The Fresh Loaf

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BOOK REVIEW: “The Cheese Board Collective Works”

GermanFoodie's picture

BOOK REVIEW: “The Cheese Board Collective Works”

“The Cheese Board Collective Works”
By the Cheese Board Collective, with a Foreword by Alice Waters

“The Cheeseboard Collective Works” is published by Ten Speed Press, (P.O. Box 7123,
Berkeley/CA 94707; 2003. ISBN 1-58008-419-2, 230
pages, paperback, $21.95 plus shipping.

I acquired this book on a recommendation by a friend who had been using it for years and swore by it. She told me the pizza crust was the best she had ever made, and that pretty much any recipe in this book she had tried had worked for her.

I was looking for a book with accessible recipes that had been tried and tried again successfully, and I found it in this one. The Cheese Board has been in existence since the late 1960s, and the recipes contained in this book are the fruit of their labor, trial and error, and just plainly owing to the taste and ability of the employee owners (after all, the Cheese Board IS a collective). In that sense, this book is not only a cookbook, but also a timeline and an account of the people who created them. Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse, sums it up in her foreword: “compassionate collectivism, expressed through food”.

I would not recommend this book for somebody starting out and looking for an introductory “how to” book for beginners. This book suits somebody who is already baking and is searching for something a little different. “Collective Works” does feature some instructional pages, explaining ingredients, equipment and so forth, but the way it is laid out, it is not primarily an instructional book (for example, hardly any of the recipes feature photographs or drawings of the finished product, much less intermediate steps), but a collection of recipes.

Chapters are organized by type of baking: morning fare, yeasted breads, sourdough breads, rye breads, holidays etc. The chapter about “the cheese counter” was likely included because the Collective started out as a cheese store, but to the baker it is virtually worthless, unless you are looking for an introduction to types of cheese and how to combine them on platters. There are a handful of cheese breads etc. featured here, but they could have easily been included in a different chapter and the cheese spreads omitted.

The last chapter is devoted to pizza, which has legendary status in and around Berkeley/CA where the Collective is located. We have seen first-hand on a visit there that people literally line up for the “pizza of the day” – for there was only one kind, always vegetarian, just like there was only one kind of salad (the only choice the customers had was how much of each they wanted and what kind of drink to go with it).

I have tried several recipes from this book, from challah to hot cross buns to multi-grain bread, and they have all turned out fabulously, with the exception of their sourdough barm starter. The latter has never worked for me, so I am using one from a different book/author in my baking.

What I like about this book are the grainy black-and-white photographs, which fit the character and design perfectly. The anecdotes interspersed throughout, along with remarks at the beginning of each recipe give “Collective Works” an authenticity rooted as much in the present as in the past that most other books of the kind lack. The reader can tell these recipes have grown over time, they have been tweaked until everybody was satisfied they were just so.

The pizza crust is indeed the best I have ever made; it turns out every time and has gotten rave reviews. Yet it was interesting that when we tried the “real thing” right there in Berkeley, the pizza we were eating was actually nothing like what I had been producing from the book. To be truthful, we were all a little disappointed, and I can only attribute the difference to the fact that a commercial recipe baked on a commercial setup is not necessarily congruent with
the “residential” version, provided we were all working from the same foundation.

I would suggest that when the next edition of this book is published, its layout is changed as well, so it becomes more accessible. The two columns are awkward, and one literally has to read every recipe a couple of times in order not to miss details, as it is not laid out in a way that gives you clear step-by-step instructions, instead of crowded paragraphs. As that is the only shortcoming I could find, however, I can recommend this book to anybody who loves bread, bread baking, or simply baking.

PS: I LOVE their discount policy:

noonesperfect's picture

Which was better - your version of the pizza or theirs?


GermanFoodie's picture

That was the weird part. We came there with such expectations following what I/we had eaten at home based on their recipe, and theirs was nothing like it. Maybe because it was really greasy with a therefore soggy crust - we're talking tons of gruyere and swiss, cooked potatoes and something else, and they were churning them out like there was no tomorrow (the line was going out the door, hardly any sitting room). Maybe it was because if you make the same recipe on commercial and home equipment you tend to get different results, same if different people make the same things and don't adhere to the same method. I have no idea. Still, the other stuff we got from them was pretty good, and most of the things I've tried in the book have worked great. I'm making an adapted version of their multi-grain as we speak and will post something about it shortly.

Thanks for being interested and reading this! :) ~ Sofie