Thursday, November 26, 2020

52 Loaves: a very short review

Somewhere along the way I was gifted William Alexander's 52 Loaves.

Alexander sets out to try to learn enough about baking bread to enable him to recreate, in his home kitchen, the marvelous loaf of bread he had at a fancy restaurant. He decides that he will devote a year to this goal, baking the same recipe over and over, at least once a week (hence the title).

Of course, just baking the same recipe over and over doesn't really get you anywhere, much though your ten thousand hours of practice might please Malcom Gladwell, so Alexander does much more than that. He reads books and watches videos about baking bread. He interviews bakers about their craft. He learns about his ingredients, how there are many kinds of flour, many kinds of yeast, variations of temperature and time, ratios of this to that, etc.

And he learns about the history of bread, and about the culture of bread. The cultural aspects are among the most interesting parts, as he ends up traveling to France, to Morocco, and elsewhere, to learn about how different societies include bread into their lives.

In Morocco, for example, Alexander learns that individual houses don't have their own ovens, and instead people bring their bread dough to a magnificant communally-shared wood-fired brick oven that can bake dozens of loaves at a time. He promptly decides that he needs a wood-fired brick oven of his own, and attempts to build one in his back yard, with predictably disastrous results.

It's that sort of a book.

The result is a pleasant mish-mash: you won't learn a lot about bread; you won't learn a lot about ancient French monasteries; you won't learn a lot about what's in that bag of flour you get from the supermarket, or about the differences between active yeast, cake yeast, and instant yeast; you won't learn a lot about why a boule is circular but a baguette is long and narrow, but you will learn a little bit about all these various subjects and more.

And you'll have a fair amount of fun doing so, as Alexander is a light and entertaining writer.

Moreover, since the book itself is constructed as 52 tiny chapters (an artifice, as these have little to do with the actual weeks of his bread-baking year), the book is perfect for placing in that special room in your house. You know, the one that you find yourself in with some regularity, where reading a 3.5 page chapter is just right for your time allotment.

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