Friday, March 4, 2016

Book 1 of the Food Books, _52 Loaves_ by William Alexander, 3/4/2015

Food books have a lot of autobiography about them, don't they? I mean, even cook books (and I'll review a cook book later this month, probably), which purport to be basically instruction manuals, invite the reader into the author's kitchen. There is a sense of the personal in books about food, a sense of intimacy that comes from talking about food. In 52 Loaves, William Alexander lays out, in loving detail, his project to bake a single loaf of bread once a week. He was attempting (and maybe succeeding?) to re-create a perfect loaf of bread he once consumed in a restaurant, a loaf of "peasant bread," with a perfect crust, an open, airy crumb, and a great flavor of rye and wheat and yeast. His writing is intensely personal, bringing his readers not merely into his yard (where he constructs an outdoor brick oven for baking - and, you know, if I weren't renting, I'd be greatly tempted...), or his kitchen (where he takes readers through the painstaking process of making bread from a poolish - a multi-hour endeavor), or even his analyst's office (mid-way through, Alexander worries that he is suffering from some sort of mental breakdown because he is so obsessed with this perfect loaf), but, really, inside his head.

Alexander weaves through his personal narrative a discussion of the history of bread as a food, globally, but also locally. Why is American commercial bread so universally reviled? What, actually, is "enriching" enriched flour? What lay at the root of years of pellagra throughout the American South? This is fascinating, and adds a stability to the personal narrative - not unlike (if I can engage in a little analogy) the gluten containing the yeasty leaven of Alexander's obsession.

In addition to the technical and historical discussion of bread making, Alexander also explores the philosophical implications of bread. How do we eat bread? Why is that important? Do people in France make and eat bread differently than Americans? How about Moroccans? What does this say about people in those cultures? Alexander visits France and Morocco to explore these questions. He also spends a week baking in a French monastery - a fascinating portion of the book in which Alexander explores the possibility that bread, for him, is spiritual or even religious on some level.

This was a surprisingly delightful book, full of humor (mostly self-deprecating), history (which I, naturally, appreciate), and thought provoking information. It also (as my baking earlier this week suggests) invites readers to experiment with baking. If you like bread, or baking, or the compulsions of aging American men, check out this book.

And how did my bread turn out? Well, it didn't live up to Alexander's standards, that's for sure. It had a fine, dense crumb (not the air holes that Alexander was trying to find, but not something that I was necessarily aiming for - big holes makes it tough to spread things on a slice) and a nice crust, but it lacked flavor. It was, sadly, a bland bread. I'll keep trying.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Bonus Post - Bread week - 3/1/2016

This week I'm reading 52 Loaves by William Alexander, which is about baking bread. So I decided to bake some bread today, and then I decided to tell you all about it. I'm using my mum's bread recipe, which has been historically well received. It would not, spoiler alert, meet with Alexander's exacting standards in that it has milk and butter in it. But that's a discussion for Friday. Today, I'm making bread!

First, here's the recipe [with my added notations]:

Bread Dough
1/4 cup margarine [I'm using butter, because I prefer to bake with butter] + 1 cup milk. Heat 2 mins [microwave - this recipe dates to when Mum adapted her bread recipe to the microwave]. Let cool.

1 cup tepid water ~[1/2 cup boiling water + ~1/2 cup water from the fridge {I have a jug of water in the fridge - don't you?}], 1 tsp sugar - mix, Add 1 Tbsp yeast. [Red Star dried yeast today]. Let sit 10 minutes. [Technically, I've been told that this step, "proofing" the yeast, is not necessary with modern yeast which is unlikely to be dead in the jar. But I really like watching the yeast get all bubbly! And it certainly doesn't hurt anything to proof the yeast.]

[Yup. That yeast is alive and kicking.]

Mix yeast mix with tepid milk. Add 3-4 cups of flour until dough is smooth and not sticky. [I should say, I've made this recipe many many times, and it's never needed less than 4 cups of flour. Your mileage, as they say, may vary. Oh, also, I added a good tsp of kosher salt, because my butter was unsalted.] Knead on floured board [or the counter] until dough is springy. [classically, a thumb print should spring back out of the dough when it has been sufficiently kneaded.]

Wedding ring in partial shadow...
Smooth, and not sticky

[Kneading dough is one of the few times when I remove my wedding band, because getting bread dough out of the engraving is a right pain the keister. {the engraving, because someone will want to know, reads, in Hebrew, "I am my beloved's, and my beloved is mine."}]

Put 1 Tbsp oil in empty bowl and coat dough with oil.

Microwave 1 cup [mug] of water  for 3 mins on high.

Put in bread 10 mins on 1%
20 mins on 0%
[ yeah. The first microwave we ever owned had power percentages, and 1% was just barely warm, and 0% was essentially a timer, no heat at all. But no microwave I've encountered since then works that way. So, 30 mins, no timer - this whole thing creates a nice steamy place for the bread to rise.]

Knead. Let sit on [heating] oven until risen again in pans. Bake at 350 F, 30 mins. [I've got one loaf in a pan, and one not - to go with soup tonight. I'll update with a report on how the baking goes.]

After the first rise

Working on the second rise