William Alexander is determined to bake the perfect loaf of bread. He tasted it long ago, in a restaurant, and has been trying to reproduce it ever since. Without success. Now, on the theory that practice makes perfect, he sets out to bake peasant bread every week until he gets it right. He bakes his loaf from scratch. And because Alexander is nothing if not thorough, he really means from scratch: growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and milling his own wheat.
An original take on the six-thousand-year-old staple of life, 52 Loaves explores the nature of obsession, the meditative quality of ritual, the futility of trying to re-create something perfect, our deep connection to the earth, and the mysterious instinct that makes all of us respond to the aroma of baking bread.
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William Alexander, the author of two critically acclaimed books, lives in New York's Hudson Valley. By day the IT director at a research institute, he made his professional writing debut at the age of fifty-three with a national bestseller about gardening, The $64 Tomato. His second book, 52 Loaves, chronicled his quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread, a journey that took him to such far-flung places as a communal oven in Morocco and an abbey in France, as well as into his own backyard to grow, thresh, and winnow wheat. The Boston Globe called Alexander "wildly entertaining," the New York Times raved that "his timing and his delivery are flawless," and the Minneapolis Star Tribune observed that "the world would be a less interesting place without the William Alexanders who walk among us." A 2006 Quill Book Awards finalist, Alexander won a Bert Greene Award from the IACP for his article on bread, published in Saveur magazine. A passion bordering on obsession unifies all his writing. He has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition and at the National Book Festival in Washington DC and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times op-ed pages, where he has opined on such issues as the Christmas tree threatening to ignite his living room and the difficulties of being organic. Now, in Flirting with French, he turns his considerable writing talents to his perhaps less considerable skills: becoming fluent in the beautiful but maddeningly illogical French language.
Obsession takes many forms. Alexander, already a seasoned horticultural adept, now turns his attention to producing the ultimate loaf of bread. To achieve perfection in so simple a creation (yeast, water, flour), Alexander husbands his own field of wheat. He learns to raise this ancient grass, harvest it, prepare the grain, grind it to flour, knead it with the purest water, generate the active microorganisms to puff up the dough, and then bake that dough to produce a properly satisfying crumb within a flawless crunchy brown crust. He researches his topic thoroughly, but realizes he needs more hands-on tutelage. Moreover, the definition of a perfect loaf changes both by place and time. Alexander travels the world to learn from masters of bread baking in various styles, ending up in a Norman monastery. Impressed with the monks’ daily spiritual discipline, Alexander structures this account of his quest according to the ancient canonical hours. --Mark Knoblauch
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