Book 2 of Modernist Bread moves to Ingredients and the madness of the project is exposed. Another 400+ pages, large format, heavy tome (I’m guessing 10 pounds; I’m a terrible person and did not actually weigh it, as all bakers should), which happily recycles topics and illustrations from Book 1. What’s the point of creating an encyclopedia if there are so many repeats? And the topics are all over the place, including how to steam vegetables (to be used in bread fillings, I get it, but still–why here and not with the recipes themselves?) Still, if you want to learn about how wheat is milled and how agricultural subsidies work, this is the book for you.
My favorite part (I’m not being ironic!) was learning about the different kinds of wheat and other cereals and seeing what they looked like.
(See my impression of Book 1, History and Fundamentals, here)
Book 1 of Modernist Bread covers History and Fundamentals. And it’s truly encyclopedic, covering archeology, art, microbiology, health and physics. For the authors, we cannot understand calories until we talk about James Joule; cannot understand yeast cells without learning about microscopes; and cannot understand the nutritive value of bread without learning about multiple studies of fat and heart disease (not sure why, since most breads have no or little fat!). It’s all a little bit exhausting, especially since they chose a puzzling method of starting with (pretty detailed) summaries, but not marked as such, followed with more details.
I did enjoy, greatly, the section on history, that shows how bread evolved over time (and also features their attempts at reproducing old-style breads, and I mean centuries-old breads).
As of this review, I officially declare my dislike of books that blend stories and recipes. But, say you, you liked this one, didn’t you? Yes, I did, but what I liked in The Best Cook in the World: Tales from My Momma’s Table was not so much the recipes, but rather the fascinating story of the author’s family, starting with his great grandfather, who had had to exile himself out of state because the law was after him — but returned to teach his daughter in law the basics of cooking. The author’s mother is a central character, as are her beliefs that sorting beans require a child-free kitchen, microwave ovens are the work of the devil, and onions need to be cooked with a light hand so as not to bruise them (I agree with this last one!).
Along the way we hear of cows mysteriously falling to their deaths (conveniently for people who need meat), more than one shooting, feeding train-riding hoboes from a version of stone soup, and incredible care lavished on food made from the simplest and cheapest ingredients. Of course, the cooking occurs without modern conveniences so that the first step is to chop the wood needed to heat the stove. We have it so easy.
Don’t expect great literary style, clever construction, or deep philosophy of like in My American Dream: A Life of Love, Family, and Food. What you will find is a great story of a Communist country refugee (from the Istrian peninsula of Italy, which was annexed by Yugoslavia after WWII) who found great success in the US as an Italian restaurateur and TV chef. The best parts of the story are when she describes her childhood experience of moving first to a refugee camp and then to New York. An intriguing personal story, especially at a time when refugees are not always welcome.
That innocuous can of baking powder in your kitchen cabinet comes from a long line of chemists (understandably) and also schemers and corporate villains who made consumers believe their competitors sold poison and in the process changed the way home cooks baked. Baking Powder Wars: The Cutthroat Food Fight that Revolutionized Cooking tells all about it, in often excruciating detail.
I think this may be the first cookbook reviewed on FT Books, but The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science is not really a cookbook, or is a lot more than a cookbook, depending on how you look at it. The author, the descendant of a family of scientists, decided mid-way through his undergraduate career at MIT that cooking was a better fit for him than working in a biology lab, and the book revels in experiments with classic cooking principles, along with many recipes but surprisingly few for 900 pages. If you’ve ever wondered why hard-boiled eggs are sometimes difficult to peel, whether the sine function is useful to cut meat, and how salt matters for cooking beans, this is the book for you, regardless of the recipes themselves. My only puzzlement is that the author fails to cover desserts. That’s a horrible omission, or perhaps, volume II.