Book Review – The Big Sur Bakery

The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook – A year in the life of a restaurant by Michelle and Philip Wojtowicz and Michael Gilson with Catherine Price.  William Morrow 2009

 Located in a converted old gas station, on the California coast, is the Big Sur Bakery, one of the leaders of the “slow food” movement.  The slow food movement advocates eating, locally grown, in season, naturally produced food.  This book is a combination of personal remembrances of the restaurant’s founders, interviews with local Big Sur residents, discussions with some organic, local food purveyors, exquisite photographs of the natural wonders found in the Big Sur area and some recipes thrown into the mix. 

 The book, which contains 91 recipes, is divided into 12 chapters – one covering each month of the year.  The individual chapters offer recipes, using locally sourced in season produce and products, revolving around a specific monthly theme.  The best way to explain the construction of the book would be to detail one chapter.

 The chapter that covers the month of April opens with “Dinnertime” which talks about what occurs in the restaurant as the staff is preparing to serve dinner and then how they relax after the rush is over.  Then the reader is treated to an explanation, with beautiful photos, of how honey is made and a Q&A with Jack, a local beekeeper.  Recipes are included for typical April dinner fare, some of the menu items are: Grilled Sardines with Frisee and Whole-Grain Mustard Dressing, Roasted Leg of Lamb with Pesto and Artichokes and Asparagus with Almonds and Grapefruit Dressing.  This chapter highlights both everything that I loved about the book and at the same time all the problems that I have. 

In this chapter there are many spectacular photos, which evoke the natural scenery of the area.  There are photos of the empty restaurant, the bees, their hives and raw honey, Jack the beekeeper, fresh vegetables and the chopping and prepping of vegetables.  These photos are pretty enough to be in a coffee table book that covers the California coast, but there is only one photo that clearly shows a finished dish and that photo is of a slice of Lime Tart.  With 16 photos contained in the chapter why not showcase the finished dishes?  I have a good idea of what a slice of a lime tart would look like but I could use some assistance in visualizing how the finished Grilled Sardine dish should look.

 The recipes are a mixture of easy to make modernized American style classics such as Blueberry Pie, Roasted Chicken or Grilled Prime Rib and more adventurous dishes such as Grilled Oysters or Braised Venison Osso Buco.  The ingredient lists are long but the instructions for each recipe detail every step and you are made to feel confident that, by following the directions, the dish can be recreated at home. 

 After reading some of the recipes a home cook would not be out of line if they are left scratching their head asking “where am I going to find fresh sardines, burrata, rose geranium leaves, macha rosettes or lemon verbena leaves?”  While these ingredients may be common in the Big Sur area they would go on the impossible-to-find-list of most non-locals.

 The recipes titles sound appealing and make you want to run to the kitchen and try them.  The Pork Belly Pizza with Barbecue Sauce and Sweet Corn sounds like a good choice to make for dinner tonight, so I start reading.  Step 1: cure a pork belly in the refrigerator for five days.  Step 2 assemble 13 ingredients so I can make the barbecue sauce, oops wait I have to go to another section of the book and make a tomato sauce that is then used as an ingredient in the barbecue sauce.   By this point my head hurts and I realize we aren’t having the pizza tonight, or anytime soon.  This type of recipe may work well in a restaurant when you have long lead times and a prep staff, but not in a typical home kitchen.  Sure I could recreate a similar dish using off the shelf and pre-made grocery ingredients but then what do I need the book for?

 I don’t want to give the impression that the entire book is full of time consuming, hard to make dishes containing ingredients that you can’t locate.  The recipe for Scones is one of the best I have ever read.  The suggestion to freeze the fruit before incorporating it into the dough so as to minimalize stained dough is brilliant.  The instructions are detailed and specific and even if I had never made a scone before I would feel certain that the scone would turn out as advertised.  In the rustic Pearl Barley with Kale and Butternut Squash the barley is toasted then cooked in beer and stock before being finished with roasted squash and kale.  This dish may take a little time but if you can multi-task the various parts of the preparation then assemble just prior to serving.  The Baked Beans are homey and will remind guests of grandma’s old-style baked beans.

 The ideal buyer of this book would be a cook that will not hesitate to put in the effort to locate some of the more obscure ingredients and loves to spend time in the kitchen preparing elaborate dishes.  Your guests will be impressed when you present the finished dish.  If you looking for a book that can be turned to on a regular basis for family meals then I would suggest that you pass on The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook.


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