I ordered this book by experienced and highly recognized bread baking author, Betsy Oppenneer, because I was having no luck finding a recipe for Eastern European Paska (Easter) bread in my many other weighty bread baking books. I had even looked into cookbooks of eastern European cuisines such as Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Slovakian and Ukrainian. I found only one, which was so simple, I was sure the authors did not give it a lot of thought, or, eastern European peasants really did make this kind of very simple bread because they simply did not have the money or access to saffron, dried fruits, and fresh butter.
I was pleased to find that Ms. Betsy had not one, but two eastern European Easter bread recipes spelled Paska in the Ukraine and Pashka (or Kulich) in Russia. As luck would have it, I had also found a Pashka bread recipe in the latest Easter issue of Gourmet magazine that was, of course, different from Ms. Betsy's recipe. Of course, Oppenneer anticipates this by saying that she often finds dozens or even hundreds of different recipes under the same traditional name. The problem is generally to find the recipe that most closely resembles your personal memory, especially if your Grammy didn't write this precious recipe down or your bakery source has gone out of business or moved its business to Orlando.
All of this is to warn you that even though a recipe you remember may be in this book, it may not be exactly the same as you remember from your childhood or from a trip to Prague or Marseilles or Casablanca. In spite of this warning, it seems to me that Ms. Oppenneer has done a real scholar's job of presenting a good take on a wide selection of the world's celebration breads. In the process, she has reminded us of how central bread is to many cultures' spiritual life. This alone, aside from nutritional questions, is enough for me to not give up my bread in all its varieties in the face of `low carbohydrate' diet doctrines. The best part of this book is that it does not limit itself to coverage of `Bread Central' running from Paris and Rome through Germany to Vienna and the Slavic lands in the Balkans and into the Ukraine and Russia to the Urals. There are interesting samples from northern Africa (Egypt and Morocco, of course), native America (and some European imports to the new world), the Middle East, Greece, Scandinavia, and a rather large contingent of breads from the British Isles, featuring the famous Irish soda bread, hot cross buns, and Shrovetide Pancakes. It should come as no surprise that there are no representatives from the Orient, as wheat, and therefore, bread, simply did not play a large part of their cuisine. I am just a little surprised that there are no samples from south Asia, as I know there are flatbreads common to Indian / Pakistani cuisines. No matter, as the author provides an excellent bibliography of books and that very new, very 21st century bibliography of Internet web sites.
All of these very good things would be of little value if the recipes and bread baking techniques in this MS were not up to snuff. Take my word for it. They are very up to snuff. The book does not give bread baking technique the great depth of treatment you may find in a volume by Peter Reinhart or in Rose Levy Beranbaum's `the bread bible', but I found the author's understanding of her subject and her skill with imparting that understanding to be as much or more lucid as these experts, who are dealing with the more difficult task of covering the entire world of bread, ingredients, and techniques. As far as she goes Ms. Oppenneer makes it all seem very, very easy, without skimping on any of the niceties. Her explanation of kneading and her rationale for that technique may be worth the price of admission for serious, amateur breadmakers.
As this is a book on specific breads and not on breadmaking in general, Ms. Oppenneer does not cover things like artisinal breads based on sponge, poolish, or biga. In fact none of these words appear in the index, even though I did find one recipe which used a sponge. One indication of this limited range is that Ms. Betsy gives four important steps to bread baking over four pages of text, while Beranbaum takes ten steps and about thirty pages to cover basic bread baking. This reinforces the fact that this book is not the only bread book you will need.
Aside from the interest in the subject of the book, the most interesting aspect of the book is that the author gives techniques based on up to four different types of equipment. These are your hands, a stand mixer, a food processor, and a bread machine. I never use a bread machine or a food processor to make bread so I cannot make any judgment on these techniques. I can say that the manual and stand mixer techniques are excellent, with many new twists on how to use this very versatile machine to make bread. Understandably, not every machine works with every type of bread. Next to manual techniques, the stand mixer is the most widely applicable method.
One somewhat disorienting position taken by the author is her not routinely blooming yeast before adding it to other ingredients. Just as I first learned to work with yeast by blooming active dry yeast in warm water and sugar, Ms Oppenneer says she first learned a simpler `standard' technique of simply suspending the active dry yeast in warm water. This is the method she uses in most recipes.
Highly recommended book for those who are looking for a traditional bread recipe. Also highly recommended for bread bakers in general. Especially good for novices, although few recipes are `easy'.