I was intrigued by the basic premise of Samuel Fromartz’ book In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey. An experienced journalist with a weighty list of credits, Fromartz got That Call in late 2008. The economy was in a downward spiral and he lost two major long term gigs on the same day. When a travel publication appeared on his horizon, he pitched a story about going to Paris to learn how to make the perfect baguette, that iconic symbol of the Parisian boulangerie. The editor accepted, and that initial article was the starter for this book.
Fromartz, an experienced home baker, had tried to make the classic baguette (his “perfect loaf”) at home and been less than satisfied. The book begins with his trip to France, and his experience working in a French bakery (Boulangerie Delmontel). From there, successive chapters discuss trips to other bakers, covering a variety of bread and baking styles, ranging from sour dough and flat bread to archaic and heritage wheats and grains, to a trip to Germany to learn the secrets of working with rye.
As much as I value Ken Forkish’s Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast, I think Fromartz’ book is a better place to start as a serious home bread baker (honestly, you’ll want both books). There are some important concepts explained exceedingly well in In Search of The Perfect Loaf, most notably, the idea that a long rise is ultimately beneficial for good bread. This is not unique to Fromartz, of course; in fact he notes that it’s part of the reason that “no knead” breads popularized by Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman work so well. But Fromartz explains the whys and the wherefores very clearly, both in terms of the science of bread making, and perhaps more memorably, by anecdote. The other concept that underlies his introduction and the narratives that frame his recipes is the idea that a lot of the difficulty of bread making is removed by practice. By being open to less than successful loaves, and willing to try again, bread makers will learn. As Fromartz notes, “it takes time to learn.”
The chapters each feature a recipe, its difficulty graded as Easy, Moderate or Difficult. The measurements are given in gram weights (you really do need a kitchen scale and a thermometer, at least at first), but one of the most helpful aspects of the recipes are the detailed instructions about the process, including the schedule, divided into sections as “Morning, First Day,” “Evening, First Day,” “Second Day,” and “Baking.” Having said that, his explanation and tips for a baker’s first time creating a sour dough starter are the clearest and least fussy I’ve seen.
There’s a glossary at the end of the book, though Fromartz does a great job of explaining words in context, and end notes for those interested in the particulars of, for instance, the history of grain cultivation, the nature of yeast, or celiac disease, an extremely useful and clear “Bibliographic Note,” and an index. There aren’t a lot of pictures, but they’re well chosen, and do more than offer eye candy.
In Search of the Perfect Loaf was short-listed for the Art of Eating prize and won the Literary Food Writing award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for the first edition (Viking, 2014). I read the paperback edition for this review, and I would encourage Penguin to list the difficulties for the various recipes in the table of contents, where they list the included recipe as part of the chapter detail. This book is a perfect book to publish as a video annotated multimedia ebook; I hope that that happens some day.
Samuel Fromartz has a website. He blogs and is on Twitter as @fromartz. For a typically clear and practical example of his writing, see this post on his blog about dough temperature and successful bread making; the book is full of such information.
(Penguin Books, 2014)