52 Loaves by William Alexander. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2010.
A few years ago, I took a notion that I would like to work on breadmaking skills. Once the weather turns cold the appeal of the fireside is undeniable and a loaf of bread baking in the oven, filling the house with that warm, fresh-baked aroma, certainly helps to complete the ideal. There is a certain mystique around breadmaking, but the process is actually quite simple, at least for a basic loaf. I wrote about baking bread on a snowy pre-spring day back in March. You will find that post here.
A year or two ago, when I expressed an interest in breadmaking, my sister gifted me Bill Alexander’s book, 52 Loaves, for Christmas. Like many readers, I have a shelf full of books awaiting me. After joining the queue for an extended period, 52 Loaves finally made it to the top of my reading list. With another winter at hand, I enjoyed this foray into Alexander’s experiences with bread.
The book’s title, 52 Loaves, suggests to me that Alexander experiments with a different bread every week for a year. That’s not the case. Rather, Bill sets baking the perfect loaf of one particular type of bread as his goal and sets out to achieve this perfect loaf by experimenting with the baking process over a year of weekly sessions.
The loaf in question is peasant bread, or Pain de Campagne, which uses just four basic ingredients: flour, yeast, salt and water. Alexander’s search for perfection leads him in many directions across the year. He experiments with growing his own wheat and processing it into flour. He visits a yeast production factory in Montreal. He builds his own backyard oven. He experiments with the baker’s percentage. He develops his own levain, or sourdough starter. He takes a baking course in Paris at the famous Ritz Hotel. He visits a traditional market and communal baking oven in Tunisia. And finally, he shares the art of breadmaking with monks in France!
Alexander is a convivial and informative guide to the many aspects of breadmaking. His book is at once an entertaining read and a source of interesting facts and data about the staff of life, bread. Quite highly recommended for anyone who has ever enjoyed a loaf of bread.