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THE WONDER OF BREAD MADE FRESH, DAILY

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 (Thomas Dunne Books, 2007) brings bread baking back to the modern kitchen in a way that makes sense to busy people.

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-faced type, on page 3: Pre-mixed, 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 4- or 8-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 sourdough-like, 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.

Hertzberg and Francois' practical, common-sense method is, quite simply, genius.

The dough is wetter than most by 30 to 50 percent, they explained while demonstrating the method in a 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.

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

BREAD

Simple Crusty Bread

1-1/2 tablespoons yeast

1-1/2 tablespoons coarse salt

3 cups lukewarm water

6 -1/2 cups flour, plus additional for dusting

Cornmeal, optional

- Mix yeast and salt into the water in a large bowl. 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 two to five hours.

- Bake immediately according to directions below. If you prefer to bake at a later time, refrigerate the dough, 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.

- Sprinkle a pizza peel (or large wooden cutting board) with cornmeal. Place the dough on the peel; let rise 40 minutes. Repeat with remaining dough, or refrigerate. While dough is rising, preheat oven to 450. Place a broiler pan on bottom of oven. Place a baking stone on middle rack. (If using a loaf pan without baking stone, stretch rounded dough into an oval and place in a greased, nonstick pan. Let rest 40 minutes if fresh, one hour if refrigerated.)

- Dust loaf with flour, slash top in a cross with a serrated knife. Slide loaf onto baking stone or, if using loaf pan, place 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 before cutting.

- Makes 4 (1-pound) loaves, about 16 slices per loaf.

Source: Adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking

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