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.
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.
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:
- I should have started three days earlier, in order to make a levain from fresh apples.
- 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.
- 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