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A level of intensity - and comedy - that's hard to match

We all get a little obsessed sometimes, especially when we hit upon something new and interesting...Usually, though, we lighten up a little and move on to other topics. I chose bread. What I didn't expect was William Alexander, a man who takes obsession to a level of intensity - and comedy - that's hard to match.

His first mania, growing Brandywine tomatoes, culminated in the popular 2006 memoir $64 Tomato: How One Man Nearly Lost His Sanity, Spent a Fortune, and Endured an Existential Crisis in the Quest for the Perfect Garden. In his newest book, 52 Loaves: One Man's Relentless Pursuit of Truth, Meaning, and a Perfect Crust, Alexander chronicles with humor his newest infatuation: baking artisanal bread.

The enthusiasm begins when Alexander tastes at a restaurant the "perfect" peasant bread: "The dark brown, caramelized crust gave a satisfying crackle when you bit into it… and managed to defy physics by remaining both crispy and chewy at the same time…The bread clinging to the crust was every bit as good… it had a rustic quality - a coarse texture that managed to be light and airy, with plenty of holes, yet also had real substance and a satisfying resistance to the bite…This bread demanded the attention of more than the taste buds: it was a delight to the eyes, nose, and the tongue as well."

Years later he decides to recreate this loaf that has haunted his palate and soul. So he commits to baking the same bread every week for a year in his pursuit of the ideal crust and crumb. A purist and perfectionist, Alexander resolves to use only 4 ingredients - flour, water, salt, and yeast. He grows, threshes, and grinds by hand his own red winter wheat. He builds an earth oven in his backyard. And a bread machine? Out of the question. In the hands of some, such single-minded dedication might become tiresome. (After all, this isn't cooking all of Julia Child's recipes in a year - it's the same recipe, over and over again.) But humor, often irreverent, is Alexander's trademark, and he invites readers to raise their eyebrows - and laughter - at his wry misadventures: ruining a kitchen oven, building an outdoor oven without mortar, and paying attention to his rising bread rather than his marriage, to name a few.

Perhaps the greatest pleasure of the book is the history and science of bread woven into each chapter; what some view as a simple, everyday food takes on a complex life with infinite variations and cultural implications. Of particular worth are the fabulously entertaining discussions of pellagra (a vitamin deficiency that scourged the South in the early 20th century) and yeast. In Alexander's hands, dusty old names from high school science, like Pasteur and van Leeuwenhoek, come alive with comedy and insight...