Books, unlike racehorses and actors, can share the same name. Thus I own two cookbooks entitled Eat Your Vegetables, several books with the generic title Cookies, and the two cookbooks of this post: The Bread Bible, one by Rose Levy Beranbaum, one by Beth Hensperger. Beth Hensperger’s book came out first, in 1999. This did not stop Rose from also using the title in 2003, but by then Rose had also published The Cake Bible and The Pie and Pastry Bible, so The Bread Bible was the logical next step.
Beth Hensperger has numerous cookbooks to her name: many bread cookbooks, appliance oriented cookbooks, and cookbooks on other topics. Beth is self taught. She has worked in restaurants and bakeries, but her true milieu is the home kitchen, and what she likes to do there is bake bread. In The Bread Bible: 300 Favorite Recipes, Beth gives us recipe after recipe for anything that could be labelled “bread”: yeast breads, quick breads, gingerbreads, pancakes, and muffins. I think she that classifies too many baked goods as “bread”; in a bread book, as opposed to a baking book, I would like a tighter focus. The final two chapters on food processor breads and bread machine breads seem a bit pointless; comments in specific recipes on how to adapt to the food processor or bread machine would be more useful. Continuing my list of complaints, Beth presents no overall approach or philosophy concerning bread; this book is just a compilation of one recipe after the other. The good news, though, is that these recipes are good recipes: Beth’s instructions are easy to follow and her breads always taste good.
Adding vanilla to challah is one of those proprietary techniques that a few challah bakers (such as our friend Talya J) keep up their sleeve. “Sweet Vanilla Challah” (page 66), one of two challah recipes in The Bread Bible, is Beth Hensperger’s version. The vanilla makes this bread taste sweeter than it would taste with the same amount of sugar and no vanilla. Danny referred to this challah as “cake” challah, although it had no more sugar than my standard recipe. He ate lots of this challah when it appeared on our table one Friday night, but then decided that he did not like it. I thought that this bread was quite good, but then I like a sweet challah. I made a certain effort not to bake this challah too long, since my recent challahs had all been too dry.
My grandmother made the best yeast rolls. I do not have her recipe, but I keep searching for rolls that resemble hers. “My Favorite Buttermilk Dinner Rolls” (page 15) is a good enough recipe: these rolls have added lemon zest, and the slight lemon flavor is a nice accent. But even when hot with added butter, these rolls were just a chunk of white bread, not an etherial treat that would transport me back to the kitchen of Glen Oak farm.
When a bread baker with as much experience as Beth describes a bread as “one of the best breads in the Western world”, I pay attention. The bread so described is “Italian Walnut-Raisin Whole-Wheat Bread” (page 86). The bread is a standard yeast bread, enriched with olive oil and honey, and using whole wheat flour and white flour in approximately a three to one ratio (with more whole wheat flour). For the whole wheat flour, I used white whole wheat, which was cheating a little bit since white whole wheat flour is much easier to work with than regular whole wheat flour. To the bread dough, Beth adds very generous amounts of raisins and walnuts. Although she does not tell us to toast the walnuts, I think that it is a good idea to do so. The loaves had a soft texture from the oil and two tablespoons of yeast (about ten times the amount of yeast I usually use for this much bread). I liked this bread, but it lacked the depth that I have come to expect from Jim Lahey style slow rise breads. [Go to the recipe.]
“Eggplant, Pepper, and Artichoke Pie” (page 208) is not, in my opinion, the sort of recipe that really belongs in a bread book, but I am glad it is included as I like this recipe very much indeed. The reason for including this pie must be its crust which is made from a brioche dough. The filling consists of onions, pepper, eggplant, and artichokes, bound with eggs and cheese. Beth instructs us to sprinkle Parmesan on the top of the pie, which was not that good an idea, as can be seen in the photos. My filling, although delicious, did not hold together but spilled out when the pie was cut. This pie might have worked better as a open faced tart.
Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Bread Bible has everything that I wanted that was lacking in Beth Hensperger’s Bread Bible. The primary subject of this book is yeast breads, although there is an early chapter on quick breads. There is an introductory chapter, “The Ten Essential Steps of Making Bread”; very useful reading for even the experienced bread baker. For the recipes, Rose gives us both volume and weight measurements for the ingredients; the free and easy baker can just dump in cups of flour, while the OCD baker can pull out the scale and carefully weigh everything. Rose has tested and tinkered with all her recipes; sometimes settling on her own nonstandard techniques. One of the features I like most about this cookbook (and other cookbooks by Rose) is the section “Understanding” at the end of almost every recipe: I find it immensely useful (and interesting) to know why Rose is telling me to use a certain technique or ingredient. I have two problems with this book. First, Rose goes into a little too much detail in her recipes. This is not necessarily bad, but I occasionally find my eyes glazing over, my mind going on automatic pilot, and I do not read through the recipe for subtle but important points. My second complaint is quite hazy and subjective: I don’t think Rose’s heart is in her bread. Cakes, and the tasteful and beautiful decoration of these cakes, are Rose’s life blood; while she is working on a recipe for (say) “Swedish Limpa Bread”, I think in a little corner of her mind she is really thinking about how she will decorate the next wedding cake she makes.
Rose’s “Traditional Challah” (page 516) is an egg rich challah sweetened with honey and with a little bit of vinegar added, which, Rose tells us, strengthens and relaxes the gluten. The honey and extra eggs are supposed to make this challah more moist; I think that Rose would be better off cautioning her readers not to cook the challah too long. This was a perfectly satisfactory recipe, but I do not think that Rose’s tweaking resulted in any significant improvements.
Continuing my search for my grandmother’s rolls, I tried Rose’s “Butter-Dipped Dinner Rolls” (page 249). These were good rolls, in some ways probably better than my grandmother’s rolls, but were not what I was looking for. The rolls were very buttery and very soft; as can be seen in the picture, the crescent snail form melded into a triangle.
I have a vague and possibly unreliable memory that my grandmother used baking powder in addition to yeast in her rolls. Such double leavened rolls are called angel biscuits, and so I tried Rose’s “Angel Light Biscuits” (page 133). This recipe I considered a failure, although the failure might have been more my part. The recipe calls for White Lily self rising flour; I used King Arthur self rising flour, which has the advantage of not being bleached (although Rose likes certain properties that bleached flour has). I did not read the instructions very carefully, but just blasted through the recipe. What I ended up with was too greasy and too salty; I like grease and salt more than most, but these rolls did not work for me. Nevertheless, I tested them on others; interestingly, both Shay and Zev B approved of them.
This is the time of year that cranberries appear in the grocery, so from Rose’s quick bread chapter I picked “Cranberry-Banana-Walnut Quick Bread” (page 100) to make. I consider breads such as this more like cakes and eat a slice for dessert or sometimes as a morning pastry. There is only one banana mashed up for one loaf of bread, so the banana taste is not overpowering, yet is a nice alternative to the more traditiional orange flavoring used in cranberry nut breads. [Go to the recipe.]
Several years ago I made the sticky buns from Rose’s Cake Bible. They were incredibly good, but also incredibly caloric and a lot of trouble, so I only made them once. But when looking for recipes in The Bread Bible I decided it was time to revisit sticky buns. Rose has tinkered a little bit with her sticky bun recipe over the years, but the “Sticky Caramel Buns” (page 496) in The Bread Bible are essentially the same as the sticky buns in The Cake Bible. Rose starts with “Basic Brioche” (page 487), rolls it up with a rum-soaked raisin and nut filling, and bakes the rolls on top of a pool of caramel. These were still very good and very caloric, but not quite as amazing as I remembered them. This, I think, is more a reflection of how my tastes have changed than the essential goodness of these sticky buns.
Walnut Raisin Bread
Adapted from Beth Hensperger, The Bread Bible
2 cups raisins
3 cups walnuts
2½ cups water
2 tablespoons yeast
¼ cup plus 1 teaspoon honey
½ cup olive oil
1 tablespoon salt
4 cups white whole wheat flour
1½ cups all-purpose or bread flour
2 cups raisins
3 cups walnuts
Begin by pouring boiling water over the raisins. Let the raisins soak for an hour, then drain. If you want, save this water to use in the bread. Toast the walnuts, perhaps 8 minutes in a 325º oven, then chop well.
Combine half a cup of water with the yeast and a teaspoon of honey. Use the bowl of your heavy duty electric mixer if that is how you are intending to knead the bread. When the yeast is foamy, stir in the other 2 cups of water, the olive oil, the rest of the honey, salt, and 2 cups of white whole wheat flour. Beat this well, then add the rest of the flour and knead until it turns into bread dough, perhaps 7 minutes with the mixer. You may need to add a little more flour, or, less likely, a little more water.
Let the dough rise until doubled in size. If you want, you may refrigerate the dough for several hours or overnight after it has started rising. After the dough has risen, press it out on a floured surface into a rectangle, and sprinkle half the raisins and half the walnuts on the dough. Roll the dough up, press it out again, and sprinkle the rest of the raisins and walnuts over the dough. Roll the dough up, then separate into three parts, and form three round loaves. Place each loaf, seam side down, on a floured dish towel, and and fold each towel over each loaf. Alternatively, place the loaves on parchment lined baking sheets, and cover with a dish towel. Let the bread rise again.
When you are ready to bake the dough, preheat the oven to 475º for at least 30 minutes. I like to bake the loaves in covered cast iron pots; if you are cooking them this way, place the pots in the oven to preheat also. When the oven and pots are preheated, upend each loaf into a pot and cover; alternatively, put the baking sheet with the loaves in the oven. Cook until done; this might take about 30 minutes.
Cranberry Banana Bread
Adapted from Rose Levy Beranbaum, The Bread Bible
1 cup walnuts
2 cups cranberries
2 cups minus 1 tablespoon flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ cup butter (1 stick)
¾ cup less refined sugar
1½ tablespoons sour cream
1 teaspoon vanilla
Preheat the oven to 325º. Toast the walnuts, which should take about 8 minutes. Chop the walnuts finely, or pulse in the food processor until the walnuts are reduced to tiny chunks. I prefer the cranberries chopped also, so I pulse them a view times in the food processor. Butter a loaf pan, line the bottom of the pan with parchment paper, and butter the paper.
Combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. In another bowl, cream the butter with the sugar. Add the eggs, one at a time, and beat until smooth. Add the banana, pre-mashed, the sour cream, and the vanilla. Stir in the flour, just until the flour is combined. Add the walnuts and cranberries. Pour the batter into the prepared pan, and bake until done, which should take at least an hour. Remove from the pan and cool on a rack.