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May 2014

Cook with the Best in the Northwest

Beard on Bread, by James Beard
Reviewed by Mary Rose

Cook with the Best in the Northwest archive

 

If you bake bread, or you want to bake bread, or you are terrified of baking bread but sort of wish you had the courage to do so, this book will inspire you.

I have been baking bread all my life, with variable results, and now I wish with all my heart I had bought Beard on Bread when it first came out in 1973.

 


Beard on Bread, by James Beard

 

May 5 is James Beard's birthday. He was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1903. Although he was raised by a mother who loved to cook and who operated a hotel, he went off to New York to be an actor.

Luckily for the world of cooks, he didn't have much success and subsequently began a catering company. He wrote cookbooks, appeared on TV cooking shows, and generally shared his delight of food with everyone. Both he and Julia Child brought the fancy French cooking of the day down to a level where anyone in any kitchen could enjoy simple gourmet dishes.

For some reason, I never paid attention to James Beard, so I have no memories of using his cookbooks or seeing him on TV. In fact, I am only writing about him now because I noticed his birthday was in May and thought it would be appropriate to review one of his cookbooks this month. The local library happened to have a copy of Beard on Bread, so that was the one I chose to review.

Wow, am I impressed by it! Right away in the introduction, Beard supplies an explanation of why no loaf will turn out the same each time.

Many factors determine the quality of a loaf of bread, as I indicate in more detail in the first basic recipe—the weather, the humidity, the temperature, the flour, the yeast, the balance of liquid to dry ingredients, maybe even the temperature or chemistry of the person making it; therefore breadmaking is something of a gamble. But it is interesting to see a loaf come out slightly different each time.

You see his enthusiasm kick in and stay in high gear throughout the book.

He includes recipes that teetered on the edge of failure but turned out oddly interesting and edible, such as Broiled White Free-Form Loaf and Sour-Cream Bread.

He provides a wide variety of recipes that are both simple and exotic: Italian Feather Bread, Prune Bread, Mother's Raisin Bread, Finnish Sour Rye Bread, Sally Lunn.

He boldly includes recipes that begin with warnings. For example, Sourdough Bread:

Despite my own feeling that sourdough bread is much overrated and is difficult to perfect at home, I am including one recipe in this collection because interest in the subject is so tremendous. . . . it is a most fickle process. . . . I am not sure it is worth the trouble. I would much rather have you spend your time producing Buttermilk White Bread or some of the rye breads. But for those who like a challenge, here it is.

This is a book you can just pick up, open at any page, and start reading, getting caught up in the delight of words as much as the mysteries of cooking. It is no wonder Beard on Bread is still in print after 40 years.

There is an unusual recipe for rolls that rise the first time in warm water: Water-Proofed Egg Twists. Of course I had to try this technique!

 


Golden Water-Proofed Egg Twists dipped in sugar and pecans.

 

Everything works just as Beard says. The soft dough will stick to the tea towel, so be warned that it is not a quick-and-easy step to shape the dough into rolls. But I am here to promise that if you stay calm and use a bread scraper, you can get most of the dough onto the bread board. I had ready a washing machine full of hot soapy water, tossed in the gooey towel, and it came out clean, so wash-up was pretty simple.

This dough is indeed very light, and the term "ball" at any stage is open to interpretation; the ball of dough will be very free form. Again, just keep going—flour hands as needed—and all will be well.

The taste and the texture of these rolls are difficult to describe . . . somewhere between a brioche and a croissant. Very nice, even the day after baking. Tasty with or without butter. If you want to impress someone, I'd recommend making these rolls. You'll certainly have a story to tell about the process. ("First I submerged the dough in warm water and let it soak for half an hour . . .")

 


The soft dough will stick to the tea towel.

 

Water-Proofed Egg Twists
from Beard on Bread

These are delicious little sweet buns that lend themselves to many variations. They are fun to prepare, have extraordinary taste, look charming, and can be frozen with great success. They are very nice for breakfast or with luncheon dishes.

[About 18 buns]

1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/2 cup warm water (100 to 115 degrees, approximately)
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, or more as needed
1 teaspoon salt
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, cut in pieces
1/4 cup warm milk
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, filberts, or pecans

Proof the yeast with 1 tablespoon sugar in the warm water. Put 2 cups flour in a large mixing bowl and add the salt and butter. Rub the butter into the flour with your fingertips, working very quickly to keep the butter from melting, until the mixture resembles rather coarse meal. Add the warm milk and the yeast mixture, and beat very well with a wooden spoon. Then add eggs, vanilla, and one more cup of flour and beat until the batter is very springy and airy. Turn out on a lightly floured board and knead for just 1 minute, until you can form the dough into a ball. Spread out a cotton or linen cloth—a kitchen tea towel is perfect—and put the dough in the center. Fold the towel over the dough as you would to wrap a package, keeping it rather loose. Secure the package with string, then submerge in a large bowl or crock of tepid water and let stand for about 35 to 40 minutes. The package will rise to the top and float. Remove and let the excess water drip off.

Unwrap the dough, which will have doubled in volume. Scrape off onto a lightly floured board, and shape into a ball, kneading in a little flour, since the dough will be fairly wet and sticky at this point. Pinch off from this ball of dough 18 or so even pieces about the size of a large egg, weighing the pieces to achieve uniformity if you have a scale and want to be a perfectionist. On a baking sheet or in a jelly-roll pan mix the 1/2 cup sugar and the chopped nuts. Roll each ball of dough in the sugar-and-nut mixture into a cylinder about 7 or 8 inches long. Fasten ends together, and the twist at the center to roughly form a figure eight. Place on well-buttered baking sheets about 2 inches apart. Cover with aluminum foil and let rise in a warm. draft-free spot for 30 to 40 minutes, until the twists are doubled in bulk.

Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes, until golden in color and fairly hollow sounding when tapped on the bottom. Cool on racks.

 


Secure the package with string, then submerge in a large bowl
or crock of tepid water.


The package will rise to the top and float.

 

Mary Rose lives high in the mountains of Montana. She enjoys traveling to farmers markets in summer and making snowballs during the long winter. She is happy to find many locally produced foods, including lentils, cheese, and stroopwafels.

 

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