A Rant-Review of Thomas Keller’s BOUCHON BAKERY Cookbook

Our household has a love-hate relationship with Thomas Keller.  Will loves him; I hate him.  Well, that’s a little harsh perhaps, so let’s revise that to: we love eating his creations but hate having to work so hard for them.  Maybe a bit wordy and not nearly as pithy, but that offers a more accurate assessment of our mixed feelings about this genius.

For Christmas, Will asked for the Bouchon Bakery cookbook.  I knew it was dangerous when he blocked the cramped aisles of a Sur La Table store holding up the gigantic book—for a LONG time.  Then he asked for it.  How can I not get him the one thing he asked for by name?  Yet I hesitated because I’ve seen how this precision-obsessed master chef takes pages to cut up a green olive into perfectly even matchstick pieces.  Who juliennes olives, for crying out loud?!  Apparently Thomas Keller does.  And THAT was for a rustic, home-style Ad Hoc at Home cookbook.  Imagine what he would do with baking recipes which are already more detail-oriented!  I like baking brownies and cookies and cakes as much as the next home cook, but I’ve always slightly resented how baking seemed so “precise,” following directions to the tiniest gram of baking soda or powder, not allowing much flexibility or creativity.  My engineer husband Will, on the other hand, enjoys the orderliness of baking more than “regular” cooking.  Yin/Yang.

Actually, it turns out that it’s not Thomas Keller’s cookbook after all, not really.  His pastry chef Sebastien Rouxel is the baking guru, and his story is also told in the opening pages.  In fact, the beginning of the book reads more blog-like: reminiscing about Paris, trying to historicize events, setting up to introduce the hero who would save the Bouchon Bakery.  I even got fooled into thinking that the recipes were almost too simple because one for "Pecan Sandies for My Mom" sounded like it came out of a Reader's Digest version of a Keller recipe.  In any case, the stories are interesting, and the photos are lovely.  I’m particularly enamored of the pictured brown poodle (p. 53, for “Dog Treats”).

But—and here’s the love-hate part asserting itself—the following is a good example of the fussiness of this cookbook.  For the first item to attempt from the cookbook, Will chose "Traditional Madeleines" on purpose since this recipe seemed to call for the least number of hard-to-get ingredients and the fewest steps.  (I should note here that in baking a few simple items like muffins and scones and these madeleines, we have thus far used “lemon oil,” “vanilla paste,” and “blackstrap molasses.”  Because, after all, these recipes need to be distinguished from plain old recipes that use lemon juice or peel, vanilla extract or even beans—which we have around in abundance—and plain unsulphured molasses!) 

As I was trying to ignore Will’s many more steps in baking madeleines (recipe on pages 94-5) than I remember EVER needing to before, he grunted ruefully and exclaimed: “Nothing is simple with him!”  (That “him” is Thomas Keller and any cookbook related to him, and I was heartened to discover that Will was finally seeing things my way!)  It turned out that in being so busy measuring out on a kitchen scale the “0.6 grams” of kosher salt and then beating eggs, pushing them through a fine-mesh sieve with his fingers, and then measuring out “83 grams” of that beaten egg, Will didn’t realize he was supposed to “place the batter in a covered container and refrigerate overnight.”  Madeleine batter had to be refrigerated overnight?  There goes my afternoon snack with tea…  When ready to bake—the next day—he was also supposed to place the madeleines pan brushed with melted butter in the freezer to “harden the butter.”

I have a suggestion for the next edition of the baking book.  Perhaps they need to add the list of hard-to-get ingredients the recipe calls for and the approximate time required for the product from start to finish.  I’ve seen such information supplied for much easier recipes, so why not these really tough ones?  Especially since the directions are written in narrative form (without separate numbered steps), it is easy to miss the end of a long paragraph informing you that you need to refrigerate batter overnight.

The madeleines were fine.  Will was disappointed because he was hoping that the difficulty of the recipe, the time involved, and the expensive ingredients would yield the world’s greatest madeleines—that would make pale in comparison anything that Marcel Proust would have written about.  Alas, they were just madeleines.  Not better than other recipes we’ve tried.  Not better, in fact, than those we buy from Sugar Bowl Bakery.

Don’t be deterred though.  It turns out that the Bouchon Bakery book has perhaps the best Cinnamon Scone recipe we’ve ever tasted—which I’ll reserve for another post.


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