There are two main ways to learn how to bake. One way is to teach yourself, working with recipes as guidelines, and one is to have a teacher to demonstrate the techniques involved to you. No one learns exclusively with one method or the other, so it’s not surprising that any time the two come together – descriptive recipes and experienced teachers – we get the some of the best results.
A Baker’s Odyssey is a cookbook that manages to bring these two instructional methods together. The cookbook is full of about 130 recipes, all of which are from different cultural traditions that came together in the US. In other words, all of the well-written recipes are for the kinds of baked treats that your mother, grandmother or great grandmother (whoever in your family immigrated to the US and was the primary cook of the household) made from “back home.” A DVD is included with the cookbook that really sets it apart from others in the category. On it, author Greg Patent demonstrates some of the trickier techniques that are made much, much easier with a demo (although if you could ask your grandmother, I’m sure you might get some of the same baking tips if her specialty is also one of Patents).
The cookbook is divided up not by country, as you might expect with a cookbook that is a collection of recipes from multiple cultures, but by type: fried pastries, cookies, flatbreads, cakes, etc. With this kind of layout, it’s easy to find the kind of baked good you want to make and just as easy to see some of the cross-cultural similarities. Patent also includes a section with some basic recipes that are used repeatedly, like pie dough and almond paste. With each recipe, whether it’s a stuffed Indian flatbread or a light Australian pavlova, Patent starts off with a description of the dish and gives a bit of background on where the dish came from, as well as on who his version of it was originally made by.