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I still remember the first time I saw someone make bread. I had spent the night at Nana's and woke up in the morning to find her in the kitchen putting loaves of homemade bread into the oven. The was a big bowl full of puffy dough on the little shelf behind the stove. Quick as a wink, she turned that into my then-favorite thing in all of the world: her Kuchen. Three kinds - streusel, apple and peach! I was about three I think. I started turning out my own bread around the age of 10, simple things mostly - cornbread from the 4H recipe, Moravian Sugar Cake (such fun to poke the holes and fill them with brown sugar) and the Cranberry Bread for Thanksgiving - and I've been baking bread ever since. There is no easier & faster way to trim your grocery bill than to make your own bread.
Along the way I've also been collecting cookbooks - I now own something on the order of 400 or so, many going back 100 years or so. Quite some few of those are collections of bread recipes from names you know like James Beard and Peter Reinhart and people you've never heard of. Most of them line the walls in my living room and kitchen. Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World is my latest addition and in an instant it has won my heart. Certainly it would have a prominent place in my All Time Favorite Cookbooks list - probably in the Top Five. And if I could own just one bread book, this would have to be the one!
Some while back Peter Reinhart taught me to bake bagels (finally!) from his The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. Not a week goes by that I don't produce at least one batch. I've made all of Peter's variations and then invented a few of my own using a locally grown whole wheat flour. ) So, I practically jumped out of my chair when I saw that Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World contained an authentic recipe for Onion Rye bagels, one of my long time favorites but almost impossible to find. I made those the very afternoon the book arrived, even though my freezer is full. The entire neighborhood feasted! Next up - George's recipe for rye sourdough starter and some authentic Jewish Rye bread.
I've been making a Jewish Sourdough Rye for a couple of decades now using my wheat flour sourdough starter - and it is lovely. George's rye sourdough starter was a revelation though - easy as the dickens to start with great rise and odor. I just took a batch of bread out of the oven made according to the recipe from Secrets of a Jewish Baker and it is stunningly good. (Yes, I sure will make it again!) And there are at least two dozen more recipes I'm going to try, but I'm out of rye flour and need a few other things.
George Greenstein comes from a family tradition of baking and has spent decades of his life as a master baker. He gives excellent recipes for all of your favorite breads, including some unusual breads that good recipes for are nearly impossible to find and a few you've never heard of, recipes that appear nowhere else in all of my collection.
I've been a bit surprised to see a couple of criticisms - first that there are no pictures and secondly that the book (horrors!) uses the common volumetric measures found in every household in America. To those who complain about lack of pictures, let me just say that virtually none of the classics that have withstood the test of time have much in the way of pictures other than a line drawing or two to explain how to cut up a chicken or roll out puff pastry. Pictures add greatly to the cost of a book without adding a whole lot in the way of explanation.
More important is this horribly mistaken idea that good bread can only - MUST only - be made by weighing the ingredients with extreme accuracy. Nothing could be further from the truth. I happen to be a medical scientist. Back when I was at university I had a chemistry professor who would wail, rail and cringe every time one of us mentioned microbiology, calling it "witchcraft" rather than "science". Chemistry is extremely accurate. Microbiology is art & instinct. Working with yeast is microbiology. When you are working in a professional bakery, turning out 200 loaves of the same bread in a single batch that starts with two 100 pound bags of flour, then obviously weighing the other ingredients is the way to go. This is not true in the small batch home kitchen.
Bread baking is quite similar to making fine wine. It all starts with the wheat. Every bag of flour that you buy is different - even bags of the same brand. Flour varies from year to year, season to season. It is affected by rain and sun, where it was grown, how it was milled, how it was stored, how old it is and much, much more. Even the humidity in your kitchen can change the properties of the flour you are using. What absorbs 1 cup of water today might need an extra two tablespoons tomorrow. Today your bread might cook in 25 minutes even though it took 30 minutes day before yesterday. Judging how much is enough is about touch and smell and appearance, not weights on a scale. Anybody who tells you that you need a digital scale to bake good bread isn't much of a baker. George Greenstein won't tell you that. He will, however, help you learn to judge for yourself.
Secrets of a Jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World includes several features that are worth their weight in gold, things I have seen nowhere else. George has taken the time to give instructions for each recipe for mixing by hand, mixing in a large food processor or using a heavy duty stand mixer. He has been careful to give alternate ingredients where appropriate - changes to make a recipe kosher for a non-dairy meal, substitutions for first clear flour (very hard to find!) and so on. He tells us about various kinds of yeast, but gives amounts in both packets and tablespoons. (I haven't bought a packet of yeast in 30 years or so, but they are convenient if you are just starting.) The book is full of tips about freezing your baked goods & keeping biscuits on hand to slice & bake as needed. George includes an entire section outlining the process of turning out a half dozen loaves of bread and a couple dozen rolls/muffins in a single morning, as well as his recipe for a bread glaze that turns out the prettiest loaves I have ever made.
If I have one single quibble it would be this: I have no idea where George got his Baking Powder Biscuit recipe, but it is the single leanest biscuit that I have ever seen, what we used to call poverty biscuit when I was a military wife, the kind of biscuit you whisper shortening over and call it good. Nowhere in all of my cookbooks can I find a single biscuit recipe that calls for only a single tablespoon of shortening. Trust me, use George's variation for "rich biscuits" when you want biscuits and if you really want rich biscuits, double the shortening called for in that.