Fresh bread always on hand

High-moisture dough stores well in refrigerator.

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The method works with various types of doughs - and eliminates kneading.

If man cannot live by bread alone, it may be because Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois didn't publish their book sooner: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking (St. Martin's Press, $27.95).

Hertzberg, once a physician, had toyed with the logistics of having fresh-baked bread for his family in Minneapolis for more than a decade. But it wasn't until he befriended Francois, a Culinary Institute of America-trained pastry chef and baker, that the two discovered they shared more than a passion for baking.

They shared the Secret.

It must not be too secret, though, because there it is, in bold-face type, on Page 3: Premixed, pre-risen, high-moisture dough keeps well in the refrigerator.

With that discovery, Hertzberg and Francois developed a method that makes any home into a mini artisan bake shop. You'll mix up a four- or eight-pound batch of dough - it literally takes just five minutes - and, once it rises, you'll refrigerate it for as long as a couple of weeks. Then, each night or as needed, you'll pinch off a pound or so of dough, shape it quickly, let it rest while you do something else, and bake it. Toward the end of the storage period, the dough becomes more tangy, more sourdoughlike, although it's not a true sourdough.

Small households can bake little loaves, or even singleton buns.

"My mother, who lives alone, bakes a single roll every night to go with her dinner," Francois said. Larger families can bake bigger loaves. But nobody needs to bake more bread than they'll eat in a day or two. Because the next fresh bread is just minutes away.

In 2006, New York Times columnist Mark Bittman wrought a frenzy when he introduced a no-knead method used by Jim Lahey, who owns Sullivan Street Bakery in New York City. Lahey's method uses a scant amount of yeast, an incredibly long rise of up to 18 hours, and a very wet dough baked in a preheated heavy casserole, such as a cast-iron Dutch oven. The long rise developed a sourdough-ish character, and the bread's crust was shatteringly crisp. Home bakers had never seen anything like it.

But the method had some inconveniences. Timing the rise to end at a time when the cook would be handy to put the bread in the oven might mean starting it at 1 a.m., for example. The cloud of flour generated when the dough had to be plopped into the casserole quickly burned and stank up the kitchen. And just dealing with a heavy, 450-degree Dutch oven was intimidating for many.

None of those issues arises with Hertzberg and Francois' practical, common-sense method, which is, quite simply, genius.

The dough is wetter than most by 30 percent to 50 percent, they explained while demonstrating the method in the Tribune test kitchen. The wet dough eliminates the step of kneading because the moisture helps gluten develop.

But wait, as they say in infomercials, there's more.

The method works with myriad other doughs. You can make flatbreads and pizzas, enriched breads, sweet doughs for cinnamon buns and other pastries, and vary it for different kinds of peasant loaves. At any given time, Hertzberg and Francois said, they have several buckets of doughs in their refrigerator. If cabbage soup with kielbasa is on the menu tonight, a good peasant rye might go well. But a prosciutto and olive oil flatbread might suit tomorrow night's casual get-together. And which would the brunch crowd on Sunday prefer, the sticky pecan caramel rolls or the brioche filled with chocolate ganache?

Decisions, decisions. It's enough to make a bread fanatic consider buying a second refrigerator.

You could do that, said Hertzberg. Or you could portion the dough into loaf-size lumps (the book gives clear suggestions on sizes), and freeze the dough. Or bake the loaves just until they've colored, to set the interior crumb - and freeze them for later use.

"That's a great way to take fresh-baked bread to someone's house; you just finish baking it when you arrive, and the house fills with that wonderful aroma," Hertzberg said. "Everyone feels welcome right away."

Our favorite tip from Hertzberg: "I like to let the dough rise in the car as we drive to a vacation house or cabin. I can bake a loaf as soon as we arrive."

The no-muss, no-anxiety method has had fresh bread on our dinner table several times a week since we first encountered the book. Consider us converts.


Simple Crusty Bread

Yield: 4 (1-pound) loaves, about 64 slices

11/2 tablespoons each: yeast, coarse salt

3 cups lukewarm water

61/2 cups flour, plus addition-

al for dusting dough

Cornmeal, optional

1. Mix yeast and salt into the water in a large bowl or plastic container. Stir in the flour, mixing until there are no dry patches; the dough will be quite loose. Cover, but not airtight. Let the dough rise at room temperature for 2 to 5 hours.

2. Bake immediately, if desired, or refrigerate, loosely covered, for up to 2 weeks (the dough is easier to handle when it's cold). When ready to bake, sprinkle a little flour on the dough; cut off a grapefruit-sized piece. Turn dough in floured hands to lightly stretch the surface until smooth and round on top and lumpy on the bottom.

3. Heat oven to 450 degrees. Sprinkle a pizza peel with cornmeal. Place the dough on the peel; let rise 40 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough, or refrigerate. Place a broiler pan on bottom of oven. Place a baking stone on the middle rack. (If using a loaf pan without a baking stone, stretch rounded dough into an oval and place into a greased, nonstick loaf pan. Let rest 40 minutes if fresh, 1 hour if refrigerated. Heat oven to 450 degrees for 5 minutes.)

4. Dust loaf with flour, slash top in a cross with a serrated knife. Slide loaf onto baking stone or, if using loaf pan, place loaf pan on middle rack. Pour 1 cup water into the broiler pan; close oven door quickly to trap steam. Bake until well browned, about 30 minutes; cool completely before cutting.

-
Adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (St. Martin's Press, 2007).

Per slice: 47 calories, 1 gram protein, 10 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, no fat, no cholesterol, 133 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.


Pain d'Epi (Wheat Stalk Bread)

Makes four 1-pound loaves

3 cups lukewarm water

11/2 tablespoons granulated yeast (11/2 packets)

11/2 tablespoons salt

61/2 cups bread flour (or substitute 7 cups all

purpose flour)

Whole wheat flour for the pizza peel

1. Mixing and storing the dough: Mix the yeast and salt with water.

2. Mix in the flour, without kneading, using a spoon, a 14-cup capacity food processor (with dough attachment), or a heavy-duty stand mixer (with dough hook.) If you're not using a machine, you may need to use wet hands to get the last bit of flour to incorporate.

3. Cover (not airtight) and allow to rest at room temperature until the dough rises and collapses (or flattens on top); approximately 2 hours.

4. The dough can be used immediately after the initial rise, though it is easier to handle when cold. Refrigerate in a lidded (not airtight) container and use over the next 14 days.

5. On baking day: Dust the surface of the refrigerated dough with flour and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece, dust the piece with more flour, and quickly shape it into a ball by stretching the surface of the dough around the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. Gradually elongate the mass. With the palms of your hands. gently roll it into the shape of a baguette, tapering the end to points.

6. Allow to rest and rise on a whole wheat-covered pizza peel for 30 minutes. Do not slash.

7. Twenty minutes before baking time, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with the baking stone placed on the middle rack. Place an empty broiler tray on any other shelf that won't interfere with the rising bread. Just before baking time, dust the loaf with flour. With a sharp pair of kitchen shears, cut from the top at a 45-degree angle into the dough, stopping a quarter inch from the bottom. Fold each cut piece over to the side, alternating sides with each cut. Repeat until the entire loaf is cut and pain d'epi formed (see photo.)

8. Slide the loaf directly onto the hot stone. Pour one cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray and quickly close the oven door. Bake for about 25 minutes, or until the loaf is deeply browned and firm.

9. Allow to cool before breaking off the wheat-stalked shapes. Slather with butter and eat warm if you can't wait.

- From Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day (St. Martin's Press, 2007)

Per serving (based on 32): 104 calories, 4 grams protein, 21 grams carbohydrates, trace sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 328 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber