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Fleen Book Corner: A New Line Of Ensmartening Books

We’ll be taking a look at the first release¹ in the Maker Comics line from :01 Books in just a moment, but first …

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that Please Listen To Me, the whatever-they-want-to-talk-about-but-mostly-political offering from Matt Lubchanksy (commonly found these days at The Nib, where they are associate editor) has been on hiatus since April of 2018, for reasons. But it’s back! Maybe not regularly, but back! We’re happy to have you back, Matt.


Madison Furr and her excellent colleagues at :01 dropped a stack of review copies on me recently, and I was super excited to find Maker Comics: Bake Like A Pro! by Falynn Koch near the top of the stack. It may be because I am a home baker of some practice (mostly breads these days², but I flatter myself to say that I can do a decent pie crust, and I pride myself that the cheesecakes I make in the December holiday season for my bartenders get me free drinks all the year long), it may be because the other candidate for first Maker Comics release, Fix A Car! is one that I have less comfort with³.

Let’s just say it’s because I know enough about the topic that I can tell if the book’s getting things right and have enough to learn that a new explanation will help my own understanding. And here’s the deal: Koch scores on both criteria. I haven’t tested all of the recipes myself, but I recognize enough to see that the methods and instructions are solid. It teaches from a perspective that I wish I’d had in my home ec classes back in my teenage years:

  • Baked things don’t have arbitrary recipes, they have ingredients that behave in certain ways, and you can make changes and substitutions if you understand how they behave.
  • Each ingredient serves a purpose (providing structure, leavening, moisture, color, flavor) and how you bring those ingredients together matters.
  • Cooking may be an improvisational art, but baking is rule-based math and science.

Or, as Koch has it, magic; the framing story features an apprentice wizard who is learning baking as an introduction to alchemy.

The references in the back indicate that Koch’s learned from the best — I’m not familiar with some of them, but I can see the influence of Alton Brown, particularly in the exploration of one master recipe (the Toll House chocolate chip cookie recipe, which is as close to a perfected recipe as we’ll ever see) to get variations by playing with proportions. Please understand, I’m not accusing Koch of ripping off Brown, any more that Brown was ripping off Shirley Corriher when he used Good Eats to do the same. Besides, Brown’s puppets that explain yeast action belch out carbon dioxide, and Koch’s little cartoon yeast fart out carbon dioxide. Totally different!

But bakers always have things they consider most important — more than one family has had long-running disputes over whether to use shortening or lard in biscuits4 — and thus there are things I wish Koch had covered. While she correctly points out the importance of having a clean oven interior in temperature regulation, she didn’t talk about how oven interior temperatures can vary widely, and therefore you need a good thermometer (in-oven, probe, instant read, IR or all of the above).

And I will die on this hill — we should not be measuring flour by sifted/scooped/leveled volumes, we should be weighing it. Yes, baker’s scales are somewhat pricey (as are some of those thermometers), but they are no less useful than the stand mixer that makes its way into the book which is listed as (if available) in multiple recipes. There is no quicker way to getting consistent results — which are necessary to seeing where your baking needs improvement — than having accurate temperature awareness and portioning ingredients by mass5.

And EMT hat on: there was one very odd recommendation on taking a hot pizza stone out of the oven to move the uncooked pizza to it. Okay, I get it, not everybody has a pizza peel, but this struck me as super hazardous for anybody, much less kids. If you cook on a baking stone and don’t have a peel, get a sheet of parchment paper under your crust, put it on a cookie sheet (on the underside if it has a lip) and slide the whole thing onto the very hot rock. You can grab the parchment and pull back onto the cookie sheet when it’s time to come out. Please don’t try to take a hot stone out of the oven (which could shatter when you place it on the stove top if you’re even a little rough in your handling) and return it.

But those editorial choices aside, kids will not develop their own deeply held baking beliefs if they never start baking. And if you want them to get a head start on baking, Bake Like A Pro! will get them on that path so that we can have the very important fights later.

Spam of the day:

Shock your family, make your garden more contemporary. You will love it’s new look!

Or I could ignore your spamming ass, and wait for the future release, Maker Comics: Grow A Garden!. Release date not announced yet, but it’s on the back cover of Bake Like A Pro! and :01 haven’t lied to me yet.

¹ Okay, the first two titles in the Maker Comics line released simultaneously last Tuesday; I’m looking at the one that both comes first alphabetically by title and by author’s last name.

² In fact I have a pizza dough resting in the fridge as I type this. If it turns out particularly pretty, I’ll tweet a picture later tonight.

³ One might argue that my lesser expertise is a reason that I should have gone for the car fix book. But I don’t have the tools to practice what I might learn, and I can change a flat and check my oil and am perfectly willing to pay people to handle more in-depth automotive interactions.

4 Lard. Duh.

5 For those that pick up the book and play with the pizza recipe, make the following substitution: 300 grams of flour instead of 3 cups, 180 grams of water instead of 1 cup; the golden ratio for basic breads is 5:3 flour:water by mass (plus yeast as necessary, plus oil as required by the type of bread — the amounts given will work nicely).

As an aside Brown’s baking book is from 2004 and he lists virtually every ingredient by volume (because his editors and his mom made him) and mass (which is what he wanted); in the 15 years since, I think we deserve a general-audience intro to baking book with the courage to make the leap to ingredients by mass only.

I use a bread making machine (and if that makes me a philistine, so be it). The recipes that came with it – and ones I found online – are by volume, but I weighed the ingredients the first time I made any recipe, and have used measure-by-weight ever since. I use a cheap digital scale with a resolution of 1 gram, and find this very effective. These are available for less than $20 ($12 on sale).

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