tarts was nominated for a Julia Child Award), and every bit as worthwhile as its siblings. So far, I've kept busy with piping various delicious spritz cookies out with a new cookie gun, but I'm headed for the chapters on rolled cookies and bars as fast as I can find the time.

The Secrets of Baking: Simple Techniques for Sophisticated Desserts (Houghton Mifflin, $35.95): Spago pastry chef Sherry Yard has demystified dessert-making by breaking things down into their elemental building blocks, such as caramel, curds, sauces, pound cakes, and genoise, etc., thereby providing a pantry of component parts from which to create many sweet marvels. A local young pastry chef of my acquaintance found this book very inspirational.

The Bread Bible (W.W. Norton, $35): This imposing and encyclopedic tome is the third installment of Rose Levy Beranbaum's award-winning Bible series. In the bread book, she explains each aspect of bread baking with solid historical information, scientific precision, and fanatical attention to detail. Each recipe includes a time schedule, a list of necessary equipment, and ingredient lists, which are so detailed as to point out which brands of flour would render the best success with each recipe. All questions are answered, all bases covered. Follow Rose's directions, and you, too, can make good bread.

Bittersweet: Recipes and Tales From a Life in Chocolate (Artisan, $35): Finally having another book from Bay-area chocolate maven Alice Medrich was like getting a very big letter from a long-lost friend. After studying chocolates in France, Medrich started the early-Eighties West Coast chocolate-truffle craze with her definitive candy and dessert shop, Cocolat. She also wrote some wonderful chocolate cookbooks in those years. Though she's no longer in the candy business, Medrich is back with a new book that addresses the vast changes in the chocolate industry in the past decade: high-percentage chocolates, boutique growers, better quality and new recipes, both sweet and savory, to show them all off. It's so good to hear from her.

Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World (Artisan, $40): Globe-trotting Toronto photojournalists Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid have now turned their innate cultural and culinary curiosity to the subject of home baking and have delivered a beautiful and fascinating book that is sure to be another award-winner. My only complaint is that it's too big and unwieldy to read in bed, but I've still disappeared into its pages for hours at a time, discovering the delights of breads baked in communal Portuguese village ovens, the roti of the Wakhi women of the Hunza Valley, Eastern European mushroom strudels and rugulach, and down-home sweet potato rolls.

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