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You all know how much I like to bake. I bake bread a couple of times a week, and I even make my own crackers and pizza dough. I bake by hand, I use my stand mixer, I use my food processor, and I even use a bread machine (but never for the baking), depending on my time constraints, the bread I'm making, and my mood. Some people think I'm bread crazy, but they haven't met William Alexander.
William Alexander, author of the memoir 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, is truly obsessed with bread. Despite many failures at making what is now called artisan bread, he decided to commit to baking one loaf every week for an entire year, until he perfected his technique.
So is this a book about baking 52 loves of bread? Well, yes . . . and no. This is indeed the story of how Alexander learned to make fantastic peasant bread, which consists of only four ingredients: water, flour, salt, and yeast. In fifty-two short essays, Alexander describes his year-long journey from doorstop loaves to wonderful crusty, holey, slightly sour boules.
Using a conversational style and plenty of self-deprecating humor, he shares what he learned about flour, water, sourdough starters, ovens, kneading, and creating steam. He throws in a pinch of chemistry, a dash of math, and a handful of history to help us truly appreciate one of the most common and ancient foods.
But a funny thing happened on the path to bread heaven, which is foreshadowed by the section titles Alexander uses for his memoir. Each part is named after one of the traditional hours of prayer practiced by Catholic monks: Vigils, Lauds, Terce . . . Vespers, and Compline. Why he chose this method of dividing his year of baking experiments becomes clear as you read the book.
So why did I call Alexander obsessive? For a start, he wasn't satisfied with simply buying flour. Instead, he turned his vegetable garden into a mini-wheat field. Months after planting, he harvested it, threshed it, and milled it (can you say Little Red Hen?). He visited bakeries, took workshops, traveled to France and Morocco, searched the Internet, lived in a monastery, and bought shelves of baking books. And every week, without fail, he baked a loaf of peasant bread--no scones, no brioche, no challah. The man was on a mission and nothing got in his way.
Despite Alexander's single-mindedness, 52 Loaves is much more than a weekly kitchen journal. It's also the story of his personal transformation from being shackled to the notion of perfection and an end goal to enjoying the process and having fun along the way. In the final chapter, he talks about what he learned. The list ends like this:
Choose one thing you care about and resolve to do it well. Whether you succeed or not, you will be the better for the effort.Although the book includes a couple of recipes, this not a cookbook or even a beginners guide to baking bread. Instead, it's an invitation to visit Alexander's kitchen, where you can sit down at the table, meet his family, share his interest in baking, and perhaps slice into that perfect crusty loaf.
Bread is life. (p. 323)
For more about William Alexander, visit the 52 Loaves website where you can read about the book and watch a super slideshow video -- be sure to watch it all the way through, the sound in the last frame will make your mouth water.
Algonquin Books is a featured imprint on Beth Fish Reads; their books are often spotlighted as part of my Imprint Fridays feature. For more information about the imprint, please read Executive Editor Chuck Adams's introductory letter, posted here on January 7, 2011.
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