Many elements combine to make a great cookbook, all of which are in The Art & Soul of Baking. Those elements are so artfully combined that the book possesses the singular quality that lifts a cookbook above the rest, and that is the ability to inspire. The Art & Soul of Baking inspires. A beautifully produced book, the collaboration of Sur La Table and Cindy Mushet, the book has recipes so clearly written and detailed that the delicate art of baking can be mastered with success. The Art & Soul of Baking also instructs. The novice has clear guidance and the seasoned baker will learn professional techniques. Part of the book's success is that it teaches with a caress, not with a ruler.
Like Sur La Table's first book, Things Cooks Love, this is a sensual book, and nothing is as sensual as baking. Starting with clouds of white flour, the baker creates batters so tempting that they demand a taste, or into doughs that are patted and kneaded. Flavorings and fillings give off their scent and hot ovens envelope us in aroma.
Baking is alchemy and indeed an art. As an art, it is one that is rigorous. The Art & Soul of Baking does not miss a single element of the process. There are two opening chapters that explain every aspect of the baker's pantry and kitchen. This section analyses the eight main ingredients that will act as alchemists one to the other, then continues to the foodstuffs we add to flavor those white clouds, such as apricots -fresh and dried, chocolate of course, nuts and sweeteners such as maple syrup. It continues to the tools needed, including a stable oven, and no aspect of baking is overlooked.
These are separate chapters, easily read beforehand, but every recipe has its demands and the cooking instructions are precise without being prissy, and clearly written with more difficult steps illustrated in large beautiful photographs. Throughout the book are sidebars called " What the Pros Know," and these are illuminating. If you have never baked before you can venture into this magical world with ease. If you are well seasoned, you will learn tips that will make your baking transcendent, such as "pulling a gluten windowpane," a method to see if the gluten in dough is fully developed. Or, if you are making a meringue, you will avoid the pitfalls of "weeping and beading" by reading one brief paragraph.
The recipes, one more spectacular than the next, cover all categories of baking. Each chapter is preceded by a short primer on the demands of that category. There is a separate chapter for Yeast Breads and Rolls with such recipes as Rustic Olive and Thyme Bread, Herbed Fougasse or Old-Fashioned Dinner Rolls. There is a chapter for Layered Pastries with recipes as Classic Croissants, Spiced Cardamom Twists, Chocolate Napoleons with Port-Braised Pears.
Continuing through the book, there is a chapter for Quick Breads with recipes such as Chocolate Toffee Scones, Easy Morning Muffins with Raspberries, or Pumpkin Walnut Bread. There is a chapter for Pies, Turnovers and Dumplings where you can start with a variety of crusts and move on to make delicacies such as Apricot, Plum and Ginger Pie with Almond Crumble Topping, Banana Cream Pie with Chocolate and Cinnamon, or Summer Berry Turnovers.
Move on to the chapter on Tarts to find more doughs complete with illustrations on the pressing-In method for tart dough and the layering-in method for tart dough. Fill those doughs and make recipes such as Mini Chocolate-Raspberry Tartlets, perhaps a savory Potato, Onion and Gruyère Gallette. Continue to the chapter on Fruit Deserts for a Strawberry-Rhubarb Crisp with Amaretti Topping, an Apricot-Cherry Almond Cobbler, or a classic Strawberry Shortcake. Move on to the chapter on Cookies to make the perfect Chocolate Chip Cookies, Peanut Butter Thumbprints with Peanut Caramel, or Classic Lemon Bars. Open the Cake chapter to find Mile-High Chocolate Layer Cake, Retro Ringers with Silver Leaf, or Lemon Mascarpone Layer Cake.
Baking is not all doughs, and there are chapters that cover all aspects of baking. There is one on Custards, Bread Puddings and Cheese Cakes where you will be making White Chocolate-Lime Crème Caramel, Coffee-Cardamom Pots de Crème, or Blueberry Clafouti. Continue to the chapter on Soufflés, Meringues and Pâte à Choux with recipes such as a savory Corn Soufflé or the glorious Pavlovas with Honey-Lavendar Cream and Poached Strawberries.
This is a complete book and the final chapter offers Basic Recipes and Finishing Touches. With more than 275 recipes and the advice to make them perfect, this book belongs to anyone with a desire to bake, whether novice or seasoned pro. There are color photographs by Maren Caruso throughout.
Beautifully produced by publisher Andrews McMeel, this could be a coffee table book, but you will want to see specks of flour decorating its silken pages.