The Daily Bread
Zoe François and Jeff Hertzberg (background) present their revolutionary bread baking methods at a Whole Foods’ Napa cooking class. Lianne Milton/Register

It sounded way too good to be true. If Stephen Durfee had not strongly recommended we take note of this book and attend the class at Whole Foods in Napa, I’d have been inclined to dismiss it all as the fantasy of a mad scientist let loose in a kitchen: “The Bread That Baked Itself.”

But Durfee, a former pastry chef at the French Laundry and presently a baking instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, is a bit of a genius who knows whereof he speaks when it comes to baking. This is why on a recent evening Register photographer Lianne Milton and I ended up in class at the Whole Foods kitchen — skeptically — to see how Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe François, authors of “Artisan Bread Baking in Five Minutes a Day,” make authentic, crusty, yeasty, homemade bread with no kneading, no waiting for it to rise, no punching down, from a dough that waits, only getting better, in the fridge until you need a loaf.

Among the audience was Durfee, who had not only read the book, but had tested the recipes and had incorporated its theories into his classes at the CIA. Also, he’d made the dough the authors were using to demonstrate.

“This flies in the face of all the traditional teachings about baking bread,” he said.

First, the authors shared a taste of the bread that had been baked according to the “Five Minutes a Day” theory. It looked like a loaf of artisan bread, and, lo and behold, it certainly tasted like it.

During the next hour, we tasted a baguette, rye bread, foccacia, pita bread, pizza and even a pain épi (the nifty bread arrangement that looks like leafs on a branch), all made from the dough, while co-author Hertzberg told the story of how this dough had come to be.

A native of New York, he’d grown up eating hearty, artisan-type breads, including his grandmother’s favorite rye bread. After finishing medical school, however, he found himself in Minneapolis, where he discovered the bread of choice at the time was Wonder Bread.

Suffering from real bread withdrawal, but at the same time faced with the 500 or so hours a week schedule of a young doctor, he did not exactly have time to devote to baking bread. Applying his scientific training, however, he worked on the problem until he came up with this nearly painless way to have bread dough waiting in the fridge — on call, as it were.

A chance meeting at his children’s preschool with CIA trained pastry chef Zoe François led to a collaboration wherein François took his basic recipe and created a brioche-type dough and, along with it, variations that include strudel, sticky pecan caramel rolls and ganache-filled rolls.

Everything tasted like the real deal — better — but the question was: Did it really work at home?

Accordingly I got the book, and enlisted the help of Louisa Hufstader, a Register correspondent and enthusiastic baker. We both took copies of the basic recipe and agreed to share our results.

Here’s what happened to me:

I followed the directions precisely and much to the astonishment of my two doubtful children, who have minimal faith in my baking ability, it produced a golden loaf that looked, in my daughter’s words, “like real bread.” I set it on a rack to cool, went upstairs and when I came back down, approximately five minutes later, it was gone. They’d decided to taste it to see if it was really bread, and they’d eaten the entire thing.

I baked another loaf and this time our dog got in on the act and the three devoured it. The third loaf?  Sam and his friend Ben found it. “Hey,” he said, “did you notice we ate the whole thing?” I began to feel like I’d starved my children for years. Finally, at loaf number four, I got a taste. It was a tasty loaf of bread.

Hertzberg and François note that you can keep the basic bread dough in the fridge for up to two weeks, but my first batch was baked and eaten in two days.

Emboldened, I mixed up the brioche dough and, at Sam’s request, the Vermont Cheddar Bread recipe. Success again, although we agreed we actually preferred the basic recipe; this is probably a good thing: Although the brioche dough does make a fine challah, it also contains three cubes of butter, eight eggs and half a cup of honey. The basic recipe is flour, salt, water and yeast, that’s it.

I knew I was onto something when Sam and Ben, both about to leave for college, chose to hang out in the kitchen to discuss how I did it and if they could bake it in a dorm.

At this point, I checked in with Louisa. “It worked,” she reported. She, too, had gone beyond the basic recipe — she was creating versions with oats, semolina, whole wheat, dried fruit and nuts. “I’ve gained several pounds since I started this,” she said. She needs a few more college students in her kitchen.

The method

To try the basic loaf at home, you need, first of all, the book, “Artisan Bread Baking in Five Minutes a Day” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.95). I bought it at Whole Foods, calculating that at the going rate for a loaf of great bread, I’d recoup the expense in five loaves. Not only does the book have precise instructions that allow a dubious baker such as myself to impress skeptics, but it has, in all, about 100 recipes for variations — bagels, bialys, foccacia, challah, limpa, pizza, calzones, fougasse, beignets — plus good things to eat with bread; everything from jam to kabobs to go with home-made lavash flatbread.

The authors also include all kinds of tips from what kind of flour to use to how to measure it, troubleshooting advice, and answers to just about any question you might come up with, including why you don’t have to knead it.

You’ll also need a pizza stone to get the crust, a tub for mixing and storing the dough, and for special flourish, a pizza peel — the wooden paddle pizza makers use to slip their creations in and out of ovens. I tried it without a peel, and it can be done, but it’s much more fun with a peel. Hertzberg also strongly recommends you have an oven thermometer, since he said many ovens can be off by as much as 75 degrees — this method was created by a scientist.

All of these things are in stock at Shackford’s on Main Street in Napa, where, they told me, they experienced an exceptional run on the items after the Whole Foods class.

This is how the basic method works:  You “dump” as Hertzberg says, together salt, yeast and water. Then you stir in unbleached, all purpose flour. You can use a mixer, but it’s not necessary.  It’s a very wet dough; you couldn’t knead it if you wanted to. Instead, you leave the dough, covered, to rise for two hours at room temperature. Then you can bake it or (as he recommends) store it, covered, in the fridge overnight.

When you are ready to bake a loaf, you break off a  piece, shape it, (dusting it with flour) and let it rest about 40 minutes on a pizza peel covered with corn meal.

Twenty minutes before you are going to bake it, you preheat the oven, with the pizza stone in it to 450 F. Below the rack, you put a broiler pan that will hold water to create a steam bath for the crust. When it’s ready, you add a cup of water to the broiler plan, slip in the loaf and let it bake for 25 minutes. The rest of the dough goes back in the fridge, waiting until you need another loaf.

 Is it bread in five minutes a day? If you add up the time you spend actually doing anything, it’s bread in however long it takes to shape a loaf.

And if it’s like my house you get to enjoy, not only the sight of a crowd, including the dog, waiting for the bread to emerge, but the wafting aroma of a bread that your grandmother would have appreciated — but,  as Hertzberg notes, would never have paid $6 a loaf for.

Happy Labor Day.

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