Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor (reviewed December 2007)

Brother Juniper's Bread Book: Slow Rise as Method and Metaphor, Peter Reinhart (1991, revised edition 2005)[****+]. Julie and I have been bread bakers pretty much since we have been adults with a kitchen of our own, and my dad and her mom were bread bakers before us. I grew up thinking it was normal to come home from school to the smell of Swedish Limpa filling the house. My kids have terrible eating habits in many regards, but one thing I can say for all those know-it-all-new-parent food ideals I once held ("MY kids will love veggies and eschew sugar" Ha!) is that they know from good bread. And this book has been at the heart of Julie's and my bread baking life for years. At the time he first wrote it, Peter Reinhart was a brother in a semi-monastic community of Eastern Orthodox Christians in California who in the sixties opened Brother Juniper's Restaurant, serving inexpensive sandwiches and coffee to street people and hippies. A number of years later, Reinhart and his wife, Susan, opened Brother Juniper's Bakery, and this book is basically their bread list, with some essays on bread and bread baking, and in particular the multiple slow rise method, as life metaphor/"sacramental magic." The essays say things that resonate a lot for me and my experience of bread making, but for the essays alone, I would give this book at most three stars; they are not particularly well-written, and everything he says has been said better by others, in particular by Kathleen Norris (my all-time favorite Christian writer) in her essay "The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and 'Women's Work.'" But such insights are nonetheless very welcome in combination with two other things I just love about this book: 1) if you know very little about bread baking, you will learn all the fundamentals here, without feeling like an idiot; and 2) the recipes! oh the recipes! Over the years, Julie and I have baked our way through this book; the recipes are pretty simple, and we almost never miss. Lately I've been baking whole-wheat French bread, and though my crust doesn't yet crackle the way Reinhart says it should, it's getting there. And sometimes, as Reinhart says, "Only White Bread Will Do." There *is* some magic in mixing white flour, water, salt and yeast and getting a piece of toast with butter at the end that is so perfectly satisfying. Cajun Three-Pepper Bread (with cayenne, black pepper, parsley, garlic, sweet red pepper, and Louisiana hot sauce!) has become the centerpiece of our Thanksgiving for years. A turkey, in our mind, is really just a vehicle for Cajun Poultry Stuffing (recipe provided), and there is now a whole ritual in our family, involving a trip to the Mexican butcher on the Italian Market, who says, when we ask for chorizo, "Tell me you're putting it in the stuffing!" Yes indeed. Be warned that the cornbread, with sugar and whole corn kernels, will spoil all other corn breads for you. Each spring, the night before the AP exam, Julie bakes up batches of muffins -- blueberry, cranberry, poppy-seed, carrot cake -- for her students taking the test; I don't particularly like muffins, but these really are unrivaled. I recently tried the four-seed snack crackers, which were a surprising hit, given how healthy they are! And then there is Straun, a multi-grain harvest bread from western Scotland that was traditionally baked for Michaelmas; this traditional bread had basically died until Reinhart revived it, and this is his signature bread. It has polenta, oats, wheat bran, and brown rice, brown sugar, honey and buttermilk, and is topped with poppy seeds. It is beautiful, and delicious, and healthy: basically, all things good in a loaf of bread/the staff of life (I guess this review could be subtitled: Why I'll Never Be an Atkins Devotee.)

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