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Shirley O Corriher is one of the best known food scientists in the world. She's a frequent guest on "Good Eats," and is often consulted by professional chefs. Her first book, Cookwise: The Secrets of Cooking Revealed is one of my favorite cookbooks. Alton Brown said about this book "Finally, Moses has come down the mountain with another five commandments." With this history and pedigree, I expected great things from this book (and ordered it months ago). It would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone to live up to these expectations. Sadly, this book does not.
There are many things to like about this book. It is a very detailed book, and provides a lot of background about each recipe. It's well organized, with chapters devoted to Cakes, Puff Pastry, Pies, Cookies, and Breads. And it provides a lot of good information about baking: how to tell if a recipe will work, what purpose different ingredients serve, useful and novel techniques. However, this is not a very good book of recipes.
After getting this book, I plunged right in, making her recipe for "Blueberry and Cream Muffins." The recipe promised moist, delicious muffins. They were really delicious, but the texture was oily and gummy. I tried the recipe a second time, carefully measuring every item, checking my oven temperature with a thermometer, and made a second batch. The second batch was slightly better, but was still greasy and gummy. I was surprised; how could the queen of food science provide recipes that don't work? I sat down and started reading the book from the beginning. At last, I realized what was wrong.
This book reads more like a set of magazine articles, or a good blog, than a cookbook. You can't just pick a recipe out of the middle of this book and expect it to work. The recipes in this book are examples of different techniques (like the muffin recipe), not well-tested, authoritative recipes (like in The New Best Recipe: All-New Edition). Shirley gives you the formulas that make recipes successful (ratios of flour, eggs, fat, sugars, and liquids), then often pushes the boundaries of this formulas to show what happens. A good example of this are the pound cake recipes. On page 15 "So that you can see that changes that I made, I have included the original recipe for The Great American Pound Cake; but do not bake it." The problem with this warning is that you'd never see it if you just flipped to the recipe for "The Great American Pound Cake," and would end up with a sunken, soggy cake. If you buy this book, make sure to read the whole thing before you bake anything.
The problem with this approach is that she has produced a book of temperamental, difficult recipes. The recipes are very sensitive to ingredients, techniques, and equipment. (For example, I use organic grade AA pastured eggs, which contain much more fat and protein and lower moisture than the grade A supermarket eggs that she recommends.) The results can be interesting, but they may not produce something that you want to eat. An additional problem with this book is that it reflects Shirley's own taste in flavors and textures. As noted above, she likes the texture of oily baked goods (I do not).
One final problem with this book is that she appears to have developed the recipes based on volume measurements for flour, but later converted these to weights. There are multiple recipes that specify weird weights of flour (like 3.2 ounces), leading me to believe that the recipes were developed with volume measurements and later converted to weights. As many experienced bakers know, the same mass of flour can take up very different amounts of space depending on how much it is aerated. I believe that many recipes in this book do not actually contain the correct amounts of flour.
I would recommend this cookbook to the serious baker or food science buff, but not the beginning cook. A better food-science related cookbook for the beginner would be Alton Brown's baking book I'm Just Here for More Food: Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking.
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At the risk of hyperbole, I must say that this is an extraordinary cookbook. Because precision is more important to baking than any other type of cooking, many books will give you a fast-and-dirty introduction to the basics. Corriher's introduction is no exception to this rule, but her introduction is a very nuts-and-bolts one, with tips on how ovens work, and similar information. It's within the chapters that things get really interesting.
Bakewise is divided up into chapters on cakes, and cake-like baking (muffins, quickbreads, etc.) puff pastry, pies, cookies and breads. At the beginning of each chapter you have a section that gives you an overview of what you will learn by making the recipes contained in it. For example, the cake chapter will teach you: "How to create your own perfect cakes," "How to spot cakes that won't work and how to fix them," "How to make cakes, muffins and quick breads more moist," "Even if you have never baked, how to ice a cake as spotlessly smooth as glass and looking as if it came from an elegant professional baker," and more. Recipes are then broken down into types, such as "Favorites" or "Elegant cakes." Finally there are the recipes, and here Corriher really goes to town.
She leads off with a classic, or very basic recipe, one which we all know, and probably have tried to make in the past. She discusses it, the theories and techniques behind it, and may even show you the process by which the recipe has been perfected. At the head of the recipe is a box that tells you what the recipe will show you. For example, the pound cake recipe which leads off the cake chapter will show you how excess sugar and butter will make this cake moister than a traditional pound cake, and explain why it's important to blend the flavoring with the fat (Fat is a flavor carrier.) or why you must always be sure to mix well so that there won't be any holes in your cake.
Finally you get to the recipe, and they are precise down to the last pinch of salt. Many include recipes for icing or filling or variations. Some, such as "Shirley's Version of Pop Corriher's Applesauce Cake" are the focus of a lesson on things like fixing over-leavened recipes which can lead to cakes which fall and become heavy. She discusses leavening thoroughly, how to read a label to find out what's in your leavener, how to make your own, and finally shows you how she fixed her father's cake recipe to ensure perfect results. She anticipates problems that can and will arise during baking, gives examples of recipes which could create those problems, shows how she fixed the recipes, and gives the reader a very good working knowledge which can then be applied to recipes from other sources.
You're getting an education with this book, not just a collection of recipes. Armed with what you learn from Corriher's recipes, you can go confidently to other sources, and be sure that you have the ability to create wonderful baked goods, no matter what. You can probably even create your own recipes after working with this book. Really, if you're at all serious about your baking, I cannot recommend a better book on it.