Daily bread

TECHNIQUE | Baking bread back in vogue thanks to popular book

February 25, 2009

Cy Rohan of Evergreen Park, who admits to being a kitchen novice, bakes bread from scratch every week. Rohan slices the top of the dough (left) before baking it. (Keith Hale/Sun-Times)

Bread baking is back.

In 19th- and early-20th-century America, bread baking was a routine household chore. But after pre-sliced bread became widely sold in the 1930s, few homemakers continued to bake their own.

The super simple soda-based breads that became fundamental in Ireland in the 19th century never quite caught on here, and traditional yeast-bread baking can be time-consuming and tricky.

During the whole-earth era of the 1970s, long-haired, tie-dye-clad baby boomers earnestly raised bean sprouts and grew muscles kneading whole-grain doughs.

Then there was friendship bread, a prolific sourdough that you had to keep feeding and dividing and finding homes for, like keeping a promiscuous pet -- one of the permissible excesses of the Moral Majority era.

"It was like a curse," recalls Judy Hicks, 62, of Wilmette, an avid home baker. "It always tasted the same, no matter what you did."

Next came dot-coms and bread machines, both with oddly shaped results.

"You'd get home from work, and find it didn't turn on," remembers Lu Bennett of Arlington Heights.

What with assembling, de-assembling and cleaning the devices, "it seemed like way too much work," says Zoe Francois, co-author of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking (St. Martin's, $27.95).

The latest bread uprising gets strong leavening from the cookbook Francois, a pastry chef, wrote with Jeff Hertzberg. Hertzberg, a Minnesota doctor, worked out a timesaving, no-knead technique based on high-moisture dough while a medical resident.

Their book has been the top-selling baking book at Amazon.com for the past year.

"It's a domino thing," says Bennett, a retired executive assistant who bakes bread from the book two to three times a week and finds herself talking about the method in grocery stores.

"It's catching on at our school with the PTA," says Evanston resident Michele Hays, 41, who has been baking from the book several times weekly, often with help from her 8-year-old son, since September. "Kids can do it."

The five minutes a day in the cookbook title refers to hands-on time on baking day. Mixing the dough takes about 15 minutes.

After two hours of rising, the dough lives unattended in your fridge for up to two weeks, and you can cut off pieces for baking at any time. Shape it into a loaf, let it rest while the oven heats and 20 minutes later, you have a crackling baguette.

"The less you handle it, the better the dough," Francois says.

A baking stone is the only special equipment called for. A pizza peel is helpful, but you can make do with a rimless cookie sheet.

The process is flexible, the authors say. You can let the dough rest longer if the phone rings or the baby cries.

You can even shape a loaf and let it rest in the fridge overnight, they say on their Web site, www.artisanbreadin five.com. As the dough ages, it develops more flavor.

Besides French-style breads, they offer recipes for deli-style rye, pizza crust, challah, even bagels.

Cy Rohan of Evergreen Park, a health-care executive, first tried the method a little more than a year ago out of curiosity; he once worked with Hertzberg.

"I'm a 47-year-old-guy who never baked anything," he says. "My wife cooks everything. I can open a can of soup, basically."

Rohan was surprised to discover that he made perfect, crusty loaves. Now, he always has dough ready to bake.

"Every time I make it, I'm just ... 'It worked again!' " he says. "It's so easy and fun."

The no-knead trend isn't for everybody. Some bakers, like Paulette Gardner of Northbrook, prefer traditional methods.

"Feeling the dough -- that's part of the fun of making bread. I like to play with it," says Gardner, 67, a retired food-service consultant, who admits she rarely baked when she was still working.

"Experienced bakers have a much more difficult time with our bread," Francois says. "They can't resist kneading."

The Artisan Bread in Five Minutes method is fast and easy -- but not foolproof. Variables in flour, yeast and ovens mean it might take some tinkering before you get a handle on the correct texture and technique.

Our first baguettes came out looking like ciabatta, and our boule was underbaked on the bottom.

Yet even the failures had lovely, crunchy, crusty exteriors; beautiful, chewy interiors, full of air pockets; and good flavor.

As Hertzberg says, "Big deal, it's only food, and we can have more tomorrow."

At roughly 40 cents a loaf and a few minutes' active prep time, you can afford to experiment, he says.

If you don't have that much patience, buck the yeasty trend and try our foolproof soda bread.

Leah A. Zeldes is a local free-lance writer.


To spoon or scoop?

How much is a cupful of flour?

In 1896, Fannie Farmer standardized the American system of dry measures.

Farmer advocated a system sometimes called "spoon-and-sweep":

Place a dry measuring cup on the counter, lightly spoon a heaping amount of flour into it and level off the excess with the back of a knife.

Used by most American recipe writers since, this method results in about 4-1/4 ounces of flour by weight per cupful (less if the flour is well-sifted).

However, some newer writers, including the authors of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, use a method called "scoop-and-sweep."

In this system, you scoop out the flour with the measuring cup, then sweep off the excess. This can add more than an ounce per cup.

If you're not sure which method is used, look for other clues in the recipe as to the proper consistency of the dough, and adjust the flour accordingly.

Leah A. Zeldes



February 25, 2009



3 cups lukewarm water (100 degrees)

2 envelopes yeast (4 1/2 teaspoons)

4 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt (or to taste)

6 1/2 to 7 cups unbleached all-purpose white flour, measured using scoop-and-sweep method (2 pounds)


Flour for dusting

1 cup hot water

Preparing the dough: Place the water into a 5- to 6-quart container with a lid. Stir in the yeast and salt.

Add 6 1/2 cups flour all at once and stir with a wooden spoon until it's well mixed, with no dry patches. The dough will be rough-looking and moist but will mound up slightly in the container. If it flattens out quickly, add a little more flour. Cover loosely, and let the dough rise at room temperature for at least 2 hours.

Form loaves at once or, for easier handling and better flavor, refrigerate the dough, loosely covered, for at least three hours. This dough may be refrigerated, loosely covered, up to two weeks.

Baking: When ready to bake, sprinkle a little flour over the dough, and cut off a grapefruit-sized piece (1/4 of the dough) with a serrated knife.

Return the remaining dough to the fridge for another day. Cut the piece of dough in half. Working quickly, with floured hands, shape each piece into a ball by stretching the top around to the bottom. On a floured surface, pull the ball into a flat oval, fold into thirds, like a letter, and pinch the seam closed. Stretch and roll into a 2-inch-thick cylinder with tapered ends.

Heavily dust a rimless cookie sheet or pizza peel with flour. Place the loaves on the peel and let rest, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, while you preheat the oven.

Place a pizza or baking stone on the middle rack of the oven and a shallow pan, such as a broiler pan, on another rack. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

Just before baking, brush the loaves with water and, using a serrated knife, slice diagonal slashes along the length of each loaf.

Slide the loaves onto the baking stone. Pour 1 cup hot tap water into the broiler pan and quickly close the oven door. Bake 20 to 25 minutes, until deeply browned. Let cool completely on a rack before slicing.

Note: When our dough was too floppy, we got excellent results with a perforated baguette pan.

Adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery that Revolutionizes Home Baking by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois, and www.artisanbreadinfive.com.

Nutrition facts per serving: 94 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 20 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 272 mg sodium, 1 g fiber


Super simple bread

February 25, 2009


3 1/2 cups self-rising flour, measured by spoon-and-sweep method

3 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)

1 (12-ounce) can beer or 1 1/2 cups buttermilk

Melted butter

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Heavily grease an 8-by-4-inch loaf pan.

Combine the flour, sugar and liquid together in a mixing bowl, stirring just till no dry patches remain. Pour into the loaf pan. Draw a sharp knife down the dough lengthwise for a split top.

Immediately place on the oven's center rack. (Don't let the batter stand once it is mixed or it will deflate.) Bake for 50 minutes. Brush the top with melted butter and bake 10 minutes more, until nicely browned. (The bread will not rise very high.)

Remove the loaf from the pan and let it cool briefly on a wire rack (or wrap in a dish towel if you prefer a softer crust). Serve warm.

Note: This style of bread has a crumblier, cakier texture than yeast bread. It's great served hot with a bowl of soup or a salad. Leftovers make terrific toast.

Leah A. Zeldes

Nutrition facts per serving: 183 calories, 0 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 37 g carbohydrates, 4 g protein, 557 mg sodium, 1 g fiber