The Italian Baker
Who can resist bruschetta rubbed with garlic and drizzled with olive oil, almond-studded biscotti dipped in coffee or wine, or, of course, a thin-crusted pizza with fresh, sweet tomatoes and tangy mozzarella? These Italian classics that Americans know and love are just the beginning; there are a wealth of other equally delicious breads and sweets waiting to be discovered.
In this groundbreaking classic — now thoroughly updated for today’s modern kitchen — Carol Field introduces artisanal doughs and techniques used by generations of Italian bakers. Every city and hill town has its own unique baking traditions, and Field spent more than two years traversing Italy to capture the regional and local specialties, adapting them through rigorous testing in her own kitchen.
Field’s authentic recipes are a revelation for anyone seeking the true Italian experience. Here’s a chance to make golden Altamura bread from Puglia, chewy porous loaves from Como, rosemary bread sprinkled with coarse sea salt, dark ryes from the north, simple breads studded with toasted walnuts, succulent fig bread, and Sicilian loaves topped with sesame seeds.
The Italian Baker is the only comprehensive book, in English or Italian, to cover the entire range of Italian baking, from breadsticks and cornetti to focaccia, tarts, cakes, and pastries. There is even a chapter on using leftover bread, with recipes ranging from hearty Tuscan bread soup to a cinnamon and lemon-scented bread pudding.
Winner of the International Association of Culinary Professionals Award for best baking book, the original edition of The Italian Baker was also named to the James Beard Baker’s Dozen list of 13 indispensable baking books of all time. It has inspired countless professionals and home cooks alike. This latest edition, updated for a new generation of home bakers, has added four-color photography throughout, plus new recipes, ingredients and equipment sections, source guides, and weights.
One of the most revered baking books of all time, The Italian Baker is a landmark work that continues to be a must for every serious baker.
Re-posted from www.therecipeclub.net
Posted by Ali Slagle on November 28th, 2011
I was invited last week to join our senior publicist at an event for Carol Field, author of The Italian Baker (Ten Speed Press, November 2011). As I trekked over to Danville’s Rakestraw Books, I was slightly apprehensive about the upcoming evening. There was the very real possibility that the majority of the night would fly right over my head, as during my cooking career I’ve heard more “Is something burning?” than “That smells delicious!” And with baking bread being a notoriously challenging task for even well-seasoned chefs, I was prepared to just enjoy a night in a cool bookstore, hanging out with some friendly coworkers, and hit the hay content that I had simply done my part to support one of our awesome authors at a local venue.
“I sometimes forget that authors, at their core, are storytellers.”
As seems requisite for me, I arrived 10 minutes late to Rakestraw Books on a Thursday evening, and Carol was all ready speaking to a rapt group of readers and fans in the middle of the colorful bookstore. She was doing one of the best things good authors do: telling a story. I sometimes forget that authors, at their core, are storytellers. As I settled in to listen to Carol speak about her experiences with bread and the genesis of her book, I was struck by the seemingly innate talent some are blessed with to tell a good story.
As the owners of Rakestraw passed out delicious warm stew accompanied by dark rye and golden sourdough breads to the crowd, Carol was content to talk about the roots of her ideas for The Italian Baker. She shared the eccentric stories of her time in Italy–following the trail of bread baking techniques that date back to Roman times–and learning the trade from passionate bakers who preserve not only a baking tradition, but a way of life. She talked about peasant recipes that use every last crumb: both a necessity of life and a feast for the palate. She shared stories of bringing her knowledge back to the US, where rustic Italian breads had been previously overlooked, and how she desperately wanted to share these incredible artisan breads in such a way that would allow home bakers to make and enjoy them.
While munching on some truly delicious breads and biscotti, I was thoroughly enchanted by the wonderful story of Carol’s journey to creating this staple cookbook for bread enthusiasts everywhere. Over the course of her talk, she emphasized the seemingly endless possibilities of bread making, and the ease with which an educated baker can control the its many variables. She spoke of bread as many speak of fine wine, with an obvious love for the varieties, a deep-seated knowledge of technique and practice, and a solid connection to the roots and tradition of the craft.
Carol concluded the event by taking questions and speaking personably with every person there, sincerely delighted to be sharing her expertise and love of artisan breads. Her attitude towards bread can only be called infectious, and as I left the warm atmosphere of the Danville bookstore, my signed copy of The Italian Baker in hand, I felt more confident than ever about this new avenue of baking opening before me.
The Italian Bakerreads like a travel guide through the back roads and ancient streets of Italy, and Carol’s love of her subject shines through the simplicity and variety of recipes collected in her book. If you can catch her in a city near you promoting her new revised edition, her presence and demeanor will surely impress, and I highly recommend coming out to meet her in person. This author’s intent is not just to show off the creations of traditional Italian bread makers, but also empower her readers to become artisans themselves.
In a RE-post from The New Fillmore Carol shares a tale of local inspiration.
Now that the new edition of my book The Italian Baker has been published, I have been reliving the adventure of working with bakers all over Italy. It started in San Francisco in 1981 when Il Fornaio, then a bakery featuring Italian breads and sweets, opened at the corner of Steiner and Union Streets. I couldn’t believe my good fortune: Italy had come to my neighborhood.
I was there almost every day, learning from bakers from Rome, Florence, Ferrara and elsewhere. They were wrestling with the problem of adapting American ingredients to their Italian recipes and I listened and was intrigued. I wrote an article for Attenzione, a magazine for lovers of Italy that, alas, no longer exists. It got such a strong response that it began to seem a logical next step to write a book.
When my family lived in Italy in the ’70s, our rental house in Liguria was no more than 30 miles from good friends who lived in Tuscany, but it could have been 200 for all the differences in the food and bread. In Liguria, we ate focaccia as our daily bread; in Tuscany, it was saltless loaves. In Liguria we ate pesto on pasta; in Tuscany pasta turned up rarely so we ate hearty soups instead. Easter in Liguria was celebrated with torta pasqualina, 33 phyllo-thin layers of dough enclosing a chard and egg filling. In Tuscany Easter week brought pan di ramerino, rosemary and raisin buns that reminded me of hot cross buns with an apricot glaze.
On the 12 or 13 trips to Italy it took to write The Italian Baker, I realized that I had plunged into an unknown world. With good introductions, there I was, an American woman turning up in Italian bakeries at 10 or 11 at night wanting to learn how bakers made the iconic breads of their cities and regions and countryside. Night after night, city after city, trip after trip, I was determined to get it down.
There were no books on the subject. Bread making is an art handed down from father to son, so I ended up relying on the equivalent of oral history, with the additional challenge of learning a whole new vocabulary. I watched, wrote copious notes, asked question after question, saw massive amounts of flour whirl in a machine with water and yeast and salt. I wrote down numbers. I laid breads on a table, set a tape measure in front of them, took their pictures, asked about ovens and temperatures and wondered how their big deck ovens would translate at home.
Back home on Washington Street, I tried to recreate the miracles of these breads and sweets, taking a formula for 20 kilos of flour and working to reduce it to two or three loaves. Motes of flour swirled in the kitchen air. I could make a starter, which Italians call a biga, with flour and water and a small amount of yeast, and it bubbled energetically in the space of hours. I made hundreds of loaves, trying out variations in proportions and types of flour. A typical day found me making several kinds of bread, documenting each stage and each variation and finally sitting down around 6 p.m., glassy eyed.
Every visit to a different region of Italy taught me more. I learned that authentic bread sticks were easy to shape, that durum flour made fantastic bread in Puglia and Sicily and that the cracker-thin crusts of Roman pizza were very different than the Neapolitan version.
I came back to San Francisco having tasted breads made for Easter in various regions. In Friuli it was a Gubana, a brioche-like bread with raisins and nuts moistened with five different liqueurs. In Naples, I ate Casatiello — a spicy cheese bread flecked with chunks of salami and freshly ground pepper. In Umbria, I tried an intense cheese-flavored bread baked in terra cotta flowerpots.
And always there was the rhythm, from Washington Street to Italy and then back again, each trip full of discoveries to reproduce so that Americans could bake the iconic tastes of Italy. Friends knew to come by on baking days. Our next-door neighbors looked out the window and arrived in their pajamas.
Since all those trips and the first edition of The Italian Baker, which was published in 1985, more tastes of Italy have come to the neighborhood. Pizzeria Delfina makes pizza for ever-expanding crowds. SPQR makes outstanding “modern Italian” food and serves a gorgeous array of Italian wines. Mollie Stone’s sells cheeses imported from Italy and blood orange juice from Sicily.
It’s wonderful to relive an experience after so many years. Once again I can say: Italy has come to my neighborhood.
Read more: “Food of the poor is no longer for the poor”
Kummer writes about The Italian Baker:
Every bread baker, home or pro, has been influenced, knowingly or unknowingly, by Carol Field’s ITALIAN BAKER (Ten Speed Press, $35), which the author has now revised and retested. I’m perhaps improperly impartial because I’m quoted inside the back cover with enthusiastic praise of the first edition. But the technique of a long-risen, low-yeast bread started with Field, and she’s still the master of that and biga, the “almost natural yeast” that’s an easy and essential sourdough starter. It’s also Field who introduced Americans to ciabatta and made bakers aware of the regional variety of focaccia.
Carol Field’s description of pizza, as written in the original edition of “The Italian Baker” published in 1985, reads as follows: “These crisp or chewy country breads are the food of peasants and wily city dwellers with little money but lots of imagination.”
Try telling that to the lunch crowd at San Francisco’s Zero Zero, where Field, a longtime San Francisco resident, was eating recently.
As she dug into a slice of the $16.95 margherita extra pie with buffalo mozzarella, she shook her head.
“The irony is that the food of the poor is no longer for the poor,” she said.
Field is the author of five Italian cookbooks, including “In Nonna’s Kitchen” and “Italy in Small Bites,” but perhaps her best known is “The Italian Baker,” which introduced regional Italian breads and pastries to the United States, and is being republished this month.
The 2011 version includes a few key additions – notably color photographs, a second ciabatta recipe, a natural yeast recipe and both metric and U.S. customary units – but the content is almost identical, even as the state of Italian bread, both in Italy and in America, has changed.
“I wrote this book in the golden age of bread,” Field said, picking up a slice from the Mission pie – broccoli rabe, roast garlic, caramelized onion. “It’s not the golden age anymore.”
Originally published by Harper & Row, the book won an award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals in 1986 and in 2010 was included in the James Beard Foundation’s “Baker’s Dozen,” its compilation of 13 indispensable baking books.
Shortly thereafter, a New York bookseller realized that the book was out of print, panicked and reached out to her.
“He said, ‘It’s like not being able to find Jane Austen,’ ” Field recalled, “which I think is a bit of an exaggeration.”
Perhaps, but Field’s meticulously researched book has been a revelation to bakers for 30 years, which is partly the reason the new edition has few changes. Classics are classics.
From Wonder Bread to Acme
Field opens her book with a discussion of bread’s role in Italian culture. Not only is it at the heart of the kitchen and family, it has filtered into Italian colloquialisms, including “issu esta una cantu de pane” (literally: he is a piece of bread; colloquially: he is a good and reliable man) and “essere pan e cacio” (literally: to be like bread and cheese with someone; colloquially: to be thick as thieves).
While the phrases still exist, the “golden age of bread” has dulled. Field conducted her research in the 1970s and ’80s when regional bread was alive and thriving, thanks in part to the efforts of Carlo Veggetti and his Il Fornaio bakeries. Now, par-baked and frozen loaves are flooding Italian supermarkets.
“Living the life of a baker is hard,” she said, “and the next generation doesn’t want to do it.”
Paradoxically, the state of Bay Area bread seems to be A-OK, she said. When she was recipe-testing for the first edition, Field remembers it was almost impossible to find durum flour here, let alone quality olive oil. Now, corner stores carry imported oils and specialty flours, and the Wonder Bread era has given way to the Acme era.
“We owe so much to Steve Sullivan,” Field said of the Acme Bread Co. owner, who opened his doors in 1983.
Stamps of approval
As of 2011, the greater Bay Area has 2,042 Italian restaurants and 629 bakeries, according to the California Restaurant Association. A few, including Della Fattoria in Petaluma and PIQ (Pane Italiano Qualita) in Berkeley, rival those in Italy, Field said.
Local chains such as La Boulange are producing quality loaves, so much so that Field brought an Italian baker into one store and ordered him a walnut loaf, which he liked – a stamp of approval if there ever was one.
When the Zero Zero waiter came to clear plates, Field gave her own stamp of approval and asked for a to-go box. She anticipated wanting a leftover-pizza snack that evening before heading to a screening of “Focaccia Blues” at the Italian Cultural Institute. The documentary follows a period in Altamura, a small town in Puglia, when McDonald’s opened next to a beloved focaccia shop. Residents refused to patronize McDonald’s, and the giant was driven out in less than two years.
Fittingly, the Italians have a bread-related phrase to describe what happened: “trovar pane per i propri denti.” Literally: to find bread for one’s very teeth. Colloquially: To meet one’s match.
Carol Field will appear at the Pasta Shop in Berkeley at 2 p.m. on Saturday and at Rakestraw Books in Danville at 7 p.m. on Nov. 17.
Flour, water, yeast, and salt: that’s all, four simple ingredients that Italians turn into breads in hundreds of shapes. Tuscans eat it saltless. Milanesi go for a roll as empty as a popover. Ligurians dimple the dough with olive oil, call it focaccia, and eat it for lunch, dinner, and any time in between.
It’s the country’s Ur food, which makes me wonder how anyone can seriously try to copyright a recipe for bread. And yet….I was surprised and not unhappy to come upon an article in The Atlantic saying “Since The Italian Baker was published in 1985, I have watched several of Carol Field’s recipes and techniques for previously unknown Italian breads spread across the land like the sloppy, barely yeasted, unmanageably wet doughs that, as her book taught, result in the lightest, best flavored bread. She’s barely credited, of course.”
And even happier to read on: “An early Field adherent has long been my favorite baker in New York” (mine too, I admit): “Jim Lahey, who opened the Sullivan Street Bakery in 1994 selling breads that no one in the city had made before.”
Skullduggery and thievery didn’t stop Lahey from inventing a revolutionary no-knead technique while I am happy to be back in the bread game with a new edition of The Italian Baker with some extremely wet doughs and a starter to tantalize a new generation or two.