This volume, subtitled the 'All Purpose Baking Cookbook' perfectly fits the criteria I typically apply to a book in order to decide if I want to give it five stars. A book gets three stars if it meets my expectations. A book gets four stars if it meets my expectations in a very successful way. Typically, that means that it has few or no detected mistakes. A book gets five stars if it exceeds my expectations. This book certainly exceeded my expectations.
What I anticipated when I opened this book was a dry, technical work steeped in discussions of the effects of gluten and altitude and humidity on bread making, similar to some of the more detailed parts of better books on bread baking. All of these discussions are here, plus others on the finer points of measuring flour and types of flour, but with a difference.
The biggest surprise in the book was the light, personal touch of the writing. It all has the tone you may expect in a very good book on regional cooking. And, lo and behold, there is a hint of regionality and local tradition in the selection of materials in the book. In spite of the fact that King Arthur products are available throughout the country (unlike White Lily, for example), the book retains a very New England tone to it's selection of recipes. One prominent example is in the recipe for biscuits, where it advises all experienced Southern biscuit makers to simply skip that page, as since 'we don't want to shock you with the way we make biscuits up north'.
That doesn't mean the book does not touch on every subject you may expect it to cover. As I said in my opening paragraph, it easily covers much more than what I expected. The very first chapter dealing with breakfast foods covers material not commonly covered in conventional baking surveys. Pancakes, waffles, crepes, French toast and their allies are not covered in either of my favorite general baking books (Julia Child's 'Baking With Julia' and Nick Malgieri's 'How to Bake'). If that were not enough, it presents recipes in such a way that you can prepare baking mixtures ahead to much the same effect as if you were laying in a supply of Bisquik. One of the secrets is in the use of dried buttermilk. I have seen this product in my local megamart, but have not until now had a clue as to how to use it.
The homey, comfortable feeling of the book extends to even that most difficult subject of breads made with wild yeasts (Sourdough, Pain au Levain). The book does not cover every different type of artisinal bread you may find in such books as Carol Field's 'The Italian Baker' for instance, and it does not cover such important French specialties as brioche as deeply as Rose Levy Beranbaum's 'The Bread Bible', but it does cover them, and so much else as well. Another contributor to the warm feel of the book is the layout. Pages are airy with well positioned sidebars, titles, and tables. Technical information is always at the same place, accessible, but unobstrusive to the browser.
In the long run, the greatest value of the book is in it's encyclopediac coverage of just about every kind of baking you can do, extending the definition of baking to things outside the oven to include the griddle (pancakes, crepes, etc) and the deep fryer (doughnuts, beignets, etc). In fact, just about the only product made with wheat flour which this book does not cover is pasta, although it comes very close in it's chapter on dumplings.
The more technical aspects of the book are quite up to snuff in spite of the warmth of the presentation. Where appropriate, all measurements are given by both weight and volume. The importance of measuring by weight is also discussed in detail at the beginning of the book. The book also includes a nutritional analysis of each and every recipe, giving portion size, calories, fat, protein, complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, sodium, potassium, vitamin A, iron, calcium, and phosphorus. I'm impressed. I confess that it is slightly easier for this book to provide this as they can make the very safe assumption that it is their brand of flour which is being used.
The sixty pages on ingredients at the end of the book are easily worth the price of admission all by itself. It is no surprise that it gives a deep discussion of wheat and flour. What is surprising is that it also gives fairly detailed discussions of other products used in baking such as milk products, eggs, fats, sugars, fat substitutes, and sugar substitutes.
The very nice section on baking tools is an equally valuable resource. In one page the book gives you everything you may see in a much larger three page article in 'Cooks Illustrated'. I am really amazed at the value you get for a list price of $35 for this book. Just consider a comparison to an Ina Garten book 1/3 as long with much less authoritative information for the same price. Amazing.
I am not at all surprised to see an endorsing blurb on the back cover from Alton Brown. I strongly suspect that he will be cribbing material from this book for one or more 'Good Eats' shows, if he has not already. The only thing I find missing in the whole book is a decent bibliography. This type of encyclopedic reference really deserves one.
This will easily be my new 'go to' book for baking. I will not give up the recipes I have come to love from other sources and I will probably still consult other sources for artisnal bread recipes, but I will definitely come to this book first for any new baking task I have in mind. I will not expect every single recipe to be perfect, but I will consider everything I find here with respect. Very highly recommended.