I consider myself an avid home baker. I like to bake breads, cakes and other desserts. Recently, I developed a desire to venture beyond the comforts of Brioche, Challah and basic white bread. I wanted to learn exactly what the title suggests: the fundamental techniques of classic bread baking. I also wanted to explore the breads of France, Italy and beyond in greater detail.
Buying this book and using it to teach yourself the FCI way of baking bread means that you will probably need to update some of your kitchen equipment. For me, I ended up buying a better digital scale, a couche, a dough rising bucket, a baker's peel, a better baking stone, some higher quality IDY yeast, and a several types of flour beyond "bleached all purpose" and "bread" flour. I still want to eventually get a pain de mie (pullman) pan, a La Cloche and other specialty baking items.
Armed with new ingredients and baking implements, I read the first several chapters on prep and theory. While I won't be using the Baker's Percentage any time soon in my home baking, this book did its best to introduce the concept (although I like Rose Levy Beranbaum's "dough percentage" concept better). After digesting all of the theory and technique discussions, I was eager to start baking bread. For full disclosure, I have a standard electric oven which goes up to 500F. I also have a 5 quart stand mixer. Aside from that and the basic equipment outlined in this book, I don't have any special commercial grade equipment.
My first gripe with the book is the usage of fresh yeast which is pretty much inaccessible to the average home baker. However, armed with a calculator and loads of conflicting advice, I read my yeast manufacturer's label and made my own "fresh to IDY" conversion multiplier which ended up being fairly close to the recommended conversion factor in this book. My other complaint stems from me being mostly used to volumetric measuring. How many eggs does it take to get 165 grams? Does the measure include the egg shell or is the book referring to the cracked egg? Those types of questions are not answered in this book, and you will have to use trial and error to find your own way. As an Engineer, I do love the precise measurements though.
Right off the bat, I decided to make Ciabatta. I previously attempted to make my own Ciabatta using the Bread Bible book as well as one of the King Arthur recipes. Both of those were "average" - but the Ciabatta I made using the FCI recipe was memorable. The directions are fairly specific and I was able to achieve some large irregular holes in the crumb on the first try. (This requires careful handling) My only complaint with this recipe is the guidance to make 4 loaves - I think two larger loaves might be better! But that's what bread baking is all about - learning the fundamental techniques and improvising.
The next bread I tried was the Brioche - except instead of making it in a brioche pan (or smaller disposable cups), I made it in 9x5 bread pans as demonstrated in the book. The FCI recipe is a bit confusing in that all of the pictures show 2 loaves but the recipe specifies three. I made three loaves, but this would have made fuller and taller loaves with just two pans as the pictures demonstrated. Again, I chalk this up to learning. I think my 325 watt stand mixer almost overloaded on this recipe - it is fairly stiff prior to adding the pounded butter. The result was again memorable. I think my neighbors are starting to appreciate my dabbling in bread making!
Next - I tried the baguette demonstration (the one with the levain). Again, my baguette pan holds three but this recipe makes 4. I made the recipe as specified. My baguettes came out just fine - but an overall theme I am finding is that it is nearly impossible to get the kind of crust I want using an electric oven. Even with the baking stone, I don't feel that the electric oven gets hot enough or maintains a consistent heat level. Using the ice cube steam method, I am also forced to put the steam pan on a rack versus the oven floor. All of these factors conspire against me to make a ho-hum crust. Even so, my neighbors were not complaining about me showing up with freshly baked baguettes.
Now that I have some semolina and durum flour, I am interested in trying some of the semolina based demonstrations. My wife wants me to make the fougasse aux olives next, but she is also reconsidering my newly acquired love of bread baking due to the enormous amount of time I am spending in the kitchen (plus the money spent on supplies)!
In summary, I am happy with this book. The photographs are generous and useful in most cases. I still turn to my other books for bits of missing guidance from time to time (example: I find some of the shaping instructions difficult to follow), but this does seem to be a fairly complete reference and teaching aid. My only gripe with this book is that it is rather impersonal. There are no words of encouragement and no warnings that might pertain to the average home baker. Just instruction. (Example: something like "the dough will be very wet at this point" would help the novice baker.)
My goal is to bake every bread in this book at least once, and I feel that doing so will definitely make me a better baker. I again warn the casual bread baker that buying this book will put you into more of an "in for a penny in for a pound" type situation...you will definitely start buying all sorts of ingredients, pans and baking instruments once you get this book. I really look forward to finishing the course outlined in this book!
2/21/12 update: I made Pane Siciliano Semolina this weekend - aside from a slightly cracked crust and the color not being as deep and vivid as the FCI photo - it came out really nice. The taste was fabulous. I'll definitely be making that bread again!