A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World
Winner of the 2005 James Beard Award for best baking book, Maggie Glezer's A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World is a significant work of scholarship. Is it one for you to add to your collection? Click "Read More" for my take on it.
This is by far the most thorough book on Jewish baking traditions I've ever seen. If this is a particular interest of yours or a tradition that you participate in, then this is a no brainer: you need this book. It is a major scholastic accomplishment, as much a work of anthropology and oral history as it is a baking book, and worthy of the accolades that it received this year. Buy it today.
For someone like me, who read Gershom Sholem and some of the Talmud in college but grew up in an area with little overt Jewish culture, this book is less essential. As I mentioned in my review of her previous book, Artisan Baking Across America, Glezer tends to emphasis the anthropological over the instructive, preferring authenticity over simplicity. The bagel recipe she includes in this book is insanely complicated, requiring mail-ordered ingredients, a special food processor (stand mixers aren't good enough), and custom built baking utensils. If you are already an accomplished bagel baker this recipe may be the one that will push your bagels over the top from good to world class, but if you are trying to bake bagels for the first time this is not to recipe to take on.
My own interest in baking books is still primarily as a source of instruction, and on that level this book is of less value. That said, the shaping instructions at the beginning are quite nice, even for amateurs. If you are interested in elaborate braiding techniques, this book has merit.
I suspect that, once the buzz around this book has died down and I can find a copy used or in paperback, I'll probably pick up a copy. There is a lot to explore here: Glezer certainly deserves credit for exposing the breadth of the Jewish baking experience. Challah and bagels are what most gentiles think of when they think of Jewish baking, but Glezer shows us how much broader we should think. Jews in the Diaspora have incorporated the flavors and styles of many other traditions, from Middle Eastern flat breads to North African spiced breads to Central Asian crackers. All of these have been adapted to be expressions of the Jewish religious experience, an interplay of the sacred and the day-to-day, which Glezer makes clear, continues to this day.
North African and Central Asian baking traditions are areas I have not explored; I probably wouldn't know how to begin exploring them even if I wanted to. This book offers a decent introduction to those traditions.