Cookbook Review: Beyond the Bread Basket

Cookbook Review: Beyond the Bread Basket

Eric Kayser is a fourth generation French baker who has fifteen boulangeries throughout Paris as well as 20 others in Greece, Japan, Lebanon, Russia, Taiwan and Ukraine.  In his new cookbook, written with chef Yair Yosefi, Beyond the Bread Basket:  Recipes for Appetizers, Main Courses and Desserts (Flammarion, large format hardcover, with color photographs, $34.95), Mr. Kayser brings us a beautiful celebration of all things bread:  how to make it, choose it, and most of all, cook with it.

If all the bad press given to carbs have made you bread-phobic, this is a book that will make you crave and fall in love with bread all over again.

Last year Mark Bittman brought bread making back into many city kitchens when he wrote about "No Knead Bread."  But don't expect to see any such short-cuts in Mr. Kayser's book.  Instead he begins with a core recipe -- a full-blown technique lesson, actually -- for what he describes as "a simple method for homemade bread" that begins with a two-day process for creating your own sourdough starter and ends with ways to turn a small kitchen oven into a hearth.

This introduction is followed by a chapter about the health benefits of bread, including an explanation of how bread helps us curb food cravings, an argument I'm glad to accept on face value.  His nutrition arguments are actually very compelling but who needs reason when all you need to do and turn the page and begin looking at Clay McLachlan's droolingly gorgeous photographs and you may be out the door to go shopping for a 5-pound bag of King Arthur's flour and a list of other ingredients to get started on one of Mr. Kayser's 60 appealing recipes.

The cookbook is a fresh idea:  to showcase how bread can be a major or minor ingredient in a dish.  Many of the recipes call for breads that may be hard-to-impossible to find at a local market or bakery.  Such as a Fig Bruschetta With Chicken Livers and Oranges which requires, of course, a fig bread.  But most breads are either more quotidian, as a brioche or baguette, or else there's a recipe to make your own.

Here are the chapters, with a few examples of the recipes:


Test Driving the Recipes

I am not a practiced bread baker.  I usually figure that there is enough good bread you can buy in New York that I'd rather use my kitchen time to make other things.  Still, while it's true we have some truly great bread bakeries (Grand Daisy, Balthazar, Amy's, Orwasher's), there is nothing quite like the taste of your own just-made bread, even the most simple focaccia.

I tried my hand at Mr. Kayser's recipe for Red Onion Fougasse, a large, flat bread that is coated with a mixture of thin slices of onion, pine nuts and olive oil.  The main recipe suggests you buy a pound of seasoned fougasse dough.  Maybe this is something that is not a hurdle in Paris, but I think I know my New York bread bakeries really well and I can't think of one that would, or in most cases, could, provide you with this essential ingredient.

But the recipe included a quick, simple yeast dough to make your own, a dough that in fact could double for any focaccia:  warm water, a packet of yeast, sugar, all-purpose flour, salt and olive oil (it also called for 4  tablespoons of herbs de Provence which I omitted and instead added 2 teaspoons, crushed, into the sliced onion mixture for the topping). 

Ten minutes in a mixer or food processor to mix and knead the dough, which is then rolled out into a rectangle on a sheet pan to rise for an hour.  You top the dough with the onion mixture and bake in a hot oven for 15 minutes.  The scent of the baking yeast dough and onions filled my gray February kitchen with savory comfort, and the taste -- both right out of the oven and re-heated several hours later -- was exceptional.

Imperfect Recipes

Although the book can be inspiring for home cooks at all levels of skills, I found nearly all the recipes to be very poorly written.  Some of the recipes -- especially the sandwiches -- are primarily about assembly, but those that require cooking can lack important details about process, precise quantities, and enough information about technique and how to gauge results.  For example, in the Red Onion Fougasse, it measures quantities as with 4 red onions; I had an abundance of slices with only 2.  It didn't offer the suggestion to slice the onions with a mandoline or other sharp blade so as to produce consistently thin slices -- or to even suggest how thick or thin to make the slices.  Yet the finish of the onions makes a huge difference in the finish of the bread and its ability to cook evenly.  It also called for 2 handfuls of pine nuts, but whose hands?  I used 1/3 cup and it was perfect. 

In one recipe, the instruction says to broil broccoli florets for 15 minutes.  I guarantee that this will produce a sheet pan full of broccoli ashes.  Another has as its entire cooking instruction to "sauté the shrimps rapidly and add the breadcrumbs" without any guidelines for length of cooking, what the result should look like, when you add the breadcrumbs, or when it's done.

Important details like these are missing throughout the book.  It's not often clear when to leave the peels on things, how large an item should be (one recipe calls for "1 chicken" without acknowledging that a chicken could be 2 pounds or 8 pounds), or what some terms mean.   None of these recipes are particularly difficult so if you are a practiced cook and you've made your own bread once or twice and aren't afraid to take on a recipe that gives you mostly guidelines plus an exquisite photograph to which to aspire, you'll have a wonderful time with this book. 

But if you're still a novice and need more meticulous instructions to give you confidence, you may find some of these recipes too vaguely written or incomplete.

Another odd omission:  there is no index.  The table of contents is very detailed, but I think excluding an index makes any cookbook far less useful and friendly.

But for bread lovers who want to find new opportunities to make, cook with, and eat bread, this would be an inspiring addition to your cookbook collection.




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