I am extremely pleased to say that the book I've been reading this week, 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust by William Alexander is a vast improvement over the previous bread-related memoir I reported on. It's possible, even probable, that you need to be at least a little baking obsessed to enjoy it as much as I did but anyone who has baked at all or even those of you who just really appreciate a good, chewy bite of the staff of life should appreciate this chronicle of a year of bread. Alexander, author of the 2007 book on gardening The $64 Tomato in which he told of his quest for the perfect garden, seems to have a problem with obsessions. Fortunately, he's very funny about it.
In 52 Loaves, he decides that he must, absolutely, recreate the perfect flavor, crumb and crunch of a piece of bread he ate some years ago while on vacation. He reasons that if he bakes the same artisan peasant bread every week for a year, he will come to understand it down to its tiniest filament of gluten and thus be able to achieve his goal. Along the way he guides the reader through the mysteries of wheat and flour varieties, the true nature of yeast, explains in plain English the fearful calculus of the Baker's Percentage and allows us to follow him into the subterrenean kitchens of the Paris Ritz. He travels to meet bakers, scientists and like-minded enthusiasts. He even grows, harvests, threshes, winnows and grinds his own crop of wheat. Best of all, he is hilarious as he describes his attempts to make his perfect loaf. In the last section of the book, he convinces the monks at a monastery in Normandy to let him come bake bread in their ancient community. This section is weightier and clearly important to the author. He seems to finally get close to the "why" of his bread obsession.
I highly recommend this book for any novice bakers (and even for people who have more than a few loaves under their belts). I guarantee it will make your own struggles with levain and alveoli easier and much, much funnier.