Like me, my sister has a bit of a thing for cookbooks. Unlike me, she used to work for a company that published them, allowing her to indulge her habit at little to no cost. Between her own purchases and the old office freebie bin, she’s developed quite a collection, and I love browsing through it when I’m at her place. The book up for review today, The New Family Bread Book, is one that I frequently remove from its place on her kitchen shelf for my perusing pleasure. When she lent it to me for a review, I couldn’t wait to do some actual baking from it.
I know. You’re probably thinking “that’s it?” While fun to flip through, The New Family Bread Book is hardly a looker. No, I don’t have anything against cute kids enjoying some home-baked goodness, but it’s a little, as I’m sure you’ll agree, meh. Inside, it’s pretty much the same story: ok photos, all right layout, but nothing special. It’s a prime example of safe, mainstream cookbook design- inoffensive yet unexciting.
The author, Ursula Ferrigno, is an acclaimed Italian baker and cooking teacher, and she clearly knows her yeast. The first section of the book is dedicated to the basics of ingredients and techniques. It’s here we learn about the different kinds of flour used for bread-making, and what choosing one over another will mean for our breads. She also explains in detail about the different kinds of leavens, including fresh yeast, easy-blend (instant) yeast, starters and chemical leavens. And of course we learn all about kneading, rising, knocking back and shaping loaves.
The first five chapters of recipes are dedicated to Classic Breads, Rolls and Buns, Pizzas and Flatbreads, Savory Breads, and Sweet Breads. The selection within the chapters seems slightly random, if I’m honest. In Classic Breads, there is Tomato and Basil Fougasse (pg. 43), but no Baguette? And do Chocolate Brioche (pg. 51) really belong here? Wouldn’t they fit better in with Rolls and Buns, or maybe Sweet Breads?
Maybe I’m just being overly picky- there are some great-looking recipes here, after all. Classic standbys like Cheese and Onion Rolls (pg. 56) and Hot Cross Buns (pg. 66) sit comfortably next to new ideas like Curry Bread (pg. 116) and Saffron and Raisin Breadsticks (pg. 133).
Also, I have few qualms with any of the recipes I’ve tried from this book. Simple Focaccia (pg. 36) was indeed simple and fast to make, with a light crumb and great flavour. I adapted the Quick-rise Pizza Dough (pg. 76) for a stromboli, and while I needed at least twice the amount of water specified, the resulting dough was easy to handle and delicious. Though I accidently burnt the top of my Treacle and Date Bread (pg. 125) through my own negligence, it was still one of the most delicious breads I’ve ever tasted, let alone made.
Where I think this book begins to let itself down is in the last two chapters, Yeast-free Breads and Pies, Tarts and Leftovers. To be honest, I’m not really sure what the point of including them was. Yes, I’ll concede that some of the recipes here, like Griddled Flatbread (pg. 161) and Irish Soda Bread (pg. 164) do seem to make sense in the context of the book. But do Corn and Carrot Muffins (pg. 159) or Savory Spinach Pie (pg. 173) really belong in a book about bread baking? Or, for that matter, does a recipe for Tuscan Tomato Soup (pg. 184)?
I’m not so sure. Pastry, quickbreads and savory pies are all perfectly deserving areas of baking, but they’re separate from the specifics of baking with yeast, so shouldn’t they be treated as such? To just throw a simple scone recipe into a book about bread-baking, is to my mind, in insult to both scones and bread. Both deserve more. I think The New Family Bread Book falls into the trap of trying to be all things to all people, instead of focusing on doing one thing well.
As a beginner’s guide to bread-baking, I would like to give this book a good rating for its demystifying explanations, clear instructions and some lovely recipes. But for aiming a touch too far beyond its reach, and for a depressingly pedestrian design, I have to give The New Family Bread Book only three stars. I am sure that there are better guides to bread-baking out there, and I’m definitely on the lookout. This one, though, will be going back to my sister.