Then I was wandering the web and stumbled across the author’s blog, and then to a book excerpt on his author website. From there (I think?) I linked to Amazon, where I discovered that the book was on my wish list (but an earlier edition at a higher price), and since I wanted to buy other things off of Amazon anyway and would get free shipping, I bought the book.
52 Loaves: A Half-Baked Adventure by William Alexander is a food memoir about a man who tastes the perfect bread, and then spends a year baking one loaf a week trying to recreate that bread. It was a loaf of pain de campagne (peasant bread), with very open crumb. He spends a lot of time trying to get his bread to have lots of holes.
Reading about someone’s obsession with perfection of one sort or another when you don’t share that obsession can be (choose from the following): boring, pity-inducing, irritating, or enraging, depending on the person’s attitude. This book is none of the above, because while the author is fixated on the perfect loaf of bread, he doesn’t insist or expect that everyone else in the world share that fixation. He has a sense of humor about it.
In fact, it’s a very funny book. I enjoy wit and humor in writing probably more than any other quality, so I think that’s the major strength of this book. Otherwise, 52 weeks of the same bread (although he does take a week from time to time to make other breads) can get a bit monotonous, even for someone who likes bread.
Also, just about the time you start to get bored with his domestic (that is, inside the United States) bread making adventures, he goes to France and then Morocco, and back to France, thus combining food memoir with travel memoir, and I love reading about travel. The suspense picks up because you wonder if he’ll be able to get his sourdough starter through airport security, (I can’t be the only person who has ever idly wondered how you could get sourdough starter though airport security, can I? Wait, don’t answer that.) and if he’ll be able to teach the monks in France to bake bread, and if he does, if they’ll still want to bake bread after he leaves.
I learned a lot about bread baking reading this book. Bits of useful and interesting information are woven throughout the text. He visits a yeast factory. I had never really thought about how commercial yeast comes to be, so that was enlightening.
Like many memoirs, there are moments of TMI. I learned things about William Alexander’s marital relations that I didn’t need to know. Also, if you’re sensitive to such things, there are a few swear words.
After reading about this loaf of bread for 324 pages, I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. So I was happy to see several recipes included at the back of the book. I baked the basic pain de campagne. More on that tomorrow.