`Artisan Baking' by Maggie Glezer truly deserves the New York Times blurb on the cover, in a 32 point font declaring this to be `A Landmark Book'. The impressive medallion to the left of this pronouncement declares that the book is a James Beard Foundation cookbook award winner. The fact that the award is for best book on baking should in no way diminish the importance of this award.
I will get in my one tiny complaint on the book at the outset, and it is only about the title, which the author explains is to avoid the seemingly more difficult `Artisinal' adjective, which she claims no one can pronounce. Aside from this seemingly ungrammatical title, I think this book easily joins my all time top ten best cookbooks, taking its place as the representative from the bread-baking world.
There are other excellent books that cover artisinal baking or some aspect of it. The best of these would be Peter Reinhart's `The Bread Baker's Apprentice', Nancy Silverton's `Breads From the La Brea Bakery', Joe Ortiz' `The Village Baker', and Rose Levy Beranbaum's `The Bread Bible'. All these books are written with an uncommon love of and devotion to their subject. Madame Glezer's book is just a bit better than these others in that she is more successful in communicating that love and devotion, as well as effectively communicating the techniques of artisinal bread baking. Rest assured that Ms. Glezer does not make these other books redundant, as they all contain important recipes Mme. Glezer does not cover and (especially with Mme. Beranbaum) explanations of the why of bread baking.
And, there is probably no more important province of cooking than in bread baking where understanding the reasons for things is so important to obtaining good results. Making a flaky piecrust requires a fair amount of practice and skill, but if you make a mistake, you can start over and have a second try in the works within an hour our so. Not so with many artisinal breads. The natural yeast levains (sourdough, for example) require almost two weeks to start up before you can even start making bread. Many recipes often require an overnight rise to get good results. This is one area where the traditional European requirement for an apprenticeship of many years starts to make a lot of sense. You need both `book' knowledge and a practical experience with the dough that is only acquired over time.
Ms. Glezer interprets `artisan baking' as that type where some essential steps are done by hand. I am inclined to add that all `artisan (bread) baking' also involves yeast, either brewers yeast, dried yeast, or natural yeasts for leavening, and it involves no `artificial' ingredients such as preservatives, but there are even some chemically leavened recipes here, the most familiar being one for the New England Jonnycake. Almost all artisinal baking is done by professional bakers. If you want to do artisinal baking at home, you are undertaking a really serious commitment of time and space, comparable to taking on a hobby such as pottery or woodworking.
The fact that artisinal baking is primarily a professional undertaking is underlined by the organization of the book. Almost all chapters are structured around visits to an important and distinguished artisinal bakery (boulangerie) in either America or Europe. The highlight of each chapter then is a recipe or recipes from that bakery. A quick look at the Table of Contents is just a bit misleading, as it appears that only pages 87 to 178, less than half the book, are really dedicated to recipes. In fact, there are many recipes scattered throughout the book, even in the first section dedicated to the story of how flour is produced and the last section dedicated to `The Baking Life'.
The author accommodates this organization by providing a supplementary table of contents giving `Breads by Category', which starts out with `Breads for Beginners' and `Breads Completed in One Day'. It is symptomatic that 4/5 of the recipes require more than one day.
One of the consequences of this book's being about handmade breads is that several common types of breads, such as brioche and `Pullman' loaves are not in this book. On the other hand, the rich diversity of breads which are covered are enough to make your head swim. This is not a book like some I've seen where all the breads are made with a small number of basic doughs, and souped up with sweet or savory ingredients. No indeed! What we have here, Madames and Messieurs, is a great presentation of the rich diversity in bread baking techniques as developed over the centuries, especially in France and Italy. In fact, you may be surprised to discover that `sourdough' was not a California invention. The sourdough / levain natural yeast technique was probably a 1000 years old before the California prospectors stumbled over the natural yeast native to California which flourished in natural starters created on the west coast.
This book transcends the ordinary, like many great cookbooks, by simply being a pleasure to read. That means that even if you have absolutely no interest in committing to days of flour-drenched labor to bake some bread, this is a great read. This is the kind of stuff you simply don't get on the `Food Network', at least not anymore.
Lest I discourage you from bread baking at all, let me assure you that one can make really superb breads with relatively simple recipes such as those you will find in `Baking with Julia', written by Dorrie Greenspan. But, if you have heard the siren song of crusty baguettes and batards hot from the oven, this is the book for you. My only caveat to the newbie is that as engaging as the `color' writing is, the recipes are seriously professional stuff, which are best done by measuring entirely by weight.
So, for either reading or launching a new hobby, this book is the best.