Not many books about baking bread begin with sowing wheat in October. However, that is the case for "52 Loaves," the chronicle of author William Alexander's quest to craft the perfect loaf of bread. He challenges himself to use only four ingredients: flour, water, salt and yeast. Baking a loaf of bread every week for a year, he will eventually not only harvest his small crop of wheat, but also purify his local tap water and cultivate wild yeast. I'm surprised he didn't mine his own salt, or at least have a chapter on its origins.
Alexander's research is comprehensive and amusing. He takes a close look at the roles played by Van Leeuwenhoek and Pasteur in the evolution of bread. He explains that super-purified white bread led to the pellagra epidemic of the early 20th Century, finally cured by enriched super-purified white bread. The magnificence of his obsession has many, mostly self-deprecating episodes of humor. For example, his backyard yields mud to mortar an outdoor oven in a grueling weekend DIY project.
The author suffers dismal failure; he rebuffs ridicule; he annoys family members; he wins a ribbon at the New York State Fair. His mission takes him to France, North Africa, and an international conference in Maine about dough.
Fifty-two weeks (and chapters) later, while baking bread for a French monastery, he succeeds and concludes the book with several recipes.
For a more erudite and professional look at making bread, as well mouth-watering pictures, you might instead turn to "Flour Water Salt Yeast: the Fundamentals of Artisan Bread and Pizza," a new addition to SLCL's collection by bakery chef Ken Forkish.
--Bob S., Rock Road Branch