The story of one man’s obsession to bake the perfect loaf of bread. Our hero ate a bit of bread at a fancy New York restaurant and was transported by it. He asked what it was called, and the waiter told him it was Peasant Bread. He then decided to bake his own Peasant Bread. The logical thing, call up the restaurant and ask if you can have their recipe, or Google peasant bread and see what kinds of recipes pop up, take a back seat to irrational exuberance.
Over the course of 52 weeks, William Alexander decided to bake one loaf of bread a week-the same kind of bread each week, from the same recipe. He is serious about using only four ingredients-flour, water, salt, and yeast. Along the way he learns about enriched flour, odd diseases, several French words for bread starter, that the Metric System rocks, and that making a clay bread oven in your backyard takes a bit more than a weekend. Oh, and growing wheat is pretty easy, turning it into flour is pretty hard.
Being a huge of fan of minor obsessions myself-but not being very good at sticking to them for a whole year-I can sort of relate to William Alexander’s desire to bake the perfect loaf of peasant bread. At the same time, his life transforming efforts seem completely out of proportion to the task at hand. Like most modern Americans, I am not overly impressed with bread, even good bread. I do like the occasional artisan loaf and I was one of the bazillion people who bought a bread maker and used it three times, but I never became obsessed with bread. I have baked the occasional loaf now and then, but it would have never occurred to me to bake the same loaf every week.
What keeps the book from being a bit of repetitious silliness is the generous laying on of all of the research that William gathers as he tries to figure out what is going in his oven and why his bread isn’t turning out like the loaf he ate at the fancy restaurant. Turns out there is a lot more to making bread than just mixing it up and throwing it in the oven-well, if you want to make perfect bread that is. He reads lots of books, visits a yeast factory, and brings bread back to a Monastery in France.
Along the way we are told a number of terms used in the art of making bread, lots of bread making gurus are mentioned, and we learn that maybe it isn’t a good idea to preheat a standard home oven to 550 degrees-though in all honesty, I have cooked the occasional pizza at that temperature myself. The story of the perfect loaf is a surprisingly touching one in which I found myself tearing up near the end.
52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust‘s finial few pages contain the recipes and instructions for creating, or at least how to attempt, to make your own perfect loaf. It’s been a while since I baked a loaf of bread-I might have to give one of these a shot.