The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook: A Year in the Life of a Restaurant
by Michelle Wojtowicz, Phillip Wojtowicz, Michael Gilson, Catherine Price
Publisher: William Morrow Cookbooks, Country: US
ISBN: 9780061441486, Year: 2009
Link to publisher’s page or site
This review is the personal opinion of the reviewer.

Overview

The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook takes you on the journey of a restaurant one month at a time with ambitious menus that capture the flavors of the season. Though some recipes might sometimes be long and involve too many steps, they are not usually out of reach of the home cook and patience will be rewarded with an impressive feast. Each month also features the profile of a person close to the restaurant and a story about the area, giving the reader a vivid portrait of a hidden culinary gem.

Full review

Structure of the book

The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook is unique in its structure: there are 12 main chapters, one for each month of the year, and a chapter of basics, with a total of 91 recipes. However, each month has a menu that revolves around a theme, such as June’s “Pork and Beer Dinner”, Thanksgiving Dinner for November, or “Breakfast at the Bakery” for March. Each month includes a profile of someone involved in the Big Sur Bakery operation, such as the owners/chefs Philip and Michelle Wojtowicz, the host, the beekeeper, the farmer, the butcher, the fisherman, and even the accountant and the beader and sandalmaker. Also, each month has a story about Big Sur, such as the origin of the Pork and Beer Dinner or the time when the community was threatened by a mountain lion.

About the author

From the official website:

Michelle Wojtowicz oversees the bakery, pastry, desserts, and breadmaking at Big Sur Bakery. Her husband, Philip Wojtowicz, is responsible for everything that takes place in the kitchen. Originally from New Jersey, they are graduates of the Culinary Institute of America. Their friend Michael Gilson, a California native, looks after the front of the house and the libations at the Bakery. Catherine Price has written for the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Salon.com, and many other publications and is a contributing editor at Popular Science.

Main Review

Some people might be turned off by the “too cool for school” vibe that a book about people living the simple life might give off, but the writing reads honestly and mostly unpretentiously. There is a bit of vanity and silliness involved in asking the host what his “Oddest Bakery Responsibility” is or the sandalmaker what his sandal-ordering instructions are for the profiles, but you still get the feeling that these are people who live very closely together and overall it provides a well-rounded description of the area, the people, the kind of lives they lead, and the business of running a restaurant nearly in the middle of nowhere.

Many people might be surprised that the book doesn’t revolve primarily around breads and sweets. In fact, most of the recipes aren’t baked goods at all — there is nearly equal weight given to meat, poultry, and fish, light fare such as salads, risotto, and vegetable sides, and baked goods and desserts. Each month is already a complete menu with at least one dessert each, so there’s no need to jump around specific portions of the book for ideas. Naturally, each menu makes use of seasonally appropriate ingredients and themes.

The desserts and sweets can be described as traditional American. Since the Big Sur area in California is home to several farms, you’ll find classic recipes such as blueberry pie (using lard in the crust, of course, to keep in theme with the Pork and Beer dinner), brown butter rhubarb bars, parker house rolls, pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, doughnuts, Parker House rolls, and lime meringue tart, with a few outliers such as Mont Blanc, trifle, Dresden Stollen, and hazelnut flan. The vegetable dishes and sides celebrate the fresh flavors of California and tend to be more contemporary American, such as cauliflower with pine nuts and dried cranberries, mache salad with citrus, avocado, almonds, and grapefruit dressing, and roasted beets with beet greens and goat cheese crostini. The mains vary from old favorites such as roasted chicken, stuffed turkey legs, fish and chips, and grilled prime rib steak to more adventurous ones such as braised rabbit, grilled oysters (with champagne mignonette), and braised venison osso buco.

What most people might find daunting about the book are the long ingredients lists which may contain uncommon ingredients such as mache rosettes, chanterelles, shi tuna loin, lobsters (at least the shell), and endives (though if a good produce market is unavailable, substitions can be easily made for most). However, it doesn’t end there — even a long recipe with accessible ingredients like Chicken Soup needs several more additional steps before even starting, in this case making the fingerling potato confit and long-cooked greens. Before you make the pork belly pizza, it requires curing a pork belly for 5 days, as well as making the barbecue sauce, which also requires making a tomato sauce, which in my case simmered for 2 hours. The recipes tend to be on the labor-intensive side, but that’s why they’re supposed to be reserved for special occasions.

One problem I had with the book is that there seemed to be some errors in scaling down the recipes or adapting them for home kitchens, as the bakery has a wood-fired oven. Making the brine for the grilled pork confit used up one cup of kosher salt and 1 cup of sugar in 4 quarts of water, which made a laughably large amount of brine for only three pounds of boneless pork shoulder. Chuck’s barbecue sauce calls for simmering till it has the consistency of ketchup — closer to forty minutes than the ten minutes the book estimates. The tomato sauce is simmered until it becomes deep red, which the book says could take at least an hour (I simmered for two hours). Thankfully, simpler recipes such as the pizza, salads, and vegetable sides are simpler to deal with. Another problem with the book is that while the pictures are beautiful, many of the recipes don’t have pictures, though there are plenty of pages devoted to the scenery, the restaurant, and the people of Big Sur.

If you have the time and resources to complete the menu, you will be rewarded with a memorable feast that showcases the best flavors the season has to offer. Taking the book one recipe at a time has less impact, but can give a good idea of what new American cuisine is all about.

Who might enjoy/use this book most?

This book will be of interest to more adventurous home cooks or those who love going the whole nine yards when entertaining. It’s also a book for those interested in the history of this quaint high-class restaurant along the highway.

This is an original review for The Gastronomer’s Bookshelf.
Main rating: 4. Recommended – good
Visual appeal: Beautiful
Suitability as a gift: Quite nice
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The Big Sur Bakery Cookbook, Michelle Wojtowicz | 2009 | US, 5.0 out of 5 based on 1 rating

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 03 Apr 2010 at 02:49 | Permalink

    I did not know about this site – I love it. Did you know that Sara Remington the photographer for this particular cookbook as well as 15 others, is teaching a photography class on how to actually take pictures like the ones in the book? She is a friend of ours and I have to say this book is drool worthy!!!!

    Great write up on it. I have not added it to my collection yet but will have too!

  2. admin
    Posted 03 Apr 2010 at 12:42 | Permalink

    Hi Denise, Yeah, I actually recognized her photographs when the photography class was being publicized. If she teaches how to take photos like in the book, then I’d say it’s a class worth taking.

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