Disclaimer: I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher, Countryman Press, but the opinions are my own!
As you know, if you’ve read my blog for any length of time, I am an avid cookbook collector. I love what I get to do here with my blog, as I thoroughly enjoy being surrounded by cookbooks. The pictures, the varied writing styles, the pictures — oh, and the recipes! I could literally read them instead of anything else and typically have a stack sitting on some counter, waiting for me to dive in. (And that typically means I start adding to the grocery list, which thrills my husband, the grocery shopper, but he has learned to appreciate that as it means good eats!)
The top of my pile this last couple of weeks was King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook, by King Arthur Flour and published by the Countryman Press. If you are a baker, this is a must-have addition to your collection of cookbooks, and if you aren’t, this book will inspire you to try.
This particular copy I received is the ten-year anniversary edition, newly out in paperback. I was very excited to learn that it is the winner of the James Beard Foundation’s Kitchenaid Cookbook of the Year, and one of Food & Wine Magazine’s 10 Best Cookbooks of the year, too, though I am not surprised at all. King Arthur Flour has a history of excellent recipes and books and this one is no exception. It also came with a long list of good reviews from big name organizations; this one, by the St. Petersburg Times, says it all: “This book is a must for any home baker.” (And Alton Brown’s positive review is enough alone to sell me on it!)
King Arthur Flour has “more than 200 years of baking wisdom” and it shows in this book. (And their website, kingarthurflour.com, which receives more than eight-million hits each month, is equally impressive. It has been a go-to site for me for some time, on my quest to find the homemade version of grain-based items that used to be on our shopping list and now I make from scratch — with a little help from King Arthur flour!) A dream field trip of mine would be to visit their new campus in Norwich, Vermont. If you’ve visited, I’d love to hear about it!
At first glance, the cookbook drew me in with its long table of contents full of family-friendly categories. The TOC is a bit different in that it breaks it down into categories, not individual recipes, so you need to page through the best-fitting section as opposed to a specific page; however, the index in the back is extensive and if you know what you have in mind, you can easily find it. I couldn’t initially decide what to bake, and the cobblers had my mouth watering. I can now say I know what clafouti is! The book has a lot of explanatory paragraphs that cover the basics on what an item is, what to do, and what not to do. In the case of bread, for example, the “Help! My bread …” section answered a few questions for me on kneading and how to avoid making a bread that is too dense or crumbly. (I love good cornbread, but not when it falls apart all over my lap on the way to my mouth!)
Choosing what to make first was tough. I am already an indecisive person when it comes to food. Ask anyone who has gone to a restaurant with me. “Stop rushing me, I’ll choose in a second..if you’ll stop talking and distracting me!” Two minutes later. “Yes, almost, hang on.” Two minutes later I hear, “D, the waitress is on her way. If we don’t snag her now, it’ll be another 10 minutes before she returns.” Sigh. “Okay, I’m ready.” When the waitress gets to me, “No, I’m last, come back to me after everyone else.” So suffice it to say that when there’s more than five things on the menu, I will delay ordering because I can’t choose. Then if it’s a really good place with a huge menu of good things? Order a drink and an appetizer and settle in for the long haul.
Same thing happened when I opened this cookbook. Then when I got to the picture section in the middle? (Individual recipes don’t have photos; the photos are all in the middle, on full-pages in color. The sponge cake and sugar cookie photos made me instantly re-think my choice, too, so I had to stop looking or I’d still be deciding.) I finally made myself a hot cup of Celestial Seasonings Sugar Plum tea, a leftover from the holidays, with a dose of honey, and pondered. Then it hit me. St. Patrick’s day is almost here. Yes, the book includes a recipe for Irish Soda bread. We make it every year for the holiday, and over the years, I’ve been seeking out “the perfect Irish Soda Bread.” Hadn’t found it yet..until I made King Arthur Flour’s version. Maybe we’re just picky, or maybe I’ve done it wrong before, but I don’t like dry Irish Soda Bread. It needs to hold together and be moist, without having to slather on any honey-butter spread, or any other abomination to the true Irish Soda Bread tradition, not an easy feat in our experience.
I told the fam what I was making, and got a hearty round of cheers from the peanut gallery as I started assembling my equipment and ingredients.
I meant business and pulled out the big bowl for sifting my dry ingredients together. (Well, that and the fact that I’d had to pack most of my other bowls…)
Last year, I had people over and was bummed I’d not thought ahead to have the proper celebratory pan. This year, I bought it in advance, so while the shape isn’t traditional, I took a little leeway and got creative to make the day just that much more festive.
A little while later, I had this! Look at that gorgeous golden color!
You don’t get much more festive than that! (Thank you, Wilton, for making such neat pans! I have almost as many as I do cookbooks!)
I am ashamed to admit that the photo I took of the bread after we sliced into it got deleted in error. My apologies, I served the bread with a fantastic shepherd’s pie. (I can’t eat red meat so we didn’t do the uber-traditional corned beef.) The bread was so good! Moist, held together when we lifted it and was edible completely unadorned.
I do need to admit that I left out the raisins, though one of the kids was unhappy with that. (“Mom, you need to put them in next time, at least in, like, half?” Yeah, okay. Not.) I also omitted the caraway seeds. I have a longstanding issue with those little things.
The recipe was easy to follow and resulted in a very flavorful bread that everyone enjoyed. In fact, we ate it for a few days after, slicing and toasting to cover with honey or jam (homemade, of course) and just as a side to the next couple of meals. It made a lot, which is good as right now, I’m struggling to find time to make full three-course meals, and this bread saved me for a few days.
Next up, I’d love to make the spicy cheese puffs. (Loved the “if the choux fits..” phrase! I like books that have a sense of humor and are approachable to anyone. This book is by no means intimidating, even as big as it is. I need to buy one for my 24-year-old daughter next!) There are a lot of things I plan on making, but I’m coming to the wire right now and ate my <early> lunch today in a chip bowl. Desperate times and all. (I’m up at 6:30 normally, but lately, this “oh my gosh, I’m moving in a week” insomnia is killing me.)
If you’re looking for a book to help you with the basics of baking, teach you some new tricks and add recipes to your family’s repertoire of menus, this one fits the bill. Nothing in the book is too hard or calls for ingredients that you’ll be unable to find, two requirements I have for books that I recommend to others. Cookbooks need to make me feel empowered; if they are going to contain recipes that have a bit of a learning curve, they need to provide the knowledge to help me get ahead of that curve and leave me better off than I was. King Arthur’s got a reputation that precedes this book and you know when you purchase it, you’re getting years of experience and solid, reliable help in its 620 pages.
King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion: The All-Purpose Baking Cookbook by King Arthur Flour, published by the Countryman Press
Bake and enjoy!
(And in case you missed it at the top, I was generously provided a copy of this book by the Countryman Press, but all opinions are my own!)