COOKING THE BOOKS; PUTTING RECIPES TO THE TEST

THE BAKING SERIES: FLAVOURED BREADS by Linda Collister Photographs by Patrice de Villiers Ryland Peters Small, pounds 12.99
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The Independent Culture
Since we're observing National Bread Making Week, it seemed appropriate to cook a book that deals exclusively with the stuff. Linda Collister's Bread Book (1993) was a hugely successful generalist opus, and she has since produced a series of smaller baking books each dealing with a single subject: Chocolate Baking, Sweet Tarts and Pies, Cookies, Biscuits and Biscotti and Flavoured Breads.

It's the breads we're looking at, thanks to the flour-dusted forearms of Cooking Guinea Pig Kate Powell. Kate lives in Sydenham, has three children, and calls herself a dedicated bread- baker. She therefore seemed a natural choice for sampling the small but hopefully perfectly formed delights of Flavoured Breads.

There have been quite a few specialist books in recent years, dealing with subjects as narrow as saffron and aubergines. But do they have a place on our cookery book shelves? I think they do, as long as (A) the book is a good one and (B) you're interested in the subject.

If you satisfy criterion (B) where baking bread is concerned, Kate thinks that Flavoured Breads is a book for you. "Novices would find some of the breads quite intimidating", but experienced bread makers will, she is certain, consider it a good investment.

PHYSICAL EASE AND DESIGN: Kate described it as: "a small but expensive-feeling book. Flavoured Breads lies obligingly flat and, conveniently, all of the recipe is on the presenting pages. Ingredients are clearly laid out, including the size of the tins/baking sheets required."

RECIPE QUALITY: Kate tested seven breads and said that choosing was made easier by the fact that "all look and sound good". What's more, as the writer states, "most are not breads that you will find in the supermarket." High praise for Collister's multi-seed bread, coarse wholemeal beer bread and New England maple nut loaf, while focaccia with cherry tomatoes and basil "looked like an embroidered eiderdown and tasted divine". Better still were garlic knots, made by roasting whole cloves and then spreading the puree on the dough before baking: "The smell of these cooking was an experience I will repeat very quickly; we could have eaten twice the quantity!" Kate claimed.

But the "hands-down winner" was the olive oil bread: "a mountain of a loaf with good olive oil flavour, wonderful texture, and a light and flaky crust. My husband pronounced this the best white bread I've ever made."

As far as technical quality is concerned, Kate has just a few complaints. "It wasn't explained what 'knocking back' the dough meant, and I did find some of the loaf-shaping instructions confusing, but otherwise the instructions were clear." These comments reinforce her point that this is a book for experienced bakers.

PRACTICALITY: "The downside of this book is the sheer amount of time these breads take to nurture. It is relatively quick to put most of them together, but the rising times can be up to three hours (five for ciabatta), and I found the timings quite tricky to fit in around family necessities." This surprises me somewhat, as I've always easily managed to fit rising time into daily chores, but personal differences always play a part in cooking. Kate had to "improvise" a coarse-grain flour by grinding whole wheat grains in her coffee blender (hope she cleaned it out well before making coffee!), but apart from that no special equipment was needed and most ingredients were easily available.

PICTURE QUALITY: "The pictures are beautiful, and they really do give you a sense of what you're aiming for."

VALUE FOR MONEY: "Excellent value at pounds 7.99," said Kate. "With Christmas coming up this would be a good present for a keen cook, perhaps coupled with some of the more unusual ingredients. We will definitely carry on using it, and I suspect that several breads will become 'family regulars'."

TOQUES (OUT OF 10): 8

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