One man describes what he learned about the 6,000-year-old history of bread during his year-long quest to bake the perfect loaf.

Guests

  • William Alexander author of "The $64 Tomato"

William Alexander’s Recipes

Peasant Bread

Ingredients:
400 grams unbleached all-purpose or bread flour
260 grams levain (see Building a Levain)
60 grams whole wheat flour
30 grams whole rye flour
13 grams salt
292 grams water (room temp)
1/8 teaspoon instant yeast (also called bread machine, fast-acting, or Rapid-Rise yeast)

Prepare the dough
1. At least 2 hours before beginning (you can do this the night before), feed levain as follows: Remove levain from refrigerator and add equal parts flour and room-temperature water (I use about 130 g each, which replenishes what I’ll be using in the bread). Stir/whip well, incorporating oxygen, and leave on the countertop, with the cover slightly ajar. Starter should be bubbling and lively when you begin your bread.
2. Place a large bowl on your scale and zero out the scale. Now add the flours, one at a time, zeroing out the scale after each addition. Separately weigh and add the salt. Add the levain, a dash of instant yeast, and the water.
3. Mix thoroughly with a wet hand until the dough is homogeneous. Mist a piece of plastic wrap with vegetable oil spray, press it directly onto the dough, and leave the dough to autolyse for 20-25 minutes.
Kneading and fermentation
4. Knead by hand 7-9 minutes (see my kneading video if you’ve never kneaded before). If you insist, you can use a stand mixer with a dough hook for 2-3 minutes. Knead until dough is elastic and smooth.
5. Clean out and dry the mixing bowl (no soap), mist with vegetable oil spray, and replace the dough. Place the oiled plastic wrap back onto the dough. Ferment at room temperature (68 -72 degrees is ideal) for 4 to 5 hours.
Form and proof the boule
6. Using your hand or a flexible pastry scraper, remove the dough to a floured countertop.
7. Gently press down to form a disk about an inch thick. Try not to press out the gas bubbles or fuss with it too much.
8. Fold the edges into the center. Move around the disk several times, pulling and gathering, tighter and tighter, trying to create some surface tension, as you form a ball. Finish with a just few seconds of half-rolling, half-dragging across the floured countertop, moving the boule in a tight circular motion.
9. If you don’t have a banneton or basket for proofing boules, simply line a kitchen colander with a well-floured linen napkin and place the boule inside, seam side up.
10. Cover with same piece of plastic wrap and set aside to proof, 1½ to 2 hours. While dough is proofing, place a baking stone in lower third of oven, and an old cast iron skillet or pan on the bottom shelf. Preheat oven to its highest setting.

Score and bake
11. After 1 and 1/2 to 2 hours, when the dough is proofed (another term for the second rise), it should have increased in volume by about half, and feel slightly springy. Transfer each loaf to a peel that is liberally sprinkled with rice flour or corn meal (or covered with a piece of parchment paper, but note that the paper will burn if you preheat the oven to 550 degrees F). Sprinkle the top of the loaf with rye or rice flour if you want that country “dusted” look.
12. Make several symmetrical slashes (or grignes) with your lame or razor. A “tic-tac-toe” grid is a good way for beginners to start.
13. Immediately slide loaf (including paper, if using parchment) onto stone and, wearing an oven mitt, add 1 cup water to skillet. Try to minimize the time the oven door is open.
14. Set oven temperature to 480 degrees F.
15. After 20-25 minutes, or when loaves have turned dark brown, reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees F.
16. Bake until loaves register 210 degrees F in center, about 50 to 60 minutes) with an instant-read thermometer, or until a rap on the bottom of the loaf produces a hollow, drum-like sound.
17. Return bread to oven, with oven off and door closed, for 10 to 15 minutes.
18. Remove bread to a rack and cool for at least 2 hours before serving.

Building a Sourdough (the easy way!)

Levain, sourdough, starter…call it want you want — it is the secret to authentic, yeasty, artisan bread. San Francisco sourdough has, in a sense, given all sourdoughs a bad name, but most wild yeast starters are far milder and (to my palate) more pleasant as well.

When it comes to making a levain, there is as much superstition as science being spread around, and there are as many methods to create a levain as there are bakers. I suspect all of them work and all of them occasionally fail — the main difference is that some routines are more involved than others.

The nascent levain requires the most attention during its first couple of days, so if you’re not around weekdays, make your apple water on Tuesday or Wednesday, and you can begin adding the flour on Saturday morning. I like to include a little whole wheat flour in the initial feedings, as it seems to give the starter a boost. See below for full instructions.

Prepare the apple water:

  1. Let 1 quart of tap water sit out overnight to remove any chlorine.
    1. Look for a hazy apple, preferably from a farm stand (the haze is wild yeast). Cut the apple into 1-inch chunks, and place, along with the peel of a second apple, into a container with 1 cup of the water. (Cover and reserve the remaining water for later.)
    2. Let the apple and water sit covered, at room temperature, for 3 days, stirring daily. The mixture should be foaming a bit and smell a little like cider by the third day.

Build the levain:
Day 1

  1. Combine 50 g of whole wheat flour (preferably organic) with 350 g unbleached all-purpose or bread flour.
  2. Measure out 150 g of the apple water through a fine strainer and add 150 g of the flour mixture. Whip vigorously, scrape down the sides, and cover with a screen (a frying pan spatter screen is ideal) or cheesecloth.
  3. Leave the levain at room temperature, whipping every few hours to incorporate air. It is important to keep the starter aerated during the first few days.

Day 2

  1. Add 75 g of the reserved tap water and 75 g flour, whip, and leave at room temperature, covered as before, for another 24 hours, again whipping occasionally. You should see bubbles starting to form and the mixture increasing in bulk.

Day 3

  1. Transfer levain to a clean 2-quart container. Avoid transferring any of the dried bits from the sides of the old container.
  2. Add 75 g each of bread flour and reserved tap water, whip and cover as before.
  3. If at any point of this process, the levain starts to smell a bit funky, discard half, replenish with flour and water and whip more frequently. If the levain seems limpid (not rising and bubbling), increase the frequency of feedings.

Day 4

  1. Feed it once again, with the remaining 100 g of flour and 100 g water, let it sit at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, and your levain should be ready for use, although it will continue to develop flavor over the next few weeks. You can either use it in bread today or go to the next step.
  2. Cover with an airtight lid, store in refrigerator, and follow the care and feeding directions below.

Care and feeding of your levain:
Like an infant, a levain gets easier to care for with age. Just observe the following guidelines:
1. Keep the levain in a covered container in the refrigerator.
2. For the first few weeks, feed twice a week as described in the next step; afterwards, a weekly feeding is sufficient.
3. To feed, stir thoroughly and discard about 250 g of levain. Replace with 125 g water (straight from the tap is fine at this point) and 125 g flour (unbleached bread or all-purpose), and whip with a spoon or plastic spatula. Leave the lid ajar (so gases can escape) at room temperature for 2 to 4 hours before tightly covering and returning to refrigerator.
4. If you are baking regularly, feeding is simply part of preparing the levain for the bread, and no other feeding is necessary. You should always feed the levain several hours or the night before making bread, so replenish with the amount of levain the recipe calls for, and you maintain a constant supply of fresh levain with no effort.
5. Occasionally clean out your container with hot water (never soap) to remove the crud that forms on the sides.
6. If you want a stronger levain, leave it out overnight once in a while, and feed with smaller “meals.”
7. You may see a puddle of liquid forming on top, a product of fermentation. It can simply be stirred back in, but if you want to remove it, place the container of levain on your digital kitchen scale, and zero out. Pour off the liquid, return the levain to the scale and replenish with fresh water and just a little flour (in a ratio of about 3 to 1) until you’re back at zero. Then feed as usual.

Bread
By E.J. Mudd

Mix flour, water yeast and salt.
If the phones rings, don’t answer.
Your fingers are a sticky mess.

Let dough rise in a nice, warm place.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
You’re creating.

Knead till satiny. Divide into loaves.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
You’re sculpting.

Bake in hot oven till crisp and brown.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
You’re in aromatherapy.

Take out and eat a piece at once.
If the phone rings, don’t answer.
You’re in heaven.

Panis Angelicus.

Transcript

  • 11:06:53

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Flour, water, yeast and salt, they're basic ingredients of bread. Sounds simple, but as just about any baker can tell you, baking bread is an intricate balance of science and art. Writer William Alexander threw himself into both in a year-long quest to create from scratch the perfect loaf of bread, wheat-floured flavored with a crisp but chewy crust, natural sweetness and an airy texture.

  • 11:07:43

    MS. DIANE REHMNow, in a new memoir titled "52 Loaves," he describes how he learned to create that perfect loaf. And William Alexander joins me to talk about life and baking bread and thank heavens that loaf of bread is sitting right here in front of me. Good morning to you, William.

  • 11:08:08

    MR. WILLIAM ALEXANDERGood morning. And you're lucky that bread made it to the studio. I had to fight off five or six people of your staff who wanted a bite of that on the way in.

  • 11:08:17

    REHMI'll bet, I'll bet, I'll bet. And we're going to put the recipe for this loaf of bread up on our website. In the meantime, if you'd like to join us to talk with William Alexander about his new book, join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to drshow@wamu.org and you can join us on Facebook or send us a tweet.

  • 11:09:01

    REHMIn just a few moments, I'm going to have a taste of this bread because William Alexander not only brought the bread, he brought a starter with him. And he brought a bread knife and this wonderful board. William Alexander, what in the world got you started on this?

  • 11:09:22

    ALEXANDERWell, as a kid, I never liked bread. I grew up with cellophane bread...

  • 11:09:29

    REHMWonder bread...

  • 11:09:29

    ALEXANDER...Wonder bread and Silver Cup and just horrible, pre-sliced, cellophane-wrapped breads that barely resemble bread. So as a kid, I never liked bread. I thought I'd be the last person to ever be learning to bake bread, let alone write about learning to bake bread. And I don't know maybe about seven or eight years ago, my wife and I were dining at a restaurant in New York City, a very fancy place and they brought over the bread basket. And I kind of moaned and looked for a sticky bun or something that I could eat. And not finding anything, I tried a piece of this bread in the basket.

  • 11:10:09

    ALEXANDERAnd I was just -- I was startled that bread could be this good. I mean, the first thing that struck me was the crust. My first bite into the crust had an actual crackle to it.

  • 11:10:20

    REHMRight.

  • 11:10:21

    ALEXANDERAnd managed almost to defy physics to be both crispy and chewy at the same time and as you mentioned it had kind of a natural sweetness that's developed during the baking process. And the crumb which is the word bakers use to describe the interior of the bread, the crumb was every bit as good. It wasn't white bread. It wasn't whole wheat, but it had this wonderful yeasty smell and flavor. And it had these wonderful air holes and kind of an open honeycombed structure and I just had never tasted bread like this. And as we got up to leave, I said to my wife, Ann, I said I've got to learn to bake this bread.

  • 11:11:10

    REHMDid you do what I did when I encountered the best English trifle I had ever tasted? I asked the waiter if I could go into the kitchen and talk with the chef and ask him for the recipe. Did you think of doing that?

  • 11:11:32

    ALEXANDERI did not think of doing that. Most restaurants don't bake their own bread. They have the bread brought in. But I've been asked that question several times since. And looking back, I think it's like if you went and you heard a wonderful violin concerto and you said, gee, I've got to learn to play that.

  • 11:11:58

    REHMHow do I do that?

  • 11:11:59

    ALEXANDERYou wouldn't go backstage and ask the soloist for the sheet music. You know, there's a learning process that needs to go on.

  • 11:12:05

    REHMYou know what happened? The chef said, no, I will not give you the recipe. So I did the same thing you did. I spent a year perfecting...

  • 11:12:17

    ALEXANDER...really…?

  • 11:12:17

    REHM...that recipe for English trifle so I admire your persistence. I congratulate your family because they put up with it.

  • 11:12:28

    ALEXANDERThey sure did. They were troopers. I baked a loaf of bread for a year and the same loaf of bread for a year.

  • 11:12:35

    REHMThe same loaf?

  • 11:12:35

    ALEXANDERI was just trying to bake this peasant loaf and I baked many, many bad loaves. I baked a loaf that was so bad I couldn't serve it as bread so I said -- well, I came across this recipe for a soup where you put the bread in the bottom of the soup...

  • 11:12:55

    REHMOh, sure, yeah.

  • 11:12:56

    ALEXANDER…and then you put a piece of fish on top and I said this will be perfect for this. When I put the bread into the broth, there was just this sound like (makes noise) and in a moment, the bowl was totally dry. And my daughter Katy looked down and said, dad, what's for dinner?

  • 11:13:15

    REHMOh, my goodness, well, how much of a baker had you been previous to this whole process?

  • 11:13:23

    ALEXANDEROh, none. I had tried a dozen times to try to bake this wonderful loaf that I had tasted once and I just baked a couple of doorstops. And then, I went on to other things, to building a garden. And then, it wasn't until some years later when the kids were finally out of the house and I had a little more time, I said, look, I'm going to attack this. I'm going to bake every week for a year. I'm going to do it the way I tell my kids to learn things, by, you know, having a schedule and being disciplined and that was the approach that I took.

  • 11:14:00

    REHMYou know, I share your history because I can remember my dad saying to me, Diane, you're not eating bread. And I had no appetite for it until I became an adult and tasted good bread. But bread goes back thousands of years. And you did research on that?

  • 11:14:24

    ALEXANDERYeah, I mean, bread was really born on the banks of the Nile 6,000 years ago. Now, this is recent bread we're talking about. Flatbread had been baked for thousands of years prior to that and wheat had been baked prior to flatbread. And my theory about how the first leaven bread came to be was some tipsy chef was brewing beer because actually beer came prior to bread.

  • 11:14:55

    REHMTo risen bread?

  • 11:14:57

    ALEXANDERAh, to risen bread yeah and some of the beer spilled into the batter and they had risen bread and they said, this is pretty good stuff. Not everyone agrees with that, but I -- that's the way I would like to think that it happened.

  • 11:15:09

    REHMBut you went so far as to try to grow your own wheat?

  • 11:15:13

    ALEXANDERYeah, I did. And, you know, I've been joking on book tours telling people in the audience. I said, I can out-loco any locovore in this room. You know, I started by planting the wheat. I watched over it for nine months. I harvested it, threshed it, winnowed it and ground it into flour with a stone. But I wasn't trying to prove a point. It wasn't a locovore type of thing. The reason I started was that I realized, I'm almost embarrassed to admit this, that I was looking in a bag of flour, white, fluffy stuff and I really didn't know what it was.

  • 11:15:53

    ALEXANDERI couldn't relate flour to wheat. Now, the closest I'd ever been to wheat was flying over South Dakota at 35,000 feet, but I really didn't even know what part of the wheat it came from. I knew wheat was a grass and somewhere there's a seed. So I thought, well, the best way to really learn this is to grow my own wheat.

  • 11:16:14

    REHMHow much space, how much room did you have?

  • 11:16:18

    ALEXANDERI planted four garden beds which were protected by my dear friends and so I had maybe 150 square feet. I didn't have an awful lot and the nice surprise that I found. It's very easy to grow wheat. The hard part is turning that wheat into flour. I'm convinced that if we all had to thresh our own wheat, we'd be a nation of rice eaters today.

  • 11:16:45

    REHMSo tell me how you went about that process?

  • 11:16:50

    ALEXANDERWell, you know, I couldn't find any sources on how to do this by hand because, of course, today, you know, it's all done out in the field. The combine comes through and does everything. And I ended up actually finding something by Pliny the Elder, writing in '77, who talked about a couple of ways in fashion at the time.

  • 11:17:10

    REHMWow.

  • 11:17:11

    ALEXANDEROne was leaving the wheat on the ground and having your oxen trample it and the second was using a flail. Now, a flail is two heavy sticks connected by a short length of heavy chain. My wife took one look at that and wondered with whom I'd been hanging out and where.

  • 11:17:37

    ALEXANDERAnd so we ended up -- first, we tried a broom which showed you how little I knew about wheat. The broom was totally destroyed in five minutes. Went to the back of a shovel and even that would not free the wheat berry. I should mention that threshing is the process of freeing the wheat berry or the seed from the seed head. And believe me, it wants to stay there. You know, nature, it wants it to stay there.

  • 11:18:03

    ALEXANDERWe ended up having to do it a handful at a time on a chopping block, holding one of my shop mallets, just banging, banging, banging and then taking what was left and stripping it wearing heavy, heavy gloves. What I think of when I think of that day is after about eight hours of this was my wife, who is a real trooper, did a lot of it, flopping on the ground and saying, promise me one thing. Next year, you won't grow cotton.

  • 11:18:34

    REHMThe book is titled, "52 Loaves." William Alexander is the author, short break and we'll be right back.

  • 11:20:03

    REHMWelcome back. William Alexander is here with me. Previously, he's written the "The $64 Tomato," but the new book, "One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and The Perfect Crust," is titled "52 Loaves." And here in the studio, he has a perfect replica - a perfect example of the photograph that's on the cover of the book, in that he has brought a beautiful loaf of bread and a plastic container of starter with him.

  • 11:20:48

    REHMYou can join us. I know there are many, many bread bakers in our audience and perhaps many of you who would like to become bread bakers, we're going to have William Alexander's final recipe on our website. William Alexander, tell me about the starter.

  • 11:21:12

    ALEXANDERThe starter is -- this is about 14 years old. It was given to me by a retired baker, and it's a mixture of wild yeast and bacteria and God knows whatever else is floating around.

  • 11:21:25

    REHMWhat's wild yeast?

  • 11:21:27

    ALEXANDERWild yeast is everywhere. It is in the air, it's in flour. If you look at grapes and you see a haze on grapes or an apples, which is how I've also made a new starter, that haze is wild yeast. It's a different species of yeast from the yeast that we buy in the little foil packets. And I found this to really be the turning point in my bread when I started to use this starter.

  • 11:21:55

    REHMBut how do you collect it?

  • 11:21:57

    ALEXANDERWell, the way that I made this was, I took a couple of apples.

  • 11:22:02

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:22:02

    ALEXANDERI have a few trees in my backyard, and it cut them up and I took an extra peel, and I just put them in water. I let it sit for three days, and then I started to feed it with flour and water. And you stir it up, you get lots of air, and I actually talk about this in the book. I give a recipe in the book, and I also have a video of this on my website which is 52loaves.com. And it's really easy to make.

  • 11:22:34

    ALEXANDERIt's almost -- if you just stir it and you get lots of air in the first couple days, it's easy to make. It's easy to maintain. You only have to feed it once a week. If you've read about it in some other books, it sounds so intimidating and scary.

  • 11:22:50

    REHMI agree.

  • 11:22:51

    ALEXANDERYou know, but it doesn't have to be.

  • 11:22:53

    REHMOne point, you tried to take a starter onto an airplane. Now, will you read for us from that portion of the book where you did exactly that and what happened?

  • 11:23:10

    ALEXANDERSure. Now, I should mention to set this up, that the reason I was bringing my starter onto a plane was, I was on my way to a medieval abbey in France that had been baking for 1300 years, except for the last two. They had lost the last monk who knew how to bake bread. And they thought maybe I could come and teach a monk to restore...

  • 11:23:37

    REHMHow did they hear about you?

  • 11:23:39

    ALEXANDERWell, I had been trying -- as I was getting in touch with the 6,000 year old tradition of baking bread, and I was cultivating my own yeast and kneading by hand, I had this urge to back someplace really old, a place that had, you know, a long tradition of baking bread. And I'm not a religious person, in fact, I hadn't been in a church in years, but I thought of abbeys because they're a place that have been there for a long time.

  • 11:24:06

    ALEXANDERI was headed to France to take a bread class at the Ritz Paris. And so I had been writing and e-mailing and faxing every abbey in France hoping I could just come and bake a couple of loaves with their baker monk, and maybe learn something. And it turns out that finding baking monks today is harder than finding a flying nun, and they just don't bake their own bread.

  • 11:24:36

    ALEXANDERSo when I found an abbey in Normandy that told me they had been baking until recently since 649, I had said, well, perhaps I could come and bake a couple of loaves for you. Perhaps -- giving them the impression I was more of a baker than I was, and that I spoke French, which I don't. And as for the faith, I think we had kind of tacit don't ask don't tell policy.

  • 11:25:02

    ALEXANDERWell, they said yes, but they upped the ante and said, perhaps you can train a new baker when you come.

  • 11:25:09

    REHMOh, my.

  • 11:25:09

    ALEXANDERAnd this was absurd because I was going over to take a class.

  • 11:25:12

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:25:12

    ALEXANDERYou know, I was in position to teach anyone else to bake. But I knew if I was going to give this a shot, that I was going to bring my 12-year-old starter over. Because I was really into baking artisan bread with, you know, using wild yeast and long, cool fermentations, and long rises. So this is how I found myself at JFK trying to bring this yeast onto the plane. And I was surprised, there's no rule on yeast, on dough. There's a rule on, you know, tweezers...

  • 11:25:51

    REHMEverything else, yeah.

  • 11:25:51

    ALEXANDER...and bombs in your underwear, but there's no rule on bringing dough. And I knew that this -- I mean, you can see that this is a very loose kind of...

  • 11:25:58

    REHMYeah.

  • 11:25:58

    ALEXANDER...kind of a gloppy mess.

  • 11:26:00

    REHMRight.

  • 11:26:00

    ALEXANDERThis isn't a bubbling foul-smelling mixture. There was no way I was getting that on a plane, that I knew. So just before leaving the house, I had added a couple pounds of flour to it, to kind of stiffen it up, so I could say, it's not a liquid subject to the three-ounce rule, it's dough. Well, it turns out, you may as well yell gun when you get to TSA as say I have dough. It was sheer chaos. All the TSA agents in the area all wanted to get in on it, and talk about whether I could bring in -- because there's no policy.

  • 11:26:37

    ALEXANDERSo finally they took me off to the side. Now, passengers are piling up. I don't think any planes are leaving JFK, and I can hear people in the back saying, sour dough, he's got sour -- I had become one of those people that I hate to be behind at the airport. So finally, after about ten minutes, they had waved me through, and a supervisor finally came over to take charge. And I'll pick up from the book here.

  • 11:27:08

    ALEXANDERWhat do we have he asked politely, but wearily. Sourdough, 12-years old, I beamed. A medieval abbey in France is expecting it. I tried to read his reaction, but his trained poker face remained flat. He started to run a wand around the container which had stiffened into a plastic explosive lookalike due to the two pounds of flour I had added.

  • 11:27:33

    ALEXANDERI told him the abbey had kept the flame of knowledge alive during the darkest of the dark ages, but after 13 centuries had forgotten how to make bread. This starter was the link the repair the chain. Still no reaction. Trying to straddle the line between pressure and humor, I added, the future of western civilization is in your hands. Just then, Anne, to my horror, opened her mouth to speak before I could stop her.

  • 11:27:59

    ALEXANDERThe last time she had done that in an airport, voluntarily reciting to U.S. Customs unsolicited every item we'd purchased and whom it was for, she sounded so forced and nervous, I expected to be strip searched. Bill's Bread won second prize at the New York State Fair. Keep quiet and show some leg I wanted to hiss. She was wearing jeans. He put down the container. Something else in my bag had caught his attention. Something I hadn't even considered.

  • 11:28:28

    ALEXANDERWhat's this? He held up my small digital kitchen scale, which under the circumstances did a more than passable impersonation of a timing and ignition mechanism for the plastic accompanying it. At least I wasn't carrying any wire, or the razor blades I use for scoring dough. It's a scale, I said, for baking bread. You need a scale for bread? My mother never used a scale. More accurate than measuring by volume, I explained.

  • 11:28:56

    ALEXANDERI couldn't believe I was having this conversation with a TSA official at Kennedy Airport. He took off the top of the scale. I never even knew it came off, and wand it. Well, you get the prize, he said, breaking into a smile. Strangest carry-on of the month. Have a nice trip. I slumped into the first seat I saw on the terminal, drained and sweaty. That was close, Anne exhaled. Not really. I pulled out my Ziploc bag filled with small colored plastic bottles labeled shampoo, conditioner, lotion and so on.

  • 11:29:30

    ALEXANDERDid you wonder why I was bringing so much hair conditioner to France, I asked, in my carry-on? Her mouth fell open. I could see she was a little hurt at being kept in the dark. Some things it's better not to know, I explained. Anne, aware of the limits of her own poker face, agreed. Well, I'm glad that's over with anyway. Not quite. We still have to it past French customs. Come, let's find the gate, honey, we're going to Paris.

  • 11:29:58

    REHMSo you got there...

  • 11:29:59

    ALEXANDERI did.

  • 11:30:00

    REHM...with the starter.

  • 11:30:01

    ALEXANDERAnd needless to say, I took the train down from New York for the show today. I wasn't going to try that again.

  • 11:30:07

    REHMTell me what happened when you got to the monastery.

  • 11:30:12

    ALEXANDERWell, I didn't know what I was going to find there. And I thought when I first walked into the bake house, which was built in 12 something, and I saw this mixer built in the 1930's, a bread kneader. Now, if you've seen them in the windows of bakeries, it's those big machines with the spiral that kinds of goes in orbital action. This was just this wonderful contraption, built prior to the second world war with belts and chains, a huge copper bowl that rotated, and it had like a salad mixer action with a knife and a spoon and a fork that swang back and forth, and it would kind of stretch the dough up and it would drop, and it would swing back again.

  • 11:31:01

    ALEXANDERI had no idea how to use this thing. All the directions on the oven were written in French, and, you know, and I thought that was going to be the biggest challenge, plus using French flour which is very different from American flour. It turned out though, the biggest challenge I had was -- and I should have thought of this beforehand, it never occurred to me. These guys are running off to church seven times a day.

  • 11:31:25

    ALEXANDERAnd I had brought over these artisan recipes with these long, slow rises, and I realized I couldn’t use any of them. So on the spot, I had to sit down, without any of the books I had at home, or anything, and try to figure out how to make bread that could fit into the daily schedule of the monks.

  • 11:31:46

    REHMBecause they were going off to pray seven times a day.

  • 11:31:49

    ALEXANDERTo prayer, and then they had study groups, and the baker I was training, he played the organ in the -- they all had these other jobs. I mean, these guys were keeping a thousand year old house going too, which, you know, being the owner of a hundred year old house, I think I know a thing or two about it. It's no easy task.

  • 11:32:05

    REHMI've got to know the end of that story. Did you find a recipe to bake for them that they could then use?

  • 11:32:18

    ALEXANDERYou know, I always think back to the day where it was prior to the day we were doing the big test for the abbey. And we had done a test batch, and it had come out terribly. And the next day, all the monks were going to taste the bread, and I didn't know this when I had first arrived. Then they were going to have a vote on whether they were going to continue this 1300-year-old tradition of baking bread of continue buying the lousy bread in town.

  • 11:32:52

    ALEXANDERAnd I just sat there, and I'm feeling totally out of my main -- just totally, you know, out of, just, you know, out of water, and I started thinking, and I remember sitting outside the bakery and hearing the bells ring for church, and watching the monks all drawn in. They looked like iron filings being drawn to a magnet. And I just sat there, and I was just kind of like in a trance in the whole thing.

  • 11:33:21

    ALEXANDERAnd I turned back to my notes, and I realized that all the stuff I had been doing for the previous year, and we haven't talked about it, but I didn't spend all that much time in the kitchen. I got distracted running around to yeast factories and seeing how flour was made, and studying the history of yeast. All these things that I thought were a waste of time, I realized had served some purpose. And I actually knew how to do this. And I sat down and I wrote out a recipe for the monks.

  • 11:33:54

    REHMWilliam Alexander, his new book is titled, "52 Loaves." You're listening to the Diane Rehm. We have so many callers. I want to open the phones. I'm really restraining myself. I'm going to have some of that bread, but I'm going to wait for just a moment. 800-433-8850. Let's go to Bono, Ark. Good morning, Steve. You're on the air.

  • 11:34:32

    STEVEGood morning, Diane.

  • 11:34:32

    REHMHi.

  • 11:34:33

    STEVEAnd good morning, William.

  • 11:34:34

    ALEXANDERGood morning.

  • 11:34:35

    STEVEDiane, thanks so much for featuring this topic on your show, and thanks to William for writing the book. I can tell you're a good storyteller, and I'm anxious to read the work. I've been on my own quest for the ultimate loaf of bread for about 15 years, and having tried ceramic tiles in the oven, spritzing with water, putting water in the oven, I can appreciate your story of dealing with the TSA at JFK. (laugh)

  • 11:35:02

    STEVEAnd I finally have found what I was looking for, and it's simply a no-knead bread that's been popularized by Mark Bittman from the New York Times.

  • 11:35:13

    ALEXANDERYes. I had the -- either the good fortune or the bad fortune, that craze hit during my year of baking bread, and I really didn't think it was going to be very good bread. So I put off doing it for the longest time, and I got so tired of people saying, gee, have you tried that great no-knead bread? And when I'd say no, they'd go on to describe, you know, how….

  • 11:35:34

    REHMYeah. How good it was.

  • 11:35:35

    ALEXANDERSo I finally tried it and, you know, the problem is, it wasn't a very satisfying loaf of bread to make. Kneading is kind of like the foreplay of bread baking, you know? You could skip it and get right to the main event, but you might miss something along the way. And there's that moment when you first get your hands on it, and I'm talking about dough now, when you first take the dough and it's kind of gritty, and it's flour and water, it's not yet dough.

  • 11:36:11

    ALEXANDERAnd you do those first couple of turns, and all of a sudden it gets silky and soft and it feels like dough. You do a few more turns, and it gets elastic, and if you knead bread the way that I ended up kneading, which I talk about in the book, using this starter which already has a good deal of well-developed gluten, and you simply let the dough rest for about 20 minutes prior to kneading, this loaf we're looking at here, I only kneaded for five minutes.

  • 11:36:42

    ALEXANDERAnd it's fun. You put on some music and you get to slam some dough around the counter. And so I think kneading problem is it needs a good PR agent. It really isn't hard. I stopped using my stand mixer halfway through and I just knead by hand for five minutes, and I think it makes better bread than the no-knead bread, and it's a heck of a lot more fun to make.

  • 11:37:09

    REHMI fully agree with you. I love to knead bread. I love the feel, the weight...

  • 11:37:17

    ALEXANDERYeah.

  • 11:37:17

    REHM...of the loaf to be in my hands. So I'm on your side. "52 Loaves," William Alexander. Short break, and when we come back, I am having a taste of this bread and you will have the recipe on our website.

  • 11:40:03

    REHMAt William Alexander's website 52loaves.com, you can not only see a recipe, you will also see a video showing you how to knead. You will see a photographic tour of the Abby along with the bread maker itself. He also has asked the bread doctor so that he can answer the questions that many of us might have. The book, of course, is called, "52 Loaves: One Mans Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Curst." Now, William Alexander, it's time for me to have a taste.

  • 11:41:00

    ALEXANDERI believe so. So I'm going to slice...

  • 11:41:04

    REHMWhat kind of a knife are you using?

  • 11:41:05

    ALEXANDERThis is a folding bread knife.

  • 11:41:07

    REHMFolding bread knife. You couldn't take that on a plane?

  • 11:41:11

    ALEXANDERYou could certainly not take this onto a plane.

  • 11:41:14

    REHMI don't think so.

  • 11:41:15

    ALEXANDERAmtrak has little loser rules...

  • 11:41:18

    REHMOkay.

  • 11:41:18

    ALEXANDER...that planes so I'll...

  • 11:41:19

    REHMAll right.

  • 11:41:20

    ALEXANDER...slice into the...

  • 11:41:22

    REHMListen to that crust cutting through. And look at that. Do you have any flavoring in that bread? Any rye seed, any rosemary, anything of the sort?

  • 11:41:41

    ALEXANDERI am kind of a purist when it comes to bread. This is simply flour. Has three times the flour. It's mainly white flour with a little bit of whole wheat. And just a touch of rye. And it is made with my wild yeast starter, water and salt...

  • 11:42:00

    REHMIt's divine.

  • 11:42:00

    ALEXANDER...and that's it. Well, thank you.

  • 11:42:03

    REHMIt's divine. That's what I did first. I smelled it. 'Cause it smells like a...

  • 11:42:10

    ALEXANDERIt's almost like drinking wine. You know, you want -- you have a little bit of the nose first and then you'll try a...

  • 11:42:16

    REHMAnd someone has written a, forgive me, my mouth is full. Someone has written an e-mail, Anita, says, "I've been baking my own bread for a couple of years. I've had some success. I've never used a starter. Please, explain why it may be better to use a starter instead of yeast from the store?" You explain while I eat.

  • 11:42:47

    ALEXANDERCertainly. I also put off using it for the longest time because having once been given something called friendship bread which is -- it kind of looks like a starter and the idea -- it's almost like a food chain letter. It gets passed around. You're supposed to cook it and then you make twice as much. You give it to two neighbors who may or may not be friends. Well, we had this in our fridge once and went away for a week and we came back. The friendship bread batter had escaped the Chinese soup container it was in. Had spread all over the fridge, looked like a scene out of that old Steve McQueen movie, "The Blob."

  • 11:43:27

    ALEXANDERAnd we ended up actually throwing out the fridge. So when I was given this 12 year old starter, I think Ann just wanted to throw it out the window of the car. But I did try it and it made in one week. I mean, the bread went from being lousy to being not too bad. I still had some work to do. The difference is that rather than using the kind of yeast that you get in the foil packet, which is all of the same strain, this is made from wild yeast and the kind of tanginess that comes out of it is from the bacteria that's also in it.

  • 11:44:09

    ALEXANDERAs I said earlier, God knows whatever else is floating around. But it's a different strain of yeast and it gives the bread a different mouth feel. It's certainly improves the crust. Most people think that the bread will stale and it takes longer to stale when you use a starter...

  • 11:44:28

    REHMStarter.

  • 11:44:29

    ALEXANDER...and, yeah, in French it's called a Lavan (sp?) and some people call it a sour dough. But it's not that tangy one that we think of about on the west coast, you know, what I'm saying, San Francisco.

  • 11:44:40

    REHMWell, this is divine.

  • 11:44:44

    ALEXANDERWell, thank you.

  • 11:44:45

    REHMCongratulations. All right. Let's go to the Traverse City, Mich., Gerard, you're on the air.

  • 11:44:54

    GERARDYes, hi, Diane and William.

  • 11:44:56

    REHMHi.

  • 11:44:56

    GERARDThank you for the show. I am an 18 commercial wood fired brick over baker using exclusively what we call natural leavens. And there are about 40 of us in the country and we all started about 20 years -- 18, 20 years ago because we knew that America needed good bread.

  • 11:45:15

    ALEXANDERGood for you.

  • 11:45:15

    GERARDAnd at that time, they were flying bread over on the concord, if you'll remember.

  • 11:45:20

    ALEXANDERI sure do.

  • 11:45:20

    GERARDAnd now we're treating in here. I think, there's two key things that I would like to share with you really quickly here that your kind of almost touching on. And one of them is, all homosapiens, all human beings have a hard time digesting grains unless those grains are first fermented. It's a key thing, we have found in our 18 years, literally hundreds of people coming to us saying they can eat bread again because we are using the natural leavening techniques. And that's just dietary science. Grain is wonderful. It's a protein rich food, but it cannot be digested by us unless it's first gone through that fermentation phase.

  • 11:45:57

    GERARDThat's why you have so many gluten intolerant people today.

  • 11:46:01

    REHMInteresting.

  • 11:46:02

    ALEXANDERYeah, I didn't know that.

  • 11:46:03

    REHMYou've never heard of that.

  • 11:46:05

    ALEXANDERRight. And it wasn't until I started baking bread that I realized that what we used to call the first rise, is actually a fermentation process. Not unlike that used in beer and wine. And it was when I started to pay more attention to that process is when the bread started to get better.

  • 11:46:25

    REHMAll right. I want to read to you a poem by a very dear friend of mine. E. J. Mudd, it's entitled, "Bread." "Mix flour, water, yeast and salt. If the phone rings, don’t answer. Your fingers are a sticky mess. Let dough rise in a nice, warm place. If the phone rings, don't answer. You're creating. Knead till satiny. Divide into loaves. If the phone rings, don't answer. You're sculpting. Bake in hot oven till crisp and brown. If the phone rings, don't answer. You're in aromatherapy. Take out and eat a piece at once. If the phone rings, don't answer. You're in heaven. Panis Angelicas."

  • 11:47:37

    ALEXANDERFantastic.

  • 11:47:39

    REHME. J. Mudd and that poem is also going to be on our website.

  • 11:47:47

    ALEXANDERAbsolutely fantastic. You know, one of the things that I found, that I'm a klutz when it comes to baking. I have no background. I'm not particularly good in the kitchen. But I did learn that anyone can bake bread better than anything you can buy. And it's not that hard. You know, it takes a little time. It takes a little tension but with, you know, if you put your mind to it. You don't have to do what I do. You don't have to grow your own wheat and build a clay oven from, you know, your back yard soil. But you can bake bread better than any bread you can buy.

  • 11:48:24

    REHMLet's go to Wichita, Kansas. Good morning, Steve.

  • 11:48:29

    STEVEHello. This is Steve.

  • 11:48:30

    REHMHi.

  • 11:48:31

    STEVEI'm from Wichita and I'm -- although I'm an airspace engineer in Wichita, the air capital of the world, I take a class on diction and we talked about you and your dystonia. I can see how it's most improved of your late treatment.

  • 11:48:46

    REHMThank you so much.

  • 11:48:48

    STEVEI can -- I'm -- I started making bread when I was in college and we lived in the dorm, a co-ed dorm that had a kitchen and a group of us would get together and we would bake bread and take it upstairs to the lobby. And we had a lot of fun. I called really about low glycemic breads and the fact that plain white bread raises your blood sugar faster than table sugar does and with some unfortunate consequences for fat storage and so on. But -- so I wanted to see if your author would put some information on there on low glycemic breads, such as rye and so on. And how starter for them is different, if it is, how he discusses it and...

  • 11:49:47

    REHMWell, now, hold on there. William, to what extent do you think you can talk about low glycemic breads? He's talking about rye breads, other breads.

  • 11:50:00

    ALEXANDERSure. And I was so focused on just trying to bake this one loaf of bread that I didn't do an awful lot with that. Now, that I'm done, I'm having a little more fun. I'm making pizzas and breakfast breads and so on. But I think it's a valid point, but I’m probably not the baker to attack that one.

  • 11:50:20

    REHMAll right. Good luck to you, Steve. Let's go to Paula in Dania, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.

  • 11:50:30

    PAULAOh, good morning, Diane. I adore you. When I was in college, one of my first papers as a freshman was some expository writing. I wrote, like, a 20 page paper on how to bake bread, but in English and what -- I mean, word for word, you know. But what clinched my A plus was, I was a linguistics major. What clinched my A plus was adding somewhere in there that the word, lady l-a-d-y, if you look it up in the dictionary, it comes from bread kneader, old English. He was talking about the middle ages. Old English was 400 to 1100 A.D. And if you look up lady in the dictionary, it comes from bread kneader.

  • 11:51:23

    REHMWell, if I had a dictionary in front of me, I would certainly do that. But Paula, I promise to do it right after I get off the air. Thanks for calling. Let's go now to Judy in Johnson City, Tenn. Good morning.

  • 11:51:43

    JUDYGood morning, my name is Judy. And I'd like to thank you for the opportunity to talk about this. I think your ideas are wonderful, but I do want to represent -- I guess, I'm representing the people who have problems using their hands. You were talking about kneading dough. I got carpel tunnel some years ago and I cannot, for muscle reasons, knead dough.

  • 11:52:08

    REHMI'm so sorry.

  • 11:52:09

    JUDYRight, yeah. And so for multiple reasons -- first, I started a couple years ago on a bread machine because Johnson City is not New York or Los Angeles. In Los Angeles, we could walk into a bakery and get artisan breads or (word?) which I love or New York rye. And I had to learn to start doing it myself. So people ask me, can you just throw bread -- the stuff into a bread machine? I said, no. My mother taught me and I’m seeing it's true. You've got to know the dough. Right now, I'm baking with a group online who -- from artisan breads in five minutes a day. And two people can make the same thing, but it's knowing the dough and getting the end results.

  • 11:52:52

    JUDYAnd I know that the no-knead recipes cannot do everything like bagels. I have a hard time with the no-knead recipes. They don’t hold up with structure. But there's a lot of things I've been able to do and so kneading isn't always possible. And we have to find other ways of doing it.

  • 11:53:08

    REHMIndeed.

  • 11:53:10

    ALEXANDERSure and you can also knead in like a kitchen aide thing or even in, like, a Cuisinart, but you have to do what you have to do.

  • 11:53:21

    REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to Gayle's Fairy, Conn. Good morning, Jim, thanks for joining us.

  • 11:53:34

    JIMDiane and William, several years ago a bread store opened near us and we went to it weekly to buy -- for me it was a cinnamon raisin walnut bread. Absolutely love that bread. Several years later when the store closed, I found myself unable to face the thought of going to commercial store-bought bread and started to try to make something myself. Had no recipe, just went to whole wheat breads recipes and tried to add the ingredients that were in that bread. And after some successes, mostly failures -- failures in not rising properly or sufficiently, I was reading that adding things like raisins, walnuts, cinnamon, in fact, affected the rising.

  • 11:54:19

    JIMSo I've still -- the best success I've had, I bought a kitchen aide to try to do the kneading and wound up with a bread machine which did the best. I think it wasn't so much the kneaded it best. It seemed to control the temperature of the rising very well. But I take it out at the end 'cause it was round hand shaped loaf that I like, not a regular size, you know, regular loaf of bread. And I've just had a lot of inconsistencies. Wonder whether you have any suggestions on success in rising or if your starter idea is something I should be looking...

  • 11:54:51

    ALEXANDERWell, first of all, throw that thing out. You know, it makes the kind of bread you would buy in a store. It almost steams the bread. It leaves a whopping hole in the center. Some people use it to knead the bread. That's something that the previous caller might do, but please don't bake bread. It's just so easy to put it onto a stone...

  • 11:55:12

    REHMIt feels so good...

  • 11:55:13

    ALEXANDER...and bake it. And it makes better bread, too. I think there are a couple of keys I'll just toss out in baking bread. First of all, weigh everything. You know, bakers weigh everything. Even the firewood in a wood fired oven that I went to visit. The wood was weighed out. Have your oven very hot, use lots of steam in the first couple of minutes. And long slow cool rising. And those are the secrets to really good artisan bread.

  • 11:55:44

    REHMNow, you know, when I bake bread, and I haven't done it in a long time, I used to put in a wonderful ceramic bowl with a moistened towel over the top and put it into an unlighted oven.

  • 11:56:07

    ALEXANDERRight. And that's the classic -- you know, if you read some of the old books, the Fanny Farmer, you turn the pilot light on in the oven and I think the current thinking is that you'll get better bread if you let it ferment for several hours in a cooler place. And, you know, like, 68 degrees...

  • 11:56:29

    REHMBut this was in...

  • 11:56:29

    REHM...65 degrees.

  • 11:56:30

    REHM...an electric oven that had no pilot...

  • 11:56:33

    ALEXANDEROh, okay.

  • 11:56:33

    REHM...light.

  • 11:56:34

    ALEXANDERSure.

  • 11:56:35

    REHMSo it was simply and then close upped...

  • 11:56:37

    ALEXANDERYeah, well some...

  • 11:56:38

    REHM...and which was probably...

  • 11:56:38

    ALEXANDERYeah.

  • 11:56:39

    REHM...about that temperature.

  • 11:56:40

    ALEXANDERAnd some of the old books make a big deal to out of keeping in a draft free place.

  • 11:56:45

    REHMAbsolutely.

  • 11:56:45

    ALEXANDERI never figured that, I've never had a draft collapse a loaf of bread of me.

  • 11:56:48

    REHMThe book is titled, "52 Loaves," by William Alexander, "One Mans Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning and a Perfect Crust." And I can attest to that. Thank you so much for being here.

  • 11:57:07

    ALEXANDEROh, thank you. It's been an absolute pleasure, Diane.

  • 11:57:09

    REHMAnd thanks for listening all and learning. I'm Diane Rehm.

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