- The Washington Times - Monday, December 29, 2003

NEW YORK — To those of you for whom baked goods come wrapped in plastic, to whom rolling pins are merely wielded by cartoon battle-axes and ovens are convenient places to store household bric-a-brac — King Arthur flour may be just an ingredient.

It’s not. It’s a cult.

For anyone who loves the raw-materials-in, magic-out alchemy of baking, King Arthur flour is the gold (medal) standard of flours because of its quality and its mystique.

King Arthur is Vermont. King Arthur is warm and fuzzy, home and hearth, steaming bread straight from the oven as a fireplace roars in the corner.

For generations, King Arthur has enthusiastically spread the gospel of good baking. It has sponsored free workshops around the country, it has launched newsletters and distributed catalogs and hosted an online baking forum.

There is an element of self-promotion in all of this — bakers buy flour, after all — but mainly, the folks at King Arthur are moved by an evangelical fervor for baking. Now they have produced “The King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion,” a $35 compendium from Countryman Press that promises “baked goods that feed not just the body, but the soul.”

“You’re a link in a limitless line of bakers: The sticky bun recipe you pass along to your son or daughter today will continue to be shared long after you’re gone,” the editors write. “And the guiding hand you place atop a friend’s as she kneads her first batch of bread dough will in turn be placed atop her grandchild’s one day.”

The “Companion” offers some exotic recipes: things such as crostini with basil, goat cheese and sun-dried tomato topping, and Paris-Brest framboise, but mostly, its 620 pages cover haimish favorites such as almond toffee bars, sourdough bread, hot buttered pretzels and faux-reos (the King Arthur version of Oreos). There are crisps, crumbles, cobblers, buckles, grunts, slumps, clafoutis and even a raspberry roly-poly.

Do not mistake this lack of pretense for a lack of rigor. There is a wonkish side to King Arthur, much like that of Cook’s Illustrated magazine — recipes are tested, adjusted and tested again until they meet a master baker’s standards. Every recipe includes full nutritional information, and ingredients are measured by both volume and weight.

“At King Arthur, we’ve held a long debate about what a ‘cup’ of flour weighs,” the editors write, and you just know that’s not an exaggeration.

The recipes are clear and detailed, many accompanied by step-by-step illustrations. One hundred pages are given over to information about ingredients and tools, and there are numerous side trips, such as the one that explains starters, sponges, poolish, bigas and levain to novice bread bakers.

Altogether, it is a book that will fire ovens and bakers’ passions for years.

“Come with us now into the kitchen, and let’s bake,” the editors write.

Let’s do.

This recipe makes a rich, buttery bar gilded with a sweet dark-caramel-like topping.

Almond toffee bars

COOKIE BASE:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter

1 teaspoon almond extract

1½ cups confectioners’ sugar

2 cups (8½ ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour

½ teaspoon baking powder

½ teaspoon salt

TOPPING:

1 cup (8 ounces) brown sugar, packed

5⅓ tablespoons (⅔ stick) butter

¼ cup milk

1 cup (3 ounces) sliced unblanched almonds

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To make the base: In a medium-size mixing bowl, cream the butter, then add the almond extract and the confectioners’ sugar, beating all the while. Sift together the flour, baking powder and salt and stir the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients. Press the dough into an ungreased 15-by-10-by-1-inch baking sheet, coming up the sides just a little. Bake the crust 15 to 20 minutes, until it’s golden brown. Set aside.

Topping: Combine the brown sugar, butter and milk in a saucepan, stirring over low heat just until the brown sugar is dissolved and the butter has melted. Spread this mixture over the cookie base. Sprinkle with the sliced almonds.

Put the pastry under the broiler until the top bubbles, 3 minutes at the most. After 2 minutes, open the over door and watch the bubbling action. As soon as the nuts are golden brown, remove the bars from the oven. (It’s easy to burn this if you’re not careful.) When cool, cut into small squares, about 1½ inches. Makes about 48 bars.


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