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, rather than with pomposity.
Consider the subtitle of Alexander's "52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust." Anyone who bakes bread at home knows there's no thing as a perfect crust. Sure, we come close -- so close -- which is what keeps us kneading together flour, water, salt and yeast again and again, and keeps our family within arms' length of the cutting board.
Alexander's muse is a loaf of bread he'd tasted years earlier in a restaurant in New York City. "The dark brown, caramelized crust gave a satisfying crackle when you bit into it -- not a crunch, but an actual crackle -- and managed to defy physics by remaining both crispy and chewy at the same time," he wrote. This bread had "an incredible perfume that, cartoonlike, wafted up from the table, did a curl, and, it seemed, levitated me from the table." Most telling, though, was Alexander's utter surprise; he'd never imagined that bread could be this good.
Yet, with a hubris that is both aggravating and charming, he rises from the table vowing to learn how to make such a loaf himself. After several failed attempts, Alexander decides to take a more focused approach, baking the same recipe for peasant bread once a week for a year, until he achieves a bread worthy of levitation. His journey, as well as his job as a writer, takes him to a yeast factory, a flour mill, a Parisian bread class, Moroccan back alleys, and a monastery in Normandy.
He even plants, harvests, winnows, threshes and grinds his own wheat, most of this with grim humor. Alexander's willingness to portray himself as somewhat hapless is what saves this book from self-absorption, given that its premise is witnessing him bake the same loaf of bread week after week.
The final result of his journey looks and tastes very much like success, but its culmination is as much spiritual as edible. Alexander's pursuit may be bread, but anyone in pursuit of an ideal will probably recognize his musings on whether it's possible to re-create a memory, much less seek perfection. When those around him question his obsession, you find yourself agreeing with them -- while also wondering how exhilarating it might feel to be so passionate about something.
The book concludes with four recipes for "the best bread you've ever tasted."
Week 1 starts now.
Kim Ode is a writer at the Star Tribune and the author of "Baking With the St. Paul Bread Club."