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52 Loaves [Paperback]

William Alexander
4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)

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Book Description

October 25, 2011
William Alexander is determined to bake the perfect loaf of bread. He tasted it long ago, in a restaurant, and has been trying to reproduce it ever since. Without success. Now, on the theory that practice makes perfect, he sets out to bake peasant bread every week until he gets it right. He bakes his loaf from scratch. And because Alexander is nothing if not thorough, he really means from scratch: growing, harvesting, winnowing, threshing, and milling his own wheat.
An original take on the six-thousand-year-old staple of life, 52 Loaves explores the nature of obsession, the meditative quality of ritual, the futility of trying to re-create something perfect, our deep connection to the earth, and the mysterious instinct that makes all of us respond to the aroma of baking bread.

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52 Loaves + The $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden + Flirting with French: How a Language Charmed Me, Seduced Me, and Nearly Broke My Heart
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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

Obsession takes many forms. Alexander, already a seasoned horticultural adept, now turns his attention to producing the ultimate loaf of bread. To achieve perfection in so simple a creation (yeast, water, flour), Alexander husbands his own field of wheat. He learns to raise this ancient grass, harvest it, prepare the grain, grind it to flour, knead it with the purest water, generate the active microorganisms to puff up the dough, and then bake that dough to produce a properly satisfying crumb within a flawless crunchy brown crust. He researches his topic thoroughly, but realizes he needs more hands-on tutelage. Moreover, the definition of a perfect loaf changes both by place and time. Alexander travels the world to learn from masters of bread baking in various styles, ending up in a Norman monastery. Impressed with the monks’ daily spiritual discipline, Alexander structures this account of his quest according to the ancient canonical hours. --Mark Knoblauch --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Alexander's breathless, witty memoir is a joy to read. It's equal parts fact and fun . . . Alexander is wildly entertaining on the page, dropping clever one-liners in the form of footnotes and parenthetical afterthoughts throughout." --Boston Globe

"Nitpicking Obsessiveness was never so appetizing."
--Entertainment Weekly, Grade A-

(Boston Globe)

"Laugh out loud funny . . . Alexander definitely doesn't hold back . . . A great book, simultaneously funny and thoughtful." --Apartment Therapy: The Kitchn

“Alexander’s breathless, witty memoir is a joy to read. It’s equal parts fact and fun . . . Alexander is wildly entertaining on the page, dropping clever one-liners in the form of footnotes and parenthetical afterthoughts throughout.”
The Boston Globe

“Nitpicking obsessiveness was never so appetizing. A-.” —Entertainment Weekly

“A warm, laugh-out-loud [memoir] . . . Alexander writes about the ups (few), the downs (numerous) and a lively history of bread itself, all recounted in a self-effacing but often irreverent voice . . . There is much to savor here, and Alexander entertainingly unravels many of the staff of life’s deep mysteries for the uninitiated.”
The Oregonian

“The world would be a less interesting place without the William Alexanders who walk among us—the people who pursue all sorts of Holy grails and latch like ticks onto particular passions, yet who have the good grace to tell us all about their exploits with humor.” —Minneapolis Star Tribune

Product Details

  • Paperback: 339 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1616200502
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616200503
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (55 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #844,988 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

William Alexander is the author of the best-selling memoir, "The $64 Tomato," and "52 Loaves: A Half-Baked Adventure," his hilarious and moving account of a year spent striving to bake the perfect loaf of bread.

His latest book is "Flirting With French," about his often riotous attempt to fulfill a life-dream of learning French.

The New York Times Style Magazine says about Alexander, "His timing and his delivery are flawless." He has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, at the National Book Festival in Washington, DC, and was a 2006 Quill Book Awards finalist. Alexander has been a frequent contributor the New York Times op-ed pages, where he has opined on such issues as the Christmas tree threatening his living room, Martha Stewart, and the difficulties of being organic.

When not gardening, baking, or writing, Bill keeps his day job as director of technology at a psychiatric research institution, where, after 28 years, he persists in the belief that he is a researcher, not a researchee.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
38 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Just Flour, Water, Yeast & Salt May 2, 2010
If you enjoyed watching the movie "My Big Fat Greek Wedding", then you are going to relish reading "52 Loaves". Just as the audience did not have to be Greek to laugh at the hilarious movie scenes and to empathize with the protagonist's experiences, readers do not have to bake bread, to be fully sated with this wonderful book.

For me, the most satisfying book is one that balances character, plot, setting, and theme. In "52 Loaves", all four strands are woven in a tapestry of well-written, thoughtful words.

The main "character" is the author, William Alexander. If you can recall a time in your life when either a meal or food tantalized you with its sublime taste, smell and texture, you can understand the author's dogged attempts to recreate a memorable experience with a loaf of bread. Given bread's many dynamic variables (flour, yeast, time and temperature), replicating a loaf of bread without a recipe, is intricately complicated. As the story enfolds, we laugh heartily as the author encounters one mishap after another in search for this elusive recipe, while admiring his doggedness. The single-focused character who we meet at the beginning of the book becomes introspective and philosophical at the end.

The plot holds the reader's interest as it revolves around the author's activities, his tribulations paired with triumphs, his obstacles followed by revelations. Along with the author, we learn from and enjoy meeting, among others, the miller, the bakers, the hippie, the scientist, the storeowner, and the monk. While we know intuitively that the author will eventually bake a "perfect" loaf, we read on to share in this victory.
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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars no loaves November 21, 2010
By James
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
The author seemed to be on a quest to make an artisan bread with irregular holes and great taste. After a year, you'd think that he could learn how to do this and relate the results to the reader. No dice. He correctly explains that great bread flavor comes from a long steady rise. But he never cracks the riddle of the holes. As a result the book devolves into an entertaining story about "his" quest to understand how to make better bread and how he fails to reach enlightenment.

At the end of the book, he presents several recipes. As a bread chef, I classify bread recipes I read into three categories. The first are those copied from other cookbooks with little understanding. The second are ones with a unique nuance of some sort that could advance the general knowledge of breadmaking. The third are crap that either cannot be used, are imcomplete or won't work at all. His recipes are mostly classified as the latter. He recommends type 65 flour from France in one, for instance, that is not availble in this country, at least not from common sources. In some of the others, the recipe is incomplete-- for instance because they do not mention that the correct temperature to raise dough is 78 degrees(not 72!), and yes it makes a huge difference. Also he fails to mention in all cases that when the temperature of the inside of the loaf is at a certain temperature, the loaf is done. For a baguette, for instance it is 212 and for a batard it would be 190-195. How about the thickness and crispness of the crust? And I'm not even getting warmed up yet.

As you can see from the above, bread making is fairly technical. A full discussion of all of the factors mentioned above is clearly beyond the scope of a simple review.
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20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Needing bread June 11, 2010
In some ways, for those of us that make bread, the behavior of William Alexander is not crazy, it's normal, sensible behavior. When he says he wants to make bread from scratch, he really means it, growing his own wheat, building an earth oven, traveling to discover how to make that perfect loaf, to Morocco and what seems another final goal in bringing the baking of bread back to the monks of l'Abbaye Saint-Wandrille de Fontenelle.
It is surprising that he goes off on this intense venture and then seems to be surprised by techniques that are in relatively simple bread books, such as steaming/misting in baking and using high temperature; which in his quest he destroys his stove. Then there is the amazement that he discovers; bread might turn out more `authentic' by hand kneading instead of using his kitchen mixer; especially since many chapters begin with the burgeoning weight of his bread books. He starts at 2 pounds and ends at 64. As a dedicated lover of baking bread, I guess I don't understand the irritation of hand kneading - it builds muscles, you can take out your aggressions or just pleasantly zone out - just don't know how you would expect to make the perfect peasant bread with a kitchen mixer.
We learn much about his life, including the priority of bread over his love life. He muses about Da Vince's Last Supper - why are there dinner rolls when it's Passover and there should be unleavened bread, no Matzos?. He elaborates on the disease of pellagra, a disease that suddenly sprang up in the south and was found to be caused by a dietary deficiency that by 1929 and 1930 had claimed 200,000 victims. It resulted in enriched bread , the addition of niacin.
This is not a cookbook, there are 5 recipes at the end and a 4 page list of books for a baker's bookshelf. There is no index. It would be a book for those interested in cooking, especially the baking of bread, and yes for students of obsessive behavior too.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars I loved this book
I loved this book! It reads like a novel, but has the compelling journey of a quest laid out in a way that all can relate to it - even if you're not a baker per se.
Published 1 month ago by David
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
It's ok
Published 1 month ago by Calvin Tomita
5.0 out of 5 stars Very entertaining!
I loved my copy so much I gave this purchase as a gift to a bread baker!!! It is amazing the length Alexander has gone to create the perfect loaf of bread.
Published 3 months ago by Dana M Flanders
5.0 out of 5 stars Great read for the Artisan baker
Bread making fanatics will appreciate every aspect of this fun read, you might even find it inspirational. Read more
Published 6 months ago by Guignol
5.0 out of 5 stars Bread - the staff of life
Easy fun reading especially if you enjoy baking bread. Not only about bread but life in general and filled with humor. Read more
Published 6 months ago by tea wisdom
5.0 out of 5 stars One wonderful read!!
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It is a fairly intimate look at the life of a man. Yes, he sets himself a goal to bake bread every week. Read more
Published 6 months ago by RLC
5.0 out of 5 stars loved it!
This book reads like Dave Barry making bread but more. In the course of baking the perfect loaf, we learn about all the components, how a monastery works, French bakeries and... Read more
Published 6 months ago by MommaW
5.0 out of 5 stars LOVED IT!
If you think you will get all of the secret tricks for baking a perfect loaf of bread, well, then this is not the book you for you. Read more
Published 6 months ago by bridget lopez
5.0 out of 5 stars For those who enjoy knowing the background this is the book.
I enjoyed this recounting of one man's journey to make the perfect loaf. While I am not as serious a baker as the author, it is engaging to read about the history of bread making... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Jan Bower
5.0 out of 5 stars Like this book
Very interesting to read about author's quest for baking perfect bread.
It was recommended when I was buying another bread book, Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish which I... Read more
Published 7 months ago by Anonymous
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