Christmas Gift Ideas: 6 Top-notch Bread Books for Every Kind of Baker

“We need the same things to bake bread that we need to build character: we need the right proportion of ingredients —not too much of this or too little of that. We need an animating principle like the yeast or leaven —something to enliven us, a passion. We need to be kneaded, mixed well by the slow, rhythmic pattern of everyday life. Periodically, we need to rest in a warm place with a towel over our heads. We need to be punched down, sometimes at the peak of our rising. And we need to be tested in the fires of suffering. Ultimately, our lives are without meaning until we’re broken and shared. We’re not meant to sit on the shelf, but to be given away.”

-Father Dominic Garramone

This lovely quote precedes the recipes in Wild Sourdough, by Yoke Mardewi. It both comforts me and brings bread-baking to a whole new level, neatly summing up what the collection of bread books at Barbara-Jo’s accomplishes. Any of the following books as a Christmas gift are a way of fortifying the reciever against the coming winter days of cold, grey wetness. What better way to warm the soul than with fresh, hot bread? And if in baking we build better character as Father Dominic attests, then pass the butter, I’ll take another slice.

Peter Reinhart is a baking Renaissance Man. Three of his books stand out as excellent choices for the budding baker on your Christmas list. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice is a true teacher. Aiming to empower new bakers to “fly without controls,” as Reinhart phrases it, the chapters neatly break down the techniques and components of bread baking so that formulas can eventually be tinkered with and the students can wean themselves off “recipe dependence.” Shaping (braids buns, knots, and crowns), treatments (fermenting, washing, garnishing), and resources (flour sources, schools, websites, and books) are all covered here, as are the “Twelve Stages of Bread-making” from mise en place to the gloriously satisfying first bite. This is a great guide for someone who wants to become a true artisan baker or bake high-quality loaves at home.

Reinhart’s Whole Grain Breads is an answer to the cry for whole grains from the health-minded, artisan-supporting bread eaters of the world. Many of the traditional French and Italian loaves were made with white flour (our modern white flour is but a ghost of what it once was, nutritionally). With recipes for whole wheat brioche, multigrain struan, seed breads, and sprouted grain breads, bread eaters who shun white flour will rejoice. And how does he do it? Reinhart shares his renegade “delayed fermentation technique” which promises that elusive softness and delicacy to the whole grain breads.

Artisan Breads Everyday is for the at-home baker who wants to be able to bake bread without having it consume an entire afternoon. Recognizing that “artisanship feeds not only a bodily hunger, but also a hunger in our souls,” Reinhart has come up with rustic-style recipes that can be made quickly and easily without compromising the integrity of the bread. Check out the recipes for Kranz Cake Babka (chocolate and bread twisted together to create heaven, basically), Pain a l’Ancienne, and the San Francisco Sour Dough. Also make sure to read Reinhart’s history lesson on bread consumption (find this in the intro —it’s a very interesting take).

Wild Sourdough not only starts out with an incredible nugget of philosophy (see opening paragraph above), it follows through with some beautiful, inventive recipes all using sourdough: Black Rice Ciabatta, Fig & Walnut Sourdough, Bitter Chocolate, Cranberry, and Pistachio are just a few examples. All of the recipes were tested in a home oven, so excellent results are pretty much guaranteed. Mardewi assures home bakers that our hands are our best tools and our intentions are as important as our experience —which is awfully reassuring for novices. A very helpful guide on sourdough tips and tricks (what to look and smell for), a brief history, and the health benefits of sourdough all make this book a gem that will certainly be used time and again.

Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Bread Bible smacks of the maternal, feminine instinct associated with baking. Piping hot biscuits, butter popovers, Irish Soda Bread, challah, Chocolate Almond Kugelhopf, and flaky scones —these are the comfort foods mothers the world over pull from the oven in their very best efforts to nurture. Rose’s practical advice that “the best bread is one you make according to your own taste,” empowers bakers to experiment while still providing them clear instructions and fantastic illustrations to make the technique of home baking a snap and a joy.

With a Ph.D. in chemistry and a humourous, light-hearted approach to rustic breads, Emily Buehler’s book is a balance of technical, practical, and cute. The cuteness comes in with her hand-drawn diagrams of molecules with speech bubbles (to explain the fermentation process, of course). Don’t let the lightness fool you though —if you really want to understand the chemistry and magic of the bread-making process, this book can teach you. A chronology of gluten research, the process of bread-making in chronological order, and the protein content of bread flours all provide knowledge to make you a better baker through understanding Bread Science.

By Katie Zdybel