Some of my earliest food memories revolve of the smell and taste of the fresh yeast bread my grandmother would bake in her small apartment kitchen in Michigan…for me, there is no more comforting aroma than that of freshly-baked bread. In a sort of alchemy, humble ingredients are transformed into an expression of baking talent and love. I’ve lived in five countries and visited several others, and sampling local breads and baked goods is one of the first things I set out to do.
My large baking collection features numerous books on breads and baking, including several editions of the seminal “The Italian Baker” by Carol Field, my staple “Artisan Bread in 5,” “Crumb” by Ruby Tanoh, “Honey and Co Baking Book,” and the new “Breaking Breads” by Uri Schaft, and I’m pleased to report that “Gennaro’s Italian Bakery” now holds a spot of honor as well.
Gennaro Contaldo, Italian chef and restauranteur who mentored Jamie Oliver, grew up surrounded by a family of bakers, from spending hours in his uncle’s bakery to waking up to his mother’s home baking. As a baker at The Neal Street Restaurant, he was responsible for making the bread, focaccia, torte salate, pastry and seasonal bakes. As he mentioned in the foreword, bread and baked goods mean tradition, and you’ll find various bakes from across Italy and in honor of various seasons and holidays.
Beginning with basic bread dough and grissini, you’ll find recipes for panini, stuffed breads, focaccia (garlic and rosemary, cheese, peppers, potato, red onion and pancetta), pizze (Bianca, marinara, 4-cheese, greens, individual pizzas), stuffed pies (spinach, guanciale, courgette and ricotta), sweet breads (plaited sweetbread, aniseed and currant ring cake, pandoro, brioche, colomba), crostate (tarts: ricotta and Nutella, dried apricot, strawberry and peach, creamy limoncello tart with grated chocolate, pumpkin), biscotti, cantucci, and torte (pear and chocolate, polenta and almond cake, yogurt and orange ring cake, marbled espresso loaf cake). Many of the recipes are influenced by Tuscany (including autumnal favorite castagnaccio), and you’ll note that some recipes do not include salt as is traditional – so you may choose to add at your own discretion. Ingredients are listed in metric as well as US volume and weight measurements, a thoughtful touch that makes it much easier for US bakers. And many recipes feature gorgeous matte photographs of the final bakes.
For this review, I made three recipes, including the grape and rosemary buns, tricolor braided loaf, and the aniseed and currant cake. The grape and rosemary buns did not include salt in the recipe, and I would definitely add about ½ tsp next time as the sweetness of the grapes could use the balance from a pinch of salt. Also, the shaping instructions were rather vague (“form the dough into little basket shapes”) and I must have rolled mine too tightly as I could not get my dough spirals to resemble the photo, but they were delicious nonetheless and froze beautifully.
The second recipe I tried was the treccia colorata, with three different flavors (saffron walnut, rum raisin, chocolate and orange). This was extremely time-consuming (start to finish, it was a four-hour project) and messy, and I felt like I may have overworked the dough trying to knead in the cocoa powder after the first rise – next time, I would add in the flavoring during the initial mixing / kneading by dividing the dough before the first rise. The final loaf was a touch dry, but made fantastic toast and looked gorgeous on the table.
The final recipe (and my personal favorite of the three) was the aniseed and currant ring cake. I was happily surprised to find both currants and Sambuca widely available here in Japan, and set out to make the cake (I used a 10-cup NordicWare Bundt pan). This was the easiest recipe of the three, and very easy to assemble (it only requires a brief knead). The final texture was delightfully soft, fragrant, and makes fantastic toast.
My next challenge will be the chestnut squares as chestnuts are in season here in Japan; in fact, one of my former students gifted me with some gorgeous chestnuts from his tree, so I look forward to baking with them.
Overall, “Gennaro’s Italian Bakery” is a delightful addition to your baking library that fans of Italian breads and pastries will definitely want to own! (Note: I reviewed the UK edition, but Interlink is also releasing an adapted version for US home bakers in the near future).