Publication Day: William Alexander’s 52 Loaves with Special Guest Baker Kelly Bowen

William Alexander’s culinary memoir, 52 Loaves: One Man’s Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, is now out in paperback. This book lends new meaning to the term “from scratch.” Alexander sets out to bake the perfect loaf of bread by growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and milling his own wheat. His quest takes him through dangerous back alleys of Morocco, where he bakes his loaf in an ancient communal oven; to Paris, where he enrolls in the cours de boulangerie at the legendary École Ritz Escoffier; to a monastery in Normandy, where (his lack of French and faith notwithstanding) he becomes bread baker to the monks; and finally to his own backyard, where he builds a lopsided brick oven and learns that perfection is just a state of mind.

To celebrate its paperback release, our heroic Publicity Manager, Kelly Bowen, volunteered to take on the challenge of baking William Alexander’s peasant loaf. Read on for her hilarious account of the baking process, and don’t forget to check out the excerpt from the book at the bottom of this page!

We’ve set aside three copies for our devoted readers. Want to win one? Just leave a comment here or on our Facebook page, and you’ll be automatically entered.

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A Naïve First-Time Baker

Life is usually an annoying comedy of errors. Case in point – eagerly volunteering to bake a loaf of bread in honor of the paperback release of William Alexander’s 52 Loaves. The peasant bread recipe  took him a year to perfect, but I naively thought to myself, I like to bake and cook, and I can follow a recipe. How hard can it be? It doesn’t have to be perfect.

Sigh.

Here are just a few of my self-inflicted errors:

1.     Not looking at the recipe until 10:00am on Official Baking Day. At which point I realized several things:

    1. I should have started three days earlier, in order to make a levain from fresh apples.
    2. I needed to buy numerous ingredients and tools, which resulted in one trip to Kroger, Whole Foods, my local farmer’s market, and Food Lion. After all these trips I realized also that you can’t buy levain from the grocery store.
    3. I was in waayyyyyy over my head.

2.     One broken bottle of wine at Whole Foods, which slipped while I was juggling three bags of flour and an electronic kitchen measurer.

3.     With no solution in sight to the no-levain problem, I contemplated using a different recipe (that didn’t involve levain) from Baking with Brother Boniface, written by the baker for Mepkin Abbey in Monck’s Corner, SC. (The abbey is mentioned in 52 Loaves, and coincidentally, my aunt is their office manager and gave me the cookbook.) Which resulted in my second trip to Whole Foods and Kroger for more ingredients.

4.     After a reassuring conversation with my co-worker Katie Ford, who I now consider to be the long-lost sister of Ree Drummond, the Pioneer Woman, she advised me to make a poolish, which would act like a levain in a pinch.

By 3:00pm on Saturday, I was prepared. I had a solution to the levain problem, all my ingredients and tools, and had actually read the recipe in full. So I started off with making a poolish ,which sat out overnight. When Sunday morning arrived, my poolish was twice the size and bubbling like a pro!

Using my electric measurer (which I highly recommend over a manual one), I added in all the ingredients and mixed by hand.

 

 The dough was put back into the mixing bowl, covered, and sat out for 25 minutes. I kneaded it on my un-greased countertop for 7 minutes, and put it back into the mixing bowl to rise for 4 hours.

I then put the dough on my lightly floured countertop, and pressed it into a disk, forming a boule. I placed it seam-side up in a colander covered with a well-floured linen napkin, and covered with Saran Wrap. At the same time, I heated up my oven to 500ºF, and put a cast iron skillet on my lower rack, and a pizza stone on my top rack.

 

About 1.5 hours later, I put the loaf onto a well-floured cookie sheet (the receipt calls for a baker’s peel, which I refused to buy), and sprinkled with rye flour. Taking a straight razor, I made a tick-tock-toe pattern on the top of my dough (or grignes).

I then quickly slide the dough onto the pizza stone and poured 1 cup of water into the cast iron skillet, trying to avoid too much hot air from escaping. Turning the oven down to 480ºF, I baked the dough for 20 minutes until it turned dark brown, and then turned the oven down to 425ºF and baked for an additional 30 minutes.

After rapping the bottom of the loaf to make sure it had a hollow, drumlike sound, I turned the oven off and stuck the bread back in for 15 more minutes. After letting it cool for 2 hours, it was ready to eat!

So after a hilariously frustrating weekend of scouring the city for ingredients, tools, and levain, I felt very much like William Alexander in his year-long quest to make the perfect loaf. (In my case, one somewhat presentable loaf would have done just fine.) Will I ever try it again? Absolutely not. But I give mad props to William Alexander – and all you bakers out there – for attempting this on a daily or weekly basis!

 

 

– Kelly Bowen, Publicity Manager

[scribd id=31276917 key=key-22tl08hv5x6vs3jgzt1f mode=list]

20 Comments On This Post:

October 25, 2011
10:15 am
Lisa Lessard says...

I am a bread making devotee and would love to receive a copy of this book!

October 25, 2011
10:19 am
Catherine McMullen says...

I’d love to bake bread out of this book for the next year. Yum!

October 25, 2011
10:20 am
Margie Hunter says...

I’m on this same quest, but I want someone else to do the hard work. :) I love to bake, but just moved to a new place and I haven’t tested my oven yet. This book could be just the inspiration I need. And Kelly’s loaf looks great! How did it taste?

October 25, 2011
10:22 am
laurie says...

your bread is beautiful! and your blog is funny.

    October 25, 2011
    12:06 pm
    admin says...

    Thanks, Laurie!

October 25, 2011
10:22 am
Grace says...

I would love to win this book!

October 25, 2011
10:26 am
Jill G says...

Yummy! This looks like a great book.

October 25, 2011
10:30 am
Judy Campbell says...

Hoping to be baking from the copy I win very soon!

October 25, 2011
10:44 am
Michael D. Barton says...

Looks like a great book!

October 25, 2011
10:46 am
Laurie Blum says...

Bon appetite … Would love to win this book!!

October 25, 2011
10:50 am
Julie says...

Thanks for chronicling your baking journey, Kelly! Now you’ve got me wanting a copy of this book.

October 25, 2011
11:03 am
Melissa Miracle says...

Your book sounds great. I think I might be inspired to do this. I love the smell of bread as it bakes. Just thinking about it makes me relax. I would be greatful & honored to receive your book.

October 25, 2011
11:19 am
Andrea Bevernitz says...

Bread – the staff of life for my whole family. We’d love to expand our repertoires.

October 25, 2011
11:50 am
rhonda says...

would love to Bake Bread from this book!!

October 25, 2011
12:24 pm
Ann says...

I’ve been thinking about making peasant bread for awhile now; maybe this book will be the nudge I need.

October 25, 2011
12:32 pm
Lucy says...

Looks really good. Even looks like something I could do!

October 25, 2011
1:05 pm
Tom M. Franklin says...

When I was a teenager I spent one bored summer teaching myself how to bake. Armed with my mothers JOY OF COOKING and box of hand-written recipes, I made some of my favorite things to eat. One day I had a hankering for Cinnamon Raisin Bread. It took most of the day to make, but I was very pleased with the results. (So was the rest of my family)

Since then, very few recipes have intimidated me on procedures alone. I mean, if I could make bread and it was no big deal, how hard could most other things be to make?

October 25, 2011
1:42 pm
Ruth says...

Since carbs are my long-time friend… ;] ..I’ll have to see about getting the book. Looks good!

October 25, 2011
4:00 pm
jen says...

Sounds just like my kind of challenge :-> I had to laugh at your grocery runs. I’ve made quite a few like that myself, usually to find that the one key ingredient I need isn’t available for a 50 mile radius. I hope you do try again, home baked bread (and the smell of it) are little slices of wonderful in life.

October 25, 2011
7:17 pm
Barbara says...

I just baked a treat for my middle school percussionists, but not from scratch. Fortunately my endeavor was a little less intense than Kelly’s. I’d love a copy of Alexander’s memoir 52 Loaves.

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