Bibliobites in December: Whole Lotta Bakin’ Goin’ On

Flour, butter, sugar, eggs: with these oh-so-familiar ingredients a baker can create almost limitless combinations.  Many baked goods are classics that have been popular for centuries (think croissants); while others, of more recent vintage, are equally beloved (think chocolate chip cookies).

This month we had plenty of fun baking up a wide variety of treats from Joanne Chang’s Flour: Spectacular Recipes from Boston’s Flour Bakery & Cafe.  Chang, a homegrown success story with four (soon to be five) bakeries in the Boston area, provides recipes for many of her iconic sweets, such as sticky buns and homemade pop-tarts.  If you’re feeling a bit more ambitious, you can try croissants, brioche, or eclairs.

Almost all (more on that later!) the recipes tried were deemed successful.  Group members enjoyed making (and eating) the morning muffins, apple snacking cake, vegan chocolate cake, lemon poppy seed cake, banana bread, granola bars, scones, homemade pop-tarts, chunky Lola cookies, pumpkin pie, and country sourdough bread.  As always, no one minced words in expressing their opinions.  The pop-tarts were a bit too sweet; the bread had a too-chewy crust; and some recipes were more complicated than they needed to be.  Many thought the serving sizes were overly large, though we recognized that this is the way a bakery usually portions (for instance) cookies; and it’s easy enough to adjust to suit yourself.  We loved Chang’s tip for eating a frosted cupcake: slice horizontally, then put the bottom half on the frosted top to make an easy-to-eat cupcake sandwich.

This book is quite extensive, and if you visit one of the bakeries it’s fun to see items in the case that you’ve read about and perhaps tried to make.  Chang does her best to demystify even the most complex of treats and make them accessible to the home baker.  For example, she devotes four pages of text to the making of croissants.  Her explanations are precise and detailed; but let’s just say that there’s something to be said for training and years of practice.

My novice attempt at croissant-making, despite several careful readings of the recipe, produced buttery rolls which, while certainly edible, could not really be called croissants.  They were decidedly un-flaky.  Though I blame my lack of skill more than anything else, I did have one quibble with this recipe.  Chang is quite specific in most of her instructions, but when it comes to proofing the dough, she says only to put it in a “warm” place.  What exactly does that mean?  If you bake bread, a warm place for rising usually means 80 degrees.  However if you proof your croissants at that temperature, the butter in the dough melts. . . . .guess how I know this?  And as the butter melts, you lose all the layers that contribute to flakiness.  So I’m wondering if by “warm” Chang meant room temperature– but I was puzzled that the exact temperature wasn’t specified.  However it was a fun, if time-consuming experiment, and I will certainly try again.  In the meantime I have some slightly odd-looking rolls in my freezer that make great toast, and are good for sandwiches, too.  So not a total loss by any means!

As for the book itself, everyone enjoyed the beautiful photographs and Chang’s personal anecdotes.  Her stories really made her personality come through the pages; as one member remarked, “She would make a great neighbor!”  Some felt the recipes were too wordy if you had baking experience; others found the recipes less inspiring than they had anticipated.  Most in the group were keen to visit one of the bakeries but this field trip will most likely be put off until spring.  Coincidentally, there was a profile of Chang in the Boston Globe magazine the Sunday before our meeting.  Much of the information in the article was also contained in the book, but it was fun to read anyhow.

fixitandforgetitOur next meeting will be January 29th at 11 AM. We will focus on comfort food that can be prepared ahead and be using the Fix-it and Forget-it New Cookbook by Phyllis Good.

Happy cooking!