The Italian Baker: Remembering Carol Field
The Italian Baker is one of the few cookbooks that I own two copies of, so that I have one in Italy and one in Australia and I don’t have to worry about packing it in my suitcase with me when I travel back and forth. It’s one of the few cookbooks that I have sitting on my desk, in the kitchen, ready to be flicked through or cooked from at any moment. It’s a book that I have always found inspiration in, whether it’s for the stories, the recipes, a rustic, dependable loaf for everyday or a special, I’ll probably only make this once kind of recipe project, like pandoro or panettone.
So I was truly saddened to find out that its author, Carol Field, died last week at age 76. Her passion for Italian food culture is contagious. When you read her cookbooks, you cannot help but get just as excited as she does about the waft of someone’s parsley from their garden or the cric-crac of the crust of some wood-fired bread.
In the early eighties when she was writing this collection of baking recipes, a journey that took no less two years just to research, Italian artisan baking was fast becoming endangered, mostly taken over by packaged, highly processed, industrial white bread with no personality, no regionality and no identity. While putting together this list of some of my favourites of her recipes for Food52, I re-read Field’s introduction to The Italian Baker again last night and this really resonated with me,
“Knowing the story and tastes of the regional breads that come out of these ovens is like taking a trip through the Italian countryside. Saving and honouring them is like preserving the stone villages on the hillsides or their churches and frescoes, for saving the taste of the past keeps it alive in the present.”
This book, reprinted in 2011, continues to do exactly that; even though it is over thirty years old, it is still completely relevant. And thankfully, artisan baking in Italy was also salvaged and kept alive too. I have no doubt that this author and this book, with its well-told stories of passionate Italian bakers and their lessons, have something to do with that.
One of the other reasons it’s such a well-used cookbook in my kitchen is that the recipes just work. I find also very interesting her explanations of the difference between baking with American and Italian flours — it all makes so much sense now, why some recipes “work” in one country but don’t in another. How she has “translated” the recipes for use in the home kitchen, dividing the method into various instructions “by hand” or “by mixer” (I am always doing it the first way), is so practical, so user-friendly.
The Italian Baker was with me when I baked my first pandiramerino and my first schiacciata, recipes that I now make with my eyes closed. And it’s always there when I want to try something new. In case you don’t already own a copy of this cookbook, or aren’t heading out to nearest bookshop to get it, here are a few of my favourite recipes inspired by Carol Field:
- Schiacciatine Fiorentine
- Pantramvai (a raisin bread from Milan, with more raisins than you think you could ever fit into a loaf. I’m obsessed)
- Pane all’olio
- Roman Maritozzi with whipped cream
- Date, Fig and Walnut panettone
- Italian cornetti (from my first cookbook, Florentine)
- Hand-pulled grissini