When I removed this book from the wrapper, the open spine and black pages first appeared to be thick cardboard, like a child’s board book. Once I flipped the pages through my fingers they separated, revealing a striking layout and photography: The loaves on the pages look real enough to eat and inspiring enough to bake.
This is not a book that will teach the fundamentals of baking bread through written instruction. (In the introduction, there are more pages devoted to the author’s story than there are to the grains and flours that go into the art.) It is a book of streamlined bread recipes and techniques that allow the home cook to produce artisan breads with a minimum of equipment and know how. Even so, I noted that I'd need to hunt for some ingredients, be a little creative with equipment, and do some planning ahead.
Scattered throughout the book are information windows describing special processes and techniques, like the authors’ thoughts on tasting bread (he compares it to wine). There are dozens of recipes for breads of various grains, some including add ins, as well as yeasted rolls and a few quick breads.
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The first recipe presented is called A Simple Loaf. Although it was expected to be a good beginner loaf, I had to mail order for the light rye flour and instant yeast that are called for. Awaiting their arrival, I jumped ahead to the Bourbon Bread, for which I had the required flours. I tried the first batch with quick rise yeast and plain water—and the loaves were like Styrofoam. I tried my second loaf with filtered water and got slightly better results. Baking those first experimental loaves is where I began to realize that each ingredient—and the environment the starter is kept in—all contribute to the success of the bread.
By the third batch of Bourbon Bread I felt more comfortable handling the dough, and with all the right ingredients, everything went perfectly. Sliding the loaves onto a baking stone in a 500° F oven and pouring ice into the hot pan beneath creates a quick bit of steamy kitchen theater. Pulling the loaves from the oven is no less dramatic, as the golden brown crust crackles audibly in the cooler room's air, forming a case that seals the crumb inside where flavor continues to develop for several more hours. The loaves felt heavy in my hand; the crust was a beautiful golden color. The bread was slightly sweet and the bourbon added a warm caramel note, fantastic warm with a little salted butter. The Simple Loaf uses a different baking technique but came out just as well, with just a hint of rye. By this point I'd learned: The real emphasis of this book is on the ingredients; not just good flour, yeast, and water, but also time and heat.
While active work time is minimal, it is necessary to plan your baking quite a bit in advance. The starters are set up to develop for an average of 10 to 24 hours, then the dough is worked at intervals over a couple of hours during which time you are a slave to the timer. Then the loaves rest. After baking on the second morning, the loaves rest for an average of 8 to 24 more hours before the flavors have peaked and the breads are best to eat. A lot of these recipes require the space of a weekend to produce.
Along the way, I found a few issues, though: Some of the page numbers in the techniques section are cut off and after just a month of use, the layers of the front cover are beginning to separate. And while specialized equipment wasn’t supposed to be necessary, in a few cases it was: As an average home cook, I didn’t happen to have a baking peel hanging around the house. (I improvised with the flat edge of a baking sheet.) And the technique section might have been less awkward to use if it had been incorporated into the first recipe, or earlier in the book. If you're unfamiliar with the formula that most of these breads follow, you're meant to page back and forth as you cook from your recipe.
Both the Simple Loaf and the Bourbon Bread will be making repeat appearances on our table, though, and there are several others I can’t wait to try. I’m disappointed that I haven’t been able to try my hand at the 30- or 60-hour sourdoughs just yet. But from my previous trials and errors, I know that waiting for organic grapes to come into season to make the 20-day starter they require will be worth it.
The real learning comes with the hands-on practice. While baking good bread might be simple, simple is not always easy—ease comes with learning through practice. The author tells us that “bein cuit” is French for “well baked.” I wonder how the French say “there go my weekends.”
What our other testers had to say:
You can’t hurry love. And you can’t hurry bread if you know what’s “bien cuit”... Ahhh, the seduction of Golper’s cookbook. Bien Cuit: The Art of Bread... For those madly and deeply committed to bread-baking, Bien Cuit will surely satisfy with its lively storytelling, inventive recipes, step-by-step instruction and photography worthy of placement on the coffee table.
Bien Cuit was a lot of work. But it was totally worth it. It took advance planning and several trips to my local fancy-pants grocery store but it was, without a doubt, worth it. These breads are better than any I have ever made at home. They are gorgeous, with dark, seductive crusts and a crumb that is more flavorful than I thought I would be able to produce. As I said at the beginning, it is not for dabblers and those without the free time that is required to create these beautiful loaves. But if you’re ready to make the jump from ranked amateur to semi-professional, you won’t have a better guide.
Have you cooked from Bien Cuit? What did you think?
The Piglet—inspired by The Morning News' Tournament of Books—is where the 16 most notable cookbooks of the year face off in a NCAA-style bracketed tournament. Watch the action and weigh in on the results!