I’ve got a new Insider column up on possible demotions/promotions, looking at whether there’s any sense in those moves. I also recorded an extremely fun episode of Behind the Dish today, featuring Michael Schur of Parks & Recreation and FJM fame.
William Alexander’s 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust is a peculiar mix of memoir, baking how-to, and experiential non-fiction (“I did this weird/crazy thing so I could write a book about it”) that never quite hits on any of those areas until its final passage, where Alexander’s quixotic efforts to bake the perfect loaf of French country bread lands him in the disused bakery at a French monastery, teaching one of the brothers how to bake bread. It’s poorly written and just as poorly organized, yet when Alexander finally steps back and lets an actual story unfold, it makes the aggravation of the first 200-odd pages worthwhile.
Alexander’s quest to replicate a bread he’d tasted some years earlier leads to a resolution to bake a loaf of this style of bread, known as pain de campagne, every weekend for a full year (hence the title). This bread has a few key characteristics – a hard, crispy crust that shatters (in a good way) when you bite into it, and a moist crumb with plenty of air holes, sometimes a little large and irregularly shaped. It’s normally made with a levain, a wild yeast starter that can be years or decades old, and includes a blend of white and whole wheat flours. Alexander starts out from a recipe, struggles with it, and then goes out in search of expert opinions and better tools, even growing his own wheat and attempting to build an earthen oven in his backyard, while consulting people like the esteemed Peter Reinhart, whose books I regularly extol on this blog.
Alexander is fine when he’s describing these educational endeavors, from trips to grain mills and bakeries to phone and email conversations with bakers, but he’s in the book himself far too much, unfortunate as he’s not an interesting character and shares way, way too much information (especially about his sex life with his wife, who I assume has since castrated him for doing so). He’s also just not a good writer at all, verbose when he needs to be terse, and desperately unfunny, as in this description of a brief conversation with his wife:
“It was Julia’s idea,” I said clumsily.
As Ricky Ricardo used to say, “Lu-ceee, you got a lot of ‘splainin’ to do.”
Let’s start with Julia.
I’m referring of course, to the late Julia Child.
That’s about as hackneyed a phrase as you’ll find, followed by three mentions of “Julia” before he tells us which Julia … except that in a book about food, there’s only one Julia anyway, so why play coy?
Eventually, his bread-baking improves to the point where he’s at least churning out solid loaves, albeit not exactly up to his own high standards, so Alexander starts reaching out to monasteries in Europe in search of one that still bakes its own breads in-house. That search leads him to one that has a bakery, including a wood-fired oven, but hasn’t used it in some time; that monastery agrees to let Alexander, an agnostic, come bake in their ovens for a week or so if he agrees to teach one of the brothers how to do it so they can restart the tradition after he leaves. Alexander’s experiences there, building unexpected bonds with his protege and others in the monastery, while himself pondering some big questions (without coming to any real conclusions or experiencing a conversion), is so compelling and so well-written that it felt like it came from the pen of a different writer. The forced jocularity of the first three-fourths of the book disappears when there’s something significant at stake – he has to teach this novice how to bake this one kind of bread in a matter of a few days, using unfamiliar equipment while conforming to the monastery’s rigid schedule of prayer and services. And Alexander’s own reaction to that schedule, even attending some of the services himself and sharing meals with the brothers, gives us a much more mature picture of the man than his puerile jokes about rebuffing his wife’s advances because he needs to feed the starter do.
52 Loaves includes recipes at the end, including his method of developing and growing a levain (starter) as well as the unique recipe he developed for the monastery, adapting to the ingredients available there. (There are some differences between our flours and those you can buy in Europe, another informative section that showed Alexander can educate his readers when he wants to do so.) I have used a starter, and kept one going for about two years in Boston, but don’t bake enough bread to justify the work involved in keeping one, since the Arizona summers are so hot that we don’t want to run the oven at those temperatures for long periods of time. When the urge to bake bread strikes, I use a biga, a sort of overnight starter that begins with ¼ tsp of commercial, active yeast, allowing it to develop overnight in the fridge to get some of the flavor you’d get with a wild yeast starter – an inferior substitute, but not one most people (myself included) are that likely to notice.
Next up: In Pursuit of the Unknown: 17 Equations That Changed the World by Ian Stewart, presumably not the third baseman.