`Beard on Bread' is one volume of a series on specific culinary topics by leading American culinary writer, James Beard. While fellow experts who knew him such as James Villas attribute Beard with an encyclopedic knowledge of food, he was not particularly an expert on bread. So, what we get in this book is an excellent selection of recipes covering a wide range of uses and techniques, but without the depth of understanding about breadbaking and its techniques which you get in books from Peter Reinhart, Nancy Silverton, or Rose Levy Beranbaum. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Cookbooks full of relatively simple recipes from a very reliable source for a small list price are always valuable to a wide audience. And, if you are reading this review, the chances are good that this book is more appropriate to your needs than one of the bread books from those leading lights I cited above.
Dedications of books are generally relatively uninteresting, as they are most commonly made to close family members who had a lot to do with the author's surviving the experience of writing the book, but little to do with inspiration on the content of the book. This book's dedication is revealing, in that it is to the great English culinary writer, Elizabeth David, who, in addition to her famous books on the cuisine of France, Italy, and the Mediterranean, was the proud author of a superb book on English breads and baking. I am in the middle of reading that book now, and I am genuinely surprised that the book is not cited more than it is by other authors. It is a large book with really substantial sections on both the technology of bread baking and the history of bread baking in England. If you are familiar with David's book, Beard's book is, in comparison, a minor work whose survival in print rests largely on the reputation of the author and the fact that it does give us lots of good recipes at a low cost.
Beard is well known for having created something of a little book writing shop staffed by disciples who wrote most of the actual text attributed to Beard. The most prominent of these are Barbara Kafka and Marian Cunningham, both of whom are easily charter members in an American cookbook hall of fame for their own work. And, if they are not, they should be. But this book, I suspect, has just a little more of James Beard in it than most published under his name. Biographies of Beard often cite how he constantly experimented with bread recipes, even though this was not his speciality. Oddly enough, if he can be said to have any speciality more specific than American Cuisine, it is probably grilling and outdoors cooking.
The best thing about this book aside from the pedigree of its author is its range of subjects. Without touching on artisinal baking, Beard manages to touch just about everything else the world calls bread. The principle subjects are:
Basic Yeast Bread and other White-Flour Breads
Whole Wheat Breads
Sweetened Breads and Coffee Cakes
Baking Powder and Soda Breads
The fact that this book was first written in 1973, just before the explosion in food interest in the United States means that much of what is in the book has just a touch of the retro about it. I am happy to find that `instant' yeast had just become available before this book was written and Beard took this opportunity to comment on it. I am especially happy to discover that while Beard recognized that it might be faster than the more familiar `active dry' yeast, he believes its results were simply not as flavorful as the older dried yeast.
My favorite example of a retro recipe is the pancake recipe in the last chapter that leavens these goodies with yeast rather than with buttermilk and baking soda or baking powder. Thus, Beard's Yeast Griddle Cakes no longer qualify as quick breads, since it is advised that the starter be mixed and let to sit overnight. If one wonders why in the world one would want to make pancakes with yeast, you have to remember that yeast was available before commercially prepared baking powder, and, buttermilk or vinegar may not have been as commonly available as the yeast, since yeast was such a good leavener for lots of breads for which chemical leaveners did not work.
To those for whom this is important, this is a very homey book. Lots of recipes are borrowed from friends and acquaintances, only a few, like Jane Grigson, are recognizable culinary writers. Note that many traditional breads such as brioche are not made by a traditional recipe. Virtually every brioche recipe I have ever seen, even in books on `easy cooking' ask for an 8-hour rise, preferable longer, overnight. Beard's recipe does not do this. His brioche recipe can be done in about the time it takes to make a classic white bread loaf. Thus, this is not the book for someone interested in professional bread baking or even an amateur approximation of classic professional recipes. This is a book which is fun to read and a great source of inspiration when you just happen to want to try some old school bread making.
My only caveat is that unlike books from the experts listed above, there is little information to help figure out what may have gone wrong if the recipe does not come out as expected. And, bread baking simply does require just a bit more skill than you average savory dish.