William Alexander: "52 Loaves" (Rebroadcast)

MS. DIANE REHM

11:06:53
Thanks 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.

MS. DIANE REHM

11:07:43
Now, 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.

MR. WILLIAM ALEXANDER

11:08:08
Good 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.

REHM

11:08:17
I'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.

REHM

11:09:01
In 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?

ALEXANDER

11:09:22
Well, as a kid, I never liked bread. I grew up with cellophane bread...

REHM

11:09:29
Wonder bread...

ALEXANDER

11:09:29
...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.

ALEXANDER

11:10:09
And 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.

REHM

11:10:20
Right.

ALEXANDER

11:10:21
And 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.

REHM

11:11:10
Did 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?

ALEXANDER

11:11:32
I 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.

REHM

11:11:58
How do I do that?

ALEXANDER

11:11:59
You wouldn't go backstage and ask the soloist for the sheet music. You know, there's a learning process that needs to go on.

REHM

11:12:05
You 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...

ALEXANDER

11:12:17
...really…?

REHM

11:12:17
...that recipe for English trifle so I admire your persistence. I congratulate your family because they put up with it.

ALEXANDER

11:12:28
They sure did. They were troopers. I baked a loaf of bread for a year and the same loaf of bread for a year.

REHM

11:12:35
The same loaf?

ALEXANDER

11:12:35
I 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...

REHM

11:12:55
Oh, sure, yeah.

ALEXANDER

11:12:56
…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?

REHM

11:13:15
Oh, my goodness, well, how much of a baker had you been previous to this whole process?

ALEXANDER

11:13:23
Oh, 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.

REHM

11:14:00
You 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?

ALEXANDER

11:14:24
Yeah, 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.

REHM

11:14:55
To risen bread?

ALEXANDER

11:14:57
Ah, 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.

REHM

11:15:09
But you went so far as to try to grow your own wheat?

ALEXANDER

11:15:13
Yeah, 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.

ALEXANDER

11:15:53
I 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.

REHM

11:16:14
How much space, how much room did you have?

ALEXANDER

11:16:18
I 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.

REHM

11:16:45
So tell me how you went about that process?

ALEXANDER

11:16:50
Well, 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.

REHM

11:17:10
Wow.

ALEXANDER

11:17:11
One 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.

ALEXANDER

11:17:37
And 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.

ALEXANDER

11:18:03
We 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.

REHM

11:18:34
The book is titled, "52 Loaves." William Alexander is the author, short break and we'll be right back.

REHM

11:20:03
Welcome 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.

REHM

11:20:48
You 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.

ALEXANDER

11:21:12
The 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.

REHM

11:21:25
What's wild yeast?

ALEXANDER

11:21:27
Wild 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.

REHM

11:21:55
But how do you collect it?

ALEXANDER

11:21:57
Well, the way that I made this was, I took a couple of apples.

REHM

11:22:02
Okay.

ALEXANDER

11:22:02
I 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.

ALEXANDER

11:22:34
It'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.

REHM

11:22:50
I agree.

ALEXANDER

11:22:51
You know, but it doesn't have to be.

REHM

11:22:53
One 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?

ALEXANDER

11:23:10
Sure. 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...

REHM

11:23:37
How did they hear about you?

ALEXANDER

11:23:39
Well, 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.

ALEXANDER

11:24:06
I 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.

ALEXANDER

11:24:36
So 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.

ALEXANDER

11:25:02
Well, they said yes, but they upped the ante and said, perhaps you can train a new baker when you come.

REHM

11:25:09
Oh, my.

ALEXANDER

11:25:09
And this was absurd because I was going over to take a class.

REHM

11:25:12
Yeah.

ALEXANDER

11:25:12
You 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...

REHM

11:25:51
Everything else, yeah.

ALEXANDER

11:25:51
...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...

REHM

11:25:58
Yeah.

ALEXANDER

11:25:58
...kind of a gloppy mess.

REHM

11:26:00
Right.

ALEXANDER

11:26:00
This 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.

ALEXANDER

11:26:37
So 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.

ALEXANDER

11:27:08
What 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.

ALEXANDER

11:27:33
I 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.

ALEXANDER

11:27:59
The 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.

ALEXANDER

11:28:28
What'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.

ALEXANDER

11:28:56
I 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.

ALEXANDER

11:29:30
Did 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.

REHM

11:29:58
So you got there...

ALEXANDER

11:29:59
I did.

REHM

11:30:00
...with the starter.

ALEXANDER

11:30:01
And needless to say, I took the train down from New York for the show today. I wasn't going to try that again.

REHM

11:30:07
Tell me what happened when you got to the monastery.

ALEXANDER

11:30:12
Well, 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.

ALEXANDER

11:31:01
I 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.

ALEXANDER

11:31:25
And 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.

REHM

11:31:46
Because they were going off to pray seven times a day.

ALEXANDER

11:31:49
To 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.

REHM

11:32:05
I've got to know the end of that story. Did you find a recipe to bake for them that they could then use?

ALEXANDER

11:32:18
You 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.

ALEXANDER

11:32:52
And 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.

ALEXANDER

11:33:21
And 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.

REHM

11:33:54
William 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.

STEVE

11:34:32
Good morning, Diane.

REHM

11:34:32
Hi.

STEVE

11:34:33
And good morning, William.

ALEXANDER

11:34:34
Good morning.

STEVE

11:34:35
Diane, 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)

STEVE

11:35:02
And 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.

ALEXANDER

11:35:13
Yes. 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….

REHM

11:35:34
Yeah. How good it was.

ALEXANDER

11:35:35
So 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.

ALEXANDER

11:36:11
And 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.

ALEXANDER

11:36:42
And 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.

REHM

11:37:09
I fully agree with you. I love to knead bread. I love the feel, the weight...

ALEXANDER

11:37:17
Yeah.

REHM

11:37:17
...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.

REHM

11:40:03
At 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.

ALEXANDER

11:41:00
I believe so. So I'm going to slice...

REHM

11:41:04
What kind of a knife are you using?

ALEXANDER

11:41:05
This is a folding bread knife.

REHM

11:41:07
Folding bread knife. You couldn't take that on a plane?

ALEXANDER

11:41:11
You could certainly not take this onto a plane.

REHM

11:41:14
I don't think so.

ALEXANDER

11:41:15
Amtrak has little loser rules...

REHM

11:41:18
Okay.

ALEXANDER

11:41:18
...that planes so I'll...

REHM

11:41:19
All right.

ALEXANDER

11:41:20
...slice into the...

REHM

11:41:22
Listen 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?

ALEXANDER

11:41:41
I 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...

REHM

11:42:00
It's divine.

ALEXANDER

11:42:00
...and that's it. Well, thank you.

REHM

11:42:03
It's divine. That's what I did first. I smelled it. 'Cause it smells like a...

ALEXANDER

11:42:10
It's almost like drinking wine. You know, you want -- you have a little bit of the nose first and then you'll try a...

REHM

11:42:16
And 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.

ALEXANDER

11:42:47
Certainly. 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."

ALEXANDER

11:43:27
And 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.

ALEXANDER

11:44:09
As 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...

REHM

11:44:28
Starter.

ALEXANDER

11:44:29
...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.

REHM

11:44:40
Well, this is divine.

ALEXANDER

11:44:44
Well, thank you.

REHM

11:44:45
Congratulations. All right. Let's go to the Traverse City, Mich., Gerard, you're on the air.

GERARD

11:44:54
Yes, hi, Diane and William.

REHM

11:44:56
Hi.

GERARD

11:44:56
Thank 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.

ALEXANDER

11:45:15
Good for you.

GERARD

11:45:15
And at that time, they were flying bread over on the concord, if you'll remember.

ALEXANDER

11:45:20
I sure do.

GERARD

11:45:20
And 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.

GERARD

11:45:57
That's why you have so many gluten intolerant people today.

REHM

11:46:01
Interesting.

ALEXANDER

11:46:02
Yeah, I didn't know that.

REHM

11:46:03
You've never heard of that.

ALEXANDER

11:46:05
Right. 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.

REHM

11:46:25
All 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."

ALEXANDER

11:47:37
Fantastic.

REHM

11:47:39
E. J. Mudd and that poem is also going to be on our website.

ALEXANDER

11:47:47
Absolutely 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.

REHM

11:48:24
Let's go to Wichita, Kansas. Good morning, Steve.

STEVE

11:48:29
Hello. This is Steve.

REHM

11:48:30
Hi.

STEVE

11:48:31
I'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.

REHM

11:48:46
Thank you so much.

STEVE

11:48:48
I 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...

REHM

11:49:47
Well, 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.

ALEXANDER

11:50:00
Sure. 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.

REHM

11:50:20
All right. Good luck to you, Steve. Let's go to Paula in Dania, Fla. Good morning, you're on the air.

PAULA

11:50:30
Oh, 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.

REHM

11:51:23
Well, 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.

JUDY

11:51:43
Good 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.

REHM

11:52:08
I'm so sorry.

JUDY

11:52:09
Right, 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.

JUDY

11:52:52
And 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.

REHM

11:53:08
Indeed.

ALEXANDER

11:53:10
Sure 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.

REHM

11:53:21
And you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Let's go to Gayle's Fairy, Conn. Good morning, Jim, thanks for joining us.

JIM

11:53:34
Diane 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.

JIM

11:54:19
So 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...

ALEXANDER

11:54:51
Well, 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...

REHM

11:55:12
It feels so good...

ALEXANDER

11:55:13
...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.

REHM

11:55:44
Now, 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.

ALEXANDER

11:56:07
Right. 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...

REHM

11:56:29
But this was in...

REHM

11:56:29
...65 degrees.

REHM

11:56:30
...an electric oven that had no pilot...

ALEXANDER

11:56:33
Oh, okay.

REHM

11:56:33
...light.

ALEXANDER

11:56:34
Sure.

REHM

11:56:35
So it was simply and then close upped...

ALEXANDER

11:56:37
Yeah, well some...

REHM

11:56:38
...and which was probably...

ALEXANDER

11:56:38
Yeah.

REHM

11:56:39
...about that temperature.

ALEXANDER

11:56:40
And some of the old books make a big deal to out of keeping in a draft free place.

REHM

11:56:45
Absolutely.

ALEXANDER

11:56:45
I never figured that, I've never had a draft collapse a loaf of bread of me.

REHM

11:56:48
The 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.

ALEXANDER

11:57:07
Oh, thank you. It's been an absolute pleasure, Diane.

REHM

11:57:09
And thanks for listening all and learning. I'm Diane Rehm.
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