The Simple Art of Perfect Baking
by Flo Braker
Published by Chronicle Books
416 pages, 2004
Reviewed by Adrian Marks
My hand has always been steadier for savories than for sweets. I've mostly attributed this personal lack to the very different nature of the these beasts. To make a wonderful soup -- or stew or sauce -- one can start with some of this, throw in a little of that and, if that didn't work out quite right, correct it all with seasoning or other additions at the end. Most savory dishes are very forgiving that way.
Baking is different. For one thing, there is an element of science involved. Never mind a little of this and a little of that, every addition must be carefully measured and thought through. In a soup, a variance of flavor can just mean another layer of delight. In a cake, it can mean the difference between sweet success and bitter failure.
If you take all of this as read, it stands to reason that the books you choose to guide you will play as great a part in your failure and success as your strict adherence to the correct flour and the proper amount of salt. And there are many books on this topic: some of them very good. But few demystify with the fierceness of San Francisco Chronicle baking columnist Flo Braker's latest tome, The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. Imagine a book so thorough, it even uses the word endosperm (in an explanation of how pastry comes to be pastry) yet breaks everything down into components so easy to understand, you actually come away from the book knowing what she's talking about.
Even the title of Braker's book is encouraging: The Simple Art of Perfect Baking. Anyone who has had many of their cakes turn out edible-but-barely so, as I have, will appreciate the sentiment. It's echoed also in Braker's introduction:
My book is designed to take the fear and unpredictability out of baking, to give you continually successful results in your own home. ... Decorations can disguise an imperfectly shaped cake, but they won't change a bad flavor or texture.
Boy, has she got my number!
Though cakes are the most richly covered (please forgive the pun) in The Simple Art of Perfect Baking, they are only one component. Braker begins by discussing the "secrets" of perfect baking, with thoughts on equipment (and it really does all seem to be here). The section of the book devoted to cakes is really the most complete I've ever seen. The cakes are organized by type and each type is well represented. For instance, 16 types of butter cake are included, plus variations on several of them. Likewise, 23 recipes for various types of génoise cakes are included, 19 different sponge cakes, plus various angel food cakes, dacquoise and even a chiffon cake for good measure.
With the cakes themselves out of the way, Braker devotes an entire section to cake finishes: various fillings, frostings, glazes and toppings show up here, as well as a very good section on working with chocolate and another on working with sugar.
With cakes well and truly dealt with, Braker moves us on to pastries. Though this section of The Simple Art of Perfect Baking is much shorter than those dealing with cakes, it is nonetheless very comprehensive. We get a good, solid foundation in pastry making, and then get taken through basic pies and galettes, then on to tarts and, finally, the queens of pastries: puff pastry and cream puff pastry.
Braker's previous book, Sweet Miniatures, won the IACP Cookbook Award in the best single subject cookbook category. With its back-to-basics sensibility combined with new tech awareness and some really great recipes, I wouldn't be surprised if The Simple Art of Perfect Baking followed its predecessor to the IACPs. | March 2004
Adrian Marks is a January Magazine contributing editor.