Book review: A Baker’s Odyssey by Greg Patent

Title: A Baker’s Odyssey (includes DVD)
Author: Greg Patent
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0764572814

Recently nominated for a 2008 James Beard Foundation Book Award, A Baker’s Odyssey: Celebrating Time-Honored Recipes From America’s Rich Immigrant Heritage is the latest work from Greg Patent. In this book, Patent explores and successfully captures immigrant cooking in the United States, learning directly from over 60 home cooks the recipes and techniques passed down through each family. The outcome is a 400 page snapshot thoughtfully preserving more than 130 recipes for future generations.

Patent introduces the book by first explaining his own immigrant past. Born to a Russian father and Iraqi mother, his family lived in Shanghai China before immigrating to the United States. His own immigrant past provided him with the conviction to seek out and document recipes from other immigrant families.

As I flip through the book for the first time, I am immediately struck by two reactions. The first being how unfamiliar the recipes are, which I find terribly exciting and intriguing. So often, the same recipes are repeated and reworked from book to book. Recipes from more than 30 regions are covered, from Australian Anzac cookies to Welsh Griddle Cakes. Each recipe presents me with something new to discover.

Chapters are arranged by eight categories of baked good, including sections for both sweet and savory pastries, as well as ‘fried sweet pastries’. As you know, I’m a fan of the fried foods so I find this to be somewhat magical.

My second reaction is the lack of photos. There are two small groupings in the book which capture photos for some of the baked goods, however the majority of the book is in a sepia tone. Since the recipes will be unfamiliar to most bakers, I would have found it useful to have visual context for more of the recipes.

The challenge Patent faced with this book is in the balance of capturing a recipe for his readers while maintaining the recipe’s authenticity. Not only did he have to scale recipes down in size, he had to interpret how each recipe is created. Since many of the home bakers measured ingredients visually and worked dough by touch, identifying precise measurements and step by step instructions proved critical. Patent maintains the exact ingredients used for each recipe but provides suggestions for possible substitutions. As some recipes require hard to find ingredients like lard, Patent provides information on how to render lard in case it’s not readily available.

Although the recipes are clearly written and easy to follow, there’s no denying some of the recipes are quite involved and will be most appealing to die-hard bakers. I felt as though I was peeking over my great-grandma’s shoulder as she stirred together a batch of pasty dough. For me, I would likely be willing to make 80% of the recipes.

The accompanying DVD provides visual aid for certain baking techniques and step by step instruction for several of the more complex recipes. I found the process of making strudel dough paper thin and the size of a dining table to be interesting.

Overall, I find the book interesting and recommend it for experienced bakers who seek to challenge themselves by exploring less familiar recipes. And, I applaud Patent for pursuing such a noteworthy mission. The book made me ponder my own immigrant past and wonder how much of my family’s baking history is already lost.

To provide my readers with more information, I asked food writer Amy Sherman to share her thoughts on the book, as she recently reviewed it as well.

“While I appreciate the stories behind the recipes, and the amazing research that went into the book, I’m not sure how many of the recipes I would make. Truth be told, I’m not much of a baker. Whenever there are lots of ingredients and tons of steps, I get discouraged. Plus with a household of two baking sometimes feels wasteful. Or maybe I’m just lazy! I think this book is terrific for a more committed baker than I.” — Amy Sherman

You can read her interview with Greg Patent on GlamDish, and you can read more of Amy’s writings at Cooking With Amy, GlamDish, KQED, SF Station, and Epicurious.

The ‘Baker’s Odyssey’ Giveaway!

And, I’ve saved the very best until the end. I know many of you are avid bakers so I figured it might be fun to give away a copy of this book!

For more details on how to enter the drawing, please visit the Baker’s Odyssey Giveaway! The contest is open from April 2-8, 2008.

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  1. Gasp! Then it would be a great book for me, haha :) I like being the first to blog about long-forgotten foods, which usually come from cryptic descriptions in old books. But in reality I too get frustrated when there’s no pictures and the directions are unclear (not that you said they were). Doubtful the dvd covers all 400 pages.

    I’ve long planned on making strudel when I fall ass-backwards into some apples, which happens sometimes :) It takes a lot to fill a dinner-table’s worth of strudel dough!

  2. Manngy: Hmmm, it probably would be a good for you … but are you sure it wouldn’t be too rustic for you? You’re Mr. Fancy Pants when it comes to desserts :-)

    I was amazed at how thing the strudel dough must become … it looked much thinner than phyllo.

    I think the recipe only uses a cup or two of flour, but the dough is stretched by hand to the size of a dinner table ?!?! I’ll send you a copy if you’ll make the strudel as shown in the book, Mark!

  3. It’s not the fanciness of the pants, Allen– it’s how well you fill it :p The trick is to make the rustic appear sublime!

    I think phyllo is still much thinner, but strudel is a feat nonetheless- and I need special permission from the laundrywoman (uh… that sounds like it needs a cultural explanation) to use a whole tablecloth for making it!

  4. Interesting – I’ve been looking to improve my baking skills (which are abyssmal), but since I’ve always been a lousy baker I haven’t really gone after baking books with the same gusto as the rest of my collection. This is going on my wish list – it sounds like exactly the sort of book I like, pictures or not, and I’ve got a ringer pastry chef to explain the hard bits.

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