Part chemistry, part alchemy, combining science, art and intuition, the practice of baking bread is the closest most of us can get to playing Dr. Frankenstein. It is, in a real sense, the creation of life.
The new primer of this ancient craft is "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" by Peter Reinhart (Ten Speed Press; $35), a book appointed as the James Beard Cookbook of the Year. With the heft of a good pumpernickel loaf, Reinhart's work offers the equivalent of a master class in buns, brioche, bagels and baguettes, imparting both the practicality of lessons that must be learned and a reverence for the final result: perfect bread. Checklists of methods used sit alongside an explanation of the importance of "sense of place" in the kitchen. From step-by-step pictures to an almost wine-tasting approach to eating bread, this book might make you an apprentice too.