05 November 2011

Weekend Cooking: Review: 52 Loaves by William Alexander

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend. You do not have to post on the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. For more information, see the welcome post.


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.

Bread is life. (p. 323)
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.

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.

52 Loaves at Powell's
52 Loaves at Book Depository
These links lead to affiliate programs.

Published by Algonquin Books, 2010
ISBN-13: 9781565125834


Uniflame 11/5/11, 6:23 AM  

I have yet to start on making my own bread. I want to do it for a long time. But I don't have a machine and my microwave oven probably isn't up for the task. Maybe I should ask a bread machine for x-mas ;)

Anyway, I often like these kind of books, where the reader gets a peek inside the life of the author, especially if there is food involved too ;)

Carol @ There's Always Thyme to Cook 11/5/11, 8:16 AM  

I am bread challenged, at least in my mind, I think reading this book might give me the push I need. Love the quote!

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks 11/5/11, 8:21 AM  

It's always good to "meet" someone crazier than you, isn't it? :)

I hadn't known about 52 LOAVES, thanks for sharing it - sounds like he really lets the reader into his kitchen (and his life).

TheBookGirl 11/5/11, 8:25 AM  

Baking bread is my favorite type of baking to do, and I have baked my way through several bread books, so this one sounds wonderful to me. I love the fact that it is about his journey and his attempt to focus on the experience rather than obsessing about the end product.

bermudaonion 11/5/11, 8:54 AM  

Wow, he does sound obsessed, but in a good way. I bet his bread is delicious! This book might inspire me, since I'm afraid of yeast.

Heather Schmitt-Gonz├ílez 11/5/11, 9:13 AM  

I started reading this book a while back, but it was a crazy time and I put finishing it on hold. I've yet to pick it up again. Urgh. Thanks for the reminder, I definitely want to finish it!

Zibilee 11/5/11, 9:21 AM  

I can't imagine the commitment and time that it took for him to do this for one whole year, and now you have gotten me kind of curious about this book. I am a bread baby, and have only ever made it in the machine, though I do engage in big talk about how I am going to make my own from scratch all the time! I bet this book would give me a boost in that direction! I am adding it to my list. Thanks for the excellent review!

Beth 11/5/11, 9:35 AM  

I think this is a perfect book for me! I need to find a copy!

Lisa@ButteryBooks 11/5/11, 10:45 AM  

It sounds so dreamy to be able to travel the world to perfect one recipe.

Mary 11/5/11, 10:56 AM  

You've peeked my interest and hopefully my library will have this in the stacks. I'm so glad you stopped by. That gave me the chance to find your blog. You've created an interesting spot to visit and I'll definitely be back. Have a wonderful weekend. Blessings...Mary

caite 11/5/11, 10:58 AM  

but my yeast fear....my yeast fear!!!

Jennie 11/5/11, 11:02 AM  

Brett keeps talking about making his own bread. Maybe I will get this book for his stocking this year.

Margot 11/5/11, 11:03 AM  

I admire this guy's resolve to make the perfect crust. I'm not sure I'd go to the trouble of growing my own wheat. Although I will admit to grinding up a bunch of wheat to make my own flour once. I think with your experience in bread baking, you're overdo for a book of your own.

readramble 11/5/11, 11:20 AM  

Regular breadmaking has made a big difference in the quality of my home cooking. I have made almost all of our bread since the spring, baking a couple of times a week. I priced it out, and a homemade loaf costs about 50 cents American, not counting my labor, of course.

Prasetyo 11/5/11, 11:44 AM  

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Nan 11/5/11, 12:27 PM  

I SO enjoyed his audio slide show. It was very interesting. I love passion like this. Surprisingly, I'm not a fan of that sour taste, but Tom is and occasionally makes some sour dough bread in the Zojirushi. I've baked bread for forty years, only stopping when we got the bread machine. I love bread, and also perhaps surprisingly to many people, I prefer whole wheat. White is okay once in a while, like if Tom makes a cinnamon/raisin, but for the homey, every day loaf, it's all about whole wheat for me. Great posting, as always.

Peggy@Peggy Ann's Post 11/5/11, 2:06 PM  

sounds very interesting! do you think it helps you be a better bread maker? I have been working this year to be a better bread maker too and it has come a long way! I found out that when I researched yeast and what makes it work and doesn't it helped a lot and gave me more confidence. Thanks for sharing the book Beth!

Heather 11/5/11, 2:20 PM  

This sounds like a fascinating book. I am a bit soup obsessed and don't mind it one bit. would love to find that one perfect soup that I would be happy to eat every day.

Gnoe (@Graasland) 11/5/11, 5:16 PM  

I wish I could come over so you could teach me how to bake bread... It's not really something you learn from a book, is it? Got to see how the dough needs to look, the bread sounds after baking... Sigh. It took Alexander a year so that would be like a decade for me LOL.

Beth(bookaholicmom) 11/5/11, 5:47 PM  

I am bread challenged as well. Well maybe yeast challenged. I can feel Alexander's pain! I've made many of doorstops and holey loaves of bread! This does sound like an insightful read and I wonder what else he learned during his 52 loaves of bread? I'm pretty sure I would need much more than a year! And I have no desire to grow my own grains!

Beth F 11/5/11, 6:01 PM  

Alexander does indeed offer insight into yeast, flour, kneading, steam, water and so on. He shares with us what he learned. And his success was found by using a sourdough starter. I am successful without it. This isn't so much a how-to as the story of one man's journey. Very well worth the read for everyone.

Peaceful Reader 11/5/11, 10:07 PM  

I love baking bread and might love to read this book. He was very single-minded on his chosen task. I've not cooked much this week and so have as of yet no Weekend Cooking post.
Maybe tomorrow-I am making a zucchini pizza...

Jane of Australia 11/6/11, 4:28 AM  

I have a KITCHEN, I mean a real whole one now that I have moved.

Looking for inspiration so here I am rushing in, just in time. But hey I made it.

Julie P. 11/6/11, 5:25 AM  

That's pretty intense. And to think, I'm proud when I make quick and easy bread!

Jane of Australia 11/6/11, 5:47 AM  

I also love making bread. I grind my own wheat.
Beth how do you make your crackers? I'd love to know. Have you a link to this process? and if not wny not?
Just kidding...
really want to learn how...

Beth S. 11/6/11, 8:55 AM  

I have always been intimidated to tackle bread. I am very much a "throw it in the pot and hope for the best" kind of cook so baking has never been my strong suit. Measuring takes the joy out of cooking for me. LOL!

Andi 11/6/11, 11:00 AM  

This sounds REALLY interesting and multifaceted. I'd certainly be interested to read it. AND I would love it if you'd share some good recipes for crackers with me. Greyson, my 18-month old, is a die-hard devourer of crackers, and I've been trying to find a good at-home recipe so I have more control over what's going into his little body.

Great review, Candace! Thank you for sharing!

Caitlin 11/6/11, 11:54 AM  

This reminds me of my father, an amazing cook and dreadful baker. My father could throw a meal together with stuff leftover in the fridge and pantry that you would pay $60 for in a restaurant. His ability and creativity were amazing. But he could not bake.

My mother, however, could bake and it was really easy for her to produce a perfect crust - whether it was on a baguette, or sour dough, or pumpernickel. She makes brioche to die for and she does it all like it's an ordinary thing - which for her, it is.

One year my father decided he was going to craft the perfect baguette. After 8 or so months of trying and failing while my mother stepped and made that baguette over and over again, he threw in the tile. He decided he just wasn't precise enough.

My mother maintains that baking needs a control freak.

Leslie 11/6/11, 12:18 PM  

I love bread but I'm bread making challenged. Pastry and I don't always mix well (I have pie crusts to prove it!) Perhaps this book would be an inspiration for me to try again.

Peppermint Ph.D. 11/6/11, 2:28 PM  

I too love fresh homemade bread...but don't have very much luck making it :( This sounds like a very interesting read...I love foodie types of books where the foodie ends up finding a part of himself/herself in the process :)

(Diane) bookchickdi 11/6/11, 3:56 PM  

I took my sister-in-law on a Food Truck Tour in NYC a few weeks ago. We had so much fun, and it was a great chance to try new foods. I highly recommend it!

softdrink 11/7/11, 9:16 PM  

You make your own crackers?? Dude. I wish I had your kitchen skillz.

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