Top positive review
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Excellent manual for amateurs and beginners. Buy It!
on November 9, 2005
`Martha Stewart's Cooking Handbook' is Martha Stewart Omnimedia's first book since Miss Martha has been out of the slammer, and it is her first big book in several years. That, combined with the fact that it's name promises to be a serious manual on baking techniques gives me high expectations for this new title.
I am really happy to say the book meets or even exceeds my expectations on almost all points. Like the famous `Boy Scout Handbook' which is exclusively a `how to' book on all the basics, this volume covers virtually all the essential baking techniques, without going into any long explanations on why these are the best techniques. Thus, unlike Sherry Yard's excellent `The Secrets of Baking' or Shirley Corriher's `Cookwise' or Alton Brown's `I'm Just Here for More Food', this book spends no time dwelling on how biscuit baking is very similar to pie crust baking or that cheesecake is not really cake, but a custard pie. Instead, Martha and her very large and expert staff of magazine and book writers, editors, and photographers have assembled and excellent tutorial on most of the basic baking skills.
There is another way in which this book is different from most conventional books on baking. It is in the tone I first detected in Martha Stewart's flagship classic, `Entertaining' where she takes the stance of an amateur with good taste and good learning skills, rather than the role of a professional who is showing us amateurs how it's done. This is not to say that we amateurs can't learn a lot from all the baking professionals out there like Peter Reinhart, Rose Levy Beranbaum, Nick Malgieri, and Gayle Ortiz. It's just that Miss Martha sees things from our side of the kitchen counter. This may not explain all the good qualities of this book, but it helps. I think this attitude and the great skill in both describing and picturing techniques means this book is a superb introduction for the beginner, and even for the teen and preteen bakers among us.
Lots of books use photographs or drawings to illustrate techniques, but the presence of the pictures is not an automatic path to clarity of presentation. The technique illustrating pictures in this book are simply superb. They seem to leave nothing to the imagination, as when they provide simple pictures illustrating what packed brown sugar looks like, how to measure across the top of a baking pan, and how to prepare the bottom of baking pans with butter, parchment round, followed by more butter. All the photographic experience that has been acquired by doing a monthly magazine has been put to good use.
While a purist may object to some elements of this book's organization, it is excellent for a beginner or even an intermediate amateur. Instead of giving us a chapter on quick breads, the book starts with a chapter entitled `Simple Baked Goods' which cover biscuits (five different methods), muffins (four recipes), popovers, scones (four recipes), quick breads (five recipes, including cornbread and Irish soda bread), and cakes (seven recipes). Rather than putting all the tutorial material on techniques in the front of the book, the photo tutorials begin each relevant chapter. So, the first chapter includes lessons on cutting butter into biscuit dough, making and cutting scones, cutting biscuits, and preparing muffin tins. Other specifics appear as sidebars to individual recipes. Thus, the correct method for filling popover pans is shown together with the one popover recipe.
The next chapter is on `Cookies'. Just as with the `simple' recipes, the chapter begins with an introduction on good techniques for making cookies, a photo gallery of cookie making tools and tutorials on cookie techniques. Also like the first section, the selection of recipes is very well done. The forty-two recipes certainly don't cover all the ground you will find in a full book on cookies, but a lot of very popular recipes are here. I was particularly interested in the recipe for nut crescents and I was very pleased to find a good representation of exactly now to form the crescents before baking so that the cookies would bake evenly.
My favorite subject, yeast breads, is in the next to last chapter on `Yeasted Baked Goods'. Here again, the choice of recipes is excellent, covering virtually all the major bases with at least one or two examples of each major type of European bread, except for naturally yeasted sourdoughs. All recipes use active dry yeast. A professional baker may prefer fresh yeast and some writers are particularly fond of instant yeast, but I first learned yeast baking with active dry yeast and both of the other types have their disadvantages for the amateur.
One possible dissonance is the fact that pate brisee recipes (pies, tarts, galettes, etc) and other pastry recipes such as puff pastry and pate a choux are in two different chapters, separated by yeast breads. From a practical point of view, for a `handbook' of techniques, I consider this entirely unobjectionable.
One thing I really like about the individual recipes is that in addition to the fact that they seem to leave no important detail out, they also do not introduce a lot of tricks and gimmicks. While I have seen pate brisee recipes with all sorts of different additives to make them work better, Martha Stewart gives us the simplest recipe possible made with flour, salt, butter, and water, period, plus a really nice pictorial tutorial on how to put it all together.
Aside from the generally friendly tone and the homey introduction from Martha, there is none of the chatter in headnotes and sidebars you will find in many books. This is all business.
I strongly recommend this as a first book on baking techniques and reference for lots of common baking recipes.