The building blocks of baking




By Joanne Chang with Christie Matheson
(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2010, 340 pp., $35 hardcover)

The new cookbook by pastry chef and owner of Boston’s Flour Bakery + Cafe begins with an unlikely analogy to theoretical math. Says author Joanne Chang “theoretical math class … taught me that even very complex things start with the most basic building blocks. Baking isn’t nearly as complicated as that class, of course, but everything I bake — at Flour, or at home — starts with the fundamentals.”

Chang goes on to describe her personal trajectory starting as an international management consultant and then quitting to follow her passion for baking. It is with this anecdotal and personal tone that she presents recipes for deceivingly simple yet tasty classics taken from the offerings at Flour.

Of the 300-plus pages in the book, more than 30 are devoted to a well-written and useful introduction including a description of essential techniques, equipment, and ingredients, thoughtfully written to indoctrinate even the most novice of bakers. This section ends with a list of Chang’s “Top 12 Baking Tips” — culled from years of experience and designed to encourage best practice and success in trying the recipes.

The rest of the book is divided into six sections: Breakfast Treats, Cookies, Cakes, Pies + Tarts, Other Sweets, and Breads. The recipes range from adaptations of familiar classics like Banana Bread and homemade Fig Newtons, to the more exotic Black Sesame Lace Cookies and Prosecco sorbet. The difficulty is also varied in the book with muffins and cookies at the low end and the multi-day effort of croissants at the high end. But even with something as involved as croissants, Chang keeps the instructions accessible to the novice baker, describing each step in a clear and detailed narrative.

Each recipe begins with an engaging background summary of the dish — especially informative for the many offerings that reflect Chang’s time spent in France — including Creme Brulee and Plum Clafoutis. Often this includes a personal anecdote of the dish’s meaning to the author, making the recipes an interesting read. Other features include “baker’s bite” tips for tricky recipes and “same recipe, different flavors” recipe variations which expand the book’s recipe range several fold. Among the principle tips is Chang’s strong belief in measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume. To encourage this transition in new bakers, she includes both measures for every ingredient in every list.

Last but not least, the aesthetic of the book is not to be overlooked. Echoing the elegant simplicity of the recipes, the book’s organization makes recipes easy to find, and the photos, worthy of a coffee table book, are beautifully shot and mouthwatering to say the least. This book would be an excellent addition to any baker’s shelf, especially those looking to up their game with professional quality results.

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