It's somewhat out of character for me to be reviewing Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice ; because, although it sounds like it could be a medieval mystery, it's actually a cookbook. Sort of. I suppose it's really more of a book about baking bread.
See, when I think of a cookbook, I think of a bound collection of recipes. And while this has that—there are recipes (formulas, Reinhart calls them) for something like fifty different breads in here—it's more than just that. The first hundred pages of the book are essentially a detailed tutorial on baking processes, explaining at length both what you do to bake bread and why you do those things. The material in these pages coherently ranges the gamut from the very practical (mixing techniques, both by hand and with a mixer) to the theoretical (an explanation of the chemical changes involved in the formation of gluten).
From that description, this might sound like two unconnected books bound into the same cover—a tutorial book followed by a formula book—but it doesn't read that way at all. Throughout the tutorial section, Reinhart makes reference to the way these techniques and effects play out in reference to breads in the formula section, and the formulas (which are written in a more verbose, narrative style than in, say, the Betty Crocker cookbook) frequently refer back to the earlier tutorial section.
Hmm. I'm not familiar with the conventions of cookbook reviewing, but I'm guessing I should probably talk about what this book purports to enable you to make. As you'd guess from the title, Reinhart's metier is bread, particularly European-style breads. There's only one quickbread in this book (a drool-inducing cornbread recipe); and most of the yeast-risen breads are fairly complex affairs. A few of them can be made in one day, but the vast majority of them are two-day projects, with a sponge (that's fancy baker talk for pre-fermented dough) made the first day and the rest of the preparation done on the second day.
That sounds insanely complicated to me, largely because I almost never cook anything and have never baked bread outside of a bread machine; but it's a testament to Reinhart's competence that I'm not intimidated by the notion of making one of these breads. In fact, I've got a big ol' mass of dough in the fridge right now. I'm not exactly confident that it'll turn out properly, because there are doubtless an enormous number of ways that I could screw it up—could have already irredeemably screwed it up, really—but I am confident that if it does fail, I'll be able to figure out why and do better the next time, because this book has given me the analytical framework to troubleshoot difficulties.
Essentially, this is everything that I could possibly want a cookbook to be. It's precise and thorough; it gives detailed steps and the underlying reasons for those steps; it has a nice range of recipes; the writing is both pellucid and interesting; the author speaks with enough authority to compel the reader's trust; and, as a nice bonus, it's a prettily photographed and beautifully bound book.