No-nonsense artisan bread

If you have any interest at all in baking, you probably made a loaf or two of Mark Bittman’s amazing no-knead, 24-hour bread last fall. Weeks after the New York Times published the recipe, the article still topped the paper’s most-emailed list. Months later, bloggers were still swapping hints and modifications and posting tempting pictures of beautiful bronze loaves, all made without a single punch, pull, or knead.

It was a phenomenon perfect for our time, when busy, plugged-in people are obsessed with hearth and home.

Well, this is not that.

This is better.

Southwest bakers Zoë François and Jeffrey Hertzberg have gone one step beyond Bittman, the self-proclaimed Minimalist: They’ve created a no-knead, slow-rise bread recipe that will keep in your fridge for up to two weeks, while you regularly lop off bits, shape them and bake them.

Their new book, "Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day" (St. Martin’s Press, 2007), strips bread baking to the basics: measuring and stirring. No weighing, no proofing, no poking, no punching, no kneading, no exacting rise times, no windowpane stage, no autolyse, no worrying whether the dough has doubled or tripled in volume. Now, if you’re proud of your windowpane and never fail to include an autolyse, then, well, then you can do that kind of baking on the weekends. This is weeknight baking. Or, if you’re Hertzberg and François, every night baking.

The two met at a class at McPhail Center for Music when their kids were toddlers. François had trained and worked as a pastry chef. Hertzberg, a doctor and scientist, was a native New Yorker who had never forgotten the hearty, crusty loaves available on nearly every street corner in Queens. Naturally, they got to talking bread. Hertzberg’s enthusiasm for a method he’d been playing around with — letting time and moisture do the hard work of developing gluten, rather than kneading — caught François’s attention. Soon they were both trying the limits of the dough, and François had figured out how to make the method work with rich egg and butter doughs she used in pastries.

It was a call to Lynn Rosetto Kasper’s Saturday afternoon public radio cooking show, "The Splendid Table," — Hertzberg says his wife talked him into it — that turned the project into something more than a hobby. An editor from St. Martin’s Press happened to be listening, and called the show to request a book proposal. Off air, Kasper hooked the novice authors up with her own literary agent. After the book sat on the back burner for a few years — both authors had young kids, after all — the two spent all of 2006 writing and baking. And baking. And baking. Neither one kept a tally, but they figure they baked well over 1,000 loaves while developing the 100 recipes in their book.

Those recipes represent a fairly even mix of the European immigrant breads of Hertzberg’s memory and Francois’s childhood on a Vermont commune. (Not only is there a recipe for granola bread — and the granola to go in it — there are four different types of oatmeal bread.) The book also spans the globe, from baguettes and Portuguese broa to Moroccan ksra and Armenian lavash. Many of the recipes are based on one of two basic master recipes — a versatile white dough and a rich, eggy, buttery brioche dough — but others include whole wheat and rye flours, semolina, cornmeal, buttermilk, and even squash.

Because no one lives by bread alone — and because certain foods just cry out for good bread to accompany them — the authors included their favorite recipes for gazpacho, a cumin-laced yogurt soup, and spicy kebabs. And, because, if you’re baking every day you will inevitably end up with some extra bread, there are a few ways to use it up, like bread pudding, panzanella (an Italian bread and tomato salad) and Lebanese fattoush (a salad of stale pita, greens, and a dressing of oil, lemon and za’atar).

On a sunny fall afternoon in Francois’ Linden Hills kitchen, about a dozen of these recipes were on display. She pulled a plastic box out of the fridge and dusted the contents lightly with flour before cutting off a grapefruit-sized hunk of golden dough studded with dried apricots. It had been in storage about a week. Ever so gently, she tucked the sides of the ball under, making a smooth, taught dome. This is called "cloaking" and it is the most handling this dough ever saw. After a rest of 40 minutes or so, this went into a fluted brioche mold and become panettone, an Italian Christmas bread.

"My kids can make this," François said. Her sons are 6 and 8. "I don’t think they even measure, they just go by feel."

Meanwhile, Hertzberg assessed a batch of plain white dough and decided it was old enough to shape into a pizza. The dough gets looser the longer it sits in the refrigerator. A fresh dough will probably be too puffy for pizza, and an older dough probably couldn’t hold the high round shape of a boule.

On the table, there was a pain d’epi (a show-offy French loaf shaped like a stalk of wheat that this baker can’t wait to show off), sticky bunsand a tidy, dense little Russian rye. Francois heated a deep saucepan of oil where squares of brioche dough would become beignets.

It was enticing in an all-this-can-be-yours way. I thought of the hours of effort and multiple tries it would take to perfect such different types of dough. I thought of the famous, fat recipe book on my shelf with its tables of protein content for various types of flour and its dire warnings that deviations from the 17-step recipes will result in devastating failure. I thought of the scant hour and a half I have between arriving home from work and the kids’ bedtime.

I was sold.

At home, I discovered that it really is that easy. Sunday night I stirred yeast and flour into warm water, put a plate over the mixing bowl and put it in the fridge. I had finished washing the spoon before five full minutes had passed. Monday evening, we walked in the door and I headed straight for my dough: It was bubbly and wet, and even looked soupy. But as soon as I touched it, it tightened up, like "real" bread dough, though a little stickier. A short rest, into the oven, and we had hot, fresh, homemade bread on a weeknight.

And that’s the point, according to Hertzberg. "We’re all busy," he said, "but we all want to be able to feed our families real, good food."