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Cookbook Review: The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion

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Sometimes a name says it all. This book is titled as a “Baker’s Companion,” not a “Cookbook.”

It’s Throwback Thursday and time to reconsider a great cookbook from the past. Or, even better, a great companion.

King Arthur Flour was founded in 1790, so I don’t think many of the original staff were around to write this book, published in 2003. But those founders, and every staff member since, would be proud of this thick tome with over 450 perfectly written recipes.

I harp on this blog about recipe testing, about how many current cookbooks have sparse testing. Or none at all. Suzen spent over two years being the test kitchen for the last edition of The Joy of Cooking, so I have seen the opposite extreme: every recipe tested over and over again until it is perfected, both in terms of the ingredients and the instructions. Follow that recipe and you will succeed.

That is precisely the method followed by a vast team at King Arthur Flour to produce this excellent book. First, they had to decide on the recipes themselves. Then test them, and perfect them, and write them in a way to be friendly to bakers of all experiences. Especially novices.

Unlike cooking, baking is both art and science. Making some chili, roasting some vegetables, preparing a salad? You can look at a recipe and wander off on your own: double the tomatoes, halve the onion, put chipotle in your salad dressing. It will change the flavor or color or texture, but your extension of the dish will still be a treat on the table.

Making a cake? Try doubling the eggs, or halving the sugar. See what happens. Be prepared for disaster. Because baking is science. It’s food chemistry. You need the right ingredients, in the right proportions, woven together in the right steps, at the right pace. When the recipe says to cream the butter for 2 minutes, that’s really 2 minutes and not 10 seconds.

Baking is about technique and patience. Particularly if you are a novice, or you have experience but in your heart you still feel nervous, then you need more than a baking cookbook. You need a kitchen companion to walk you through the process, to get you from butter and eggs and flour to a white cake that stands tall and proud.

That guide you need is just this Baker’s Companion. Suzen has had her copies since 2003. Yes, we have multiple copies, one in both houses, and, yes, an original one died when she finally wore out the binding.

With 450 recipes, this should be both your first baking book. You literally can spend years working your way through the recipes here. Chapters are devoted to every aspect of Western baking style:

  • Breakfast: pancakes, French toast, …
  • Fried Doughs: doughnuts, fritters, …
  • Quickbreads: muffins, biscuits, cornbreads, ..
  • Buckles, Cobblers, and Crisps: dumplings, apple pandowdy,
  • Crackers and Flatbreads: rye crisps, smoky chili crackers
  • Yeast Breads: basic white, cheese, herbed for stuffing, …
  • Sourdough: starter from scratch, rosemary olive
  • Cookies and Bars: ultra-butterscotch brownies, fudge drops
  • Cakes: chocolate mint, spicy jelly roll with pumpkin
  • Pies, Tarts, and Quiches: pineapple chiffon, caramel custard
  • Pasty and Viennoiserie: real puff pastry and easier quicker versions, apple turnovers, cheese crisps

The recipe selection for these chapters had to have been an arduous journey. First, each chapter has to have the basics. And then you want extensions that give the book character. But then, you cannot have a twenty pound book. Working within the limit of 600 pages and 450 recipes called for tradeoffs and compromises. It was a successful negotiation among the team.

For example, that first chapter on Breakfast offers the very first recipe in the book: The Simple But Perfect Pancake. Basic and necessary for this book’s wide audience. That first recipe is followed by Zephyr Pancakes from the Midwest, thick in dairy with both heavy cream and buttermilk and an extra egg too. The Zephyrs are followed by Gingerbread Pancakes.

That’s the style you see repeated over and over in each chapter: the very basics followed by lively extensions. Often, as with the Zephyr Pancakes, the extensions come from regions beyond New England — the home of King Arthur Flour — and have been contributed by home bakers around the nation using the King Arthur flours. So, you’ll find, in the Fried Doughs chapter, a recipe for doughnuts followed by the very special Malasadas from Hawaii.

Some of the chapters are truly special. The Sourdough chapter begins with a 7-day program for creating your own sourdough starter from scratch. Don’t laugh. Suzen has had the same sourdough starter for nearly 30 years, feeds it multiple times during the week, and has it mentioned in a clause in her will. Dedicated bakers, and Suzen is one, are devoted to their starters. Actually, I’m not even sure if I’m mentioned in her will, but …

The Yeast Breads chapter begins with White Bread 101, the definitive primer on making a perfect white bread — using dried milk and potato flour actually. You’ll see the recipe here tomorrow, shaped not into a loaf but into rolls that will be devoured the moment you place them on the table.

The Cakes chapter gives you a solid survey of cake types: butter, pound, foam, and cheese cake. The basic recipes are there — so this is the place to find a fine chocolate cake. But you should consider the Red, White, and Blue Trifle, at least on the Fourth of July.

Some books put ingredients and tools at the start. The Baker’s Companion puts them at the end. The 80 pages devoted to ingredients is really the place to being reading this book, and a place to return to over and over again. What happens, what really happens, to that sugar you have put into a cake or cookie dough? There is a definitive one-page discussion here — don’t worry you won’t think you are chemistry class — that delves into the mystery of sugar under heat. Read this description and suddenly you will begin to understand why you take certain steps as you prepare the doughs — and gain a sense of the difficulties that might emerge if you try to cut corners. Remember, baking is science. It’s chemistry.

And, baking is a bit of a wonderful mystery, too. Scan through the pages of the Baker’s Companion and you’ll be impressed, perhaps a little overwhelmed, with the wealth and diversity of baking ideas that are available to you. The importance of this book is that it presents not just ideas, but tested and perfected ideas that you will be thrilled with.

Particularly if you are new to baking, or still a tad timid, then the Baker’s Companion is the volume you want for your baking foundation. It’s been in print for 11 years and, perhaps like the company, it will go on for 200.

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