I once tried to bake my own bread. I had a shiny new red KitchenAid and a “simple recipe” in hand. I was on a mission to save money, avoid preservatives, and in general become the kind of person who bakes her own bread.
Most of my Day of Baking Bread was spent kneading, punching, rising, kneading again, punching again, until my loaf made its way into the oven. My kitchen was covered in a thin layer of flour, the sink had a gluey residue of dough slowly forming on its edge, and the sun was beginning to set when my apartment was suddenly filled with the glorious aroma of baking bread. That was enough encouragement for me, and I mopped the floor eagerly, awaiting a taste of my honest day’s work. Now imagine my disdain when the bread I had slaved over tasted like . . . well . . . bread. Not even good bread! Just regular old bread from the grocery store. And there ended my adventures in bread baking – until, that is, William Alexander’s new book 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust arrived on my desk.
Like me, Alexander didn’t think he had the bread gene – he had tried baking bread, always with mediocre results. Unlike me, though, Alexander refused to give up on his dream. Instead, he worked diligently (and, luckily for us readers, extremely entertainingly) in a year-long effort to master this culinary art, to understand the exact chemistry of flour and water and yeast and salt that would produce a delectable crust, just the right crumb (otherwise known as air holes), and a fantastic flavor. So, inspired by his memoir, I am now giving bread baking another chance.
Alexander makes his own starter, also called levain or sourdough, which is used in place of yeast. Step One in my efforts to replicate Alexander’s journey (you’ll have to read the book to learn if he ultimately succeeds in baking the perfect loaf) started with an apple (and the peel of another apple), which right now is fermenting at room temperature on my kitchen counter. This will become the start of the levain. (If you’ve ever wiped off the haze from a fresh-picked apple, you’ve wiped off yeast.) I’ll let you know how it goes. Stay tuned!
-Katie (Katie Ford is the Assistant Marketing Manager for Algonquin Books)
For more on William Alexander and 52 Loaves:
1. Visit his WEBSITE.
2. Watch his slide show and listen, as he talks about the inspiration for his year-long quest for the perfect loaf.
3. Check out his contribution to a New York Times article about local food.