10 May 2010

5 Questions for William Alexander

This Tuesday, May 11th, author – best-selling author, gardener and newly minted bread baker, William Alexander will be reading at Downtown at Powell’s City of Books

Bill on Bread

at 7:30. In his previous book, The $64 Tomato, we discovered William Alexander to be a funny man, an obsessive gardener and a sworn enemy of deer.

In his new book, 52 Loaves, William teaches himself about bread by baking one loaf a week for a year: Along the way he asks a brother for some help (at a 13oo year old Monastery), gets all French on some dough, learns the difference between winter and spring wheat, how to thresh the grain, cultivate yeast and enthusiastically discovers exactly what a person needs to bake a good loaf.

William found some time on his current book tour to answer questions about things near and dear to Farmers Market fans – gardening, baking and bread lore.

PFM -Which did you ultimately find more difficult – growing a tomato or baking a good/great loaf of bread?

William Alexander: Bread is infinitely more difficult. Of course, I made it hard on myself. For me, baking a loaf “from scratch” meant growing, threshing, winnowing, and grinding the wheat (with a rock), culturing my own wild yeast starter, then digging a hole in our backyard big enough for a grave, taking the mud that came out of it, and building an oven in which to bake the bread.  But even if you just buy flour and yeast and use your kitchen oven, bread making is tricky — in no small part because you’re dealing with a living thing.

As Julia Child herself discovered when developing her baguette recipe for “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, “The ingredients for bread were always the same: flour, yeast, water, and salt. But the difficulty was that there were ten thousand ways of combining these  simple elements.” Amen.

Do you think [if your had] a good bakery near your house you would have written a different book?

If I’d had a good bakery near me, I’d never have bothered to make my own bread (or write about it). This is why it’s hard to find yeast or even whole wheat flour in France. With a good bakery on every corner, why should the home cook make bread?

Thermometer, scale, Kitchen Aid or your hands; what was your best ally in baking?

My bread turned the corner when I started kneading by hand. No-knead bread was all the craze during my year of baking, but kneading is no big deal. If you use a starter (in French, a levain) and let the dough rest about 25 minutes before kneading (a process the French call “autolyse”) you only have to knead for 5 or 6 minutes. A stand mixer such as a Kitchen Aid incorporates too much oxygen into the dough, which destroys the beta-carotenes and a food processor is too much trouble to clean.

What was the most amazing or moving bread fact you discovered in writing and research?

It was an item in the news that in part spurred me to begin this journey. During the worst days of the Iraq civil war I saw a piece in the New York Times that Sunni militants in Baghdad had come up with a new horrifying strategy, every bit as effective as car bombs and sniper fire, to force Shiites out of targeted neighborhoods.

Kill all the bakers.

The toll so far was a dozen, and counting, as militants systematically hunted down the bakers, closing one bakery after another by killing, kidnapping, or threatening those who made the bread. The attacks often took place in broad daylight, the customers left unharmed. The militants didn’t have to kill them; without bread, they left the neighborhood on their own. “To shut down a well-known bakery in a neighborhood, that means you paralyze life there,” one baker was quoted.

I was shocked that bread, in the twenty-first century, still occupied such a major social – and now, political – role. How little I understood about this alchemy of wheat, water, yeast, and salt. I suppose this story might have turned me off of bread, discouraging me from what I fully expected to be a light-hearted kitchen fling, but it apparently had the opposite effect, providing me with the final nudge I needed. I wanted to understand bread, to bake exceptional bread more than ever, to become a baker.

Nothing goes better on a good loaf of bread than______________?

Cold, fresh, sweet, unsalted butter (sorry, olive oil aficionados).

William will be visiting Portland for the first time ever when he reads at Powell’s this Tuesday. In the Q & A tell him about your favorite local loaf and share personal tales of gardening woe. You can order either of his entertaining and informative books from Powell’s here.