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November 1, 2013 at 2:46 PM

Improved Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day

Author photo courtesy of St. Martin's Press

Author photo courtesy of St. Martins Press

In a world full of celebrity cookbooks, a physician tinkering with a homemade bread recipe and a pastry chef with no national recognition were unlikely candidates as breakthrough authors. But fate and skill were both in Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois’s favor when a book agent heard Jeff call The Splendid Table radio show asking about prospects for the intriguing bread-making process they’d developed. The resulting 2007 book, “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day,” became a hit with more than a half-million copies in print. The beginner-friendly setup is something like the next step after no-knead bread, quickly assembling large batches of a high-moisture dough that can be baked in individual loaves as needed. The authors figured out how to make the convenient process work not just for crusty boules, but for sandwich loaves and rich brioches as well. (Here’s a story I wrote about it when the book first came out, with the basic recipe.)

The pair (who met in their children’s preschool music class) went on to publish two other books in the series (a fourth is in the works), and the publisher just issued their completely revised and expanded version of the original book. It’s got lots of photos (an advantage you get as a proven success rather than an unknown,) a better index, new recipes, and some fundamental changes. Here’s what I found talking with Hertzberg and Francois about what they’ve learned about bread baking and home bakers over the past 6 busy years:

1. Home bakers have become more willing to use scales: The revised book includes measurements by weight as well as volume. “A lot of what we’ve done to gauge the interest is – it’s a little unscientific – we ask readers questions on the website,” said Hertzberg. More readers lately have been requesting weights, especially international site visitors who are more accustomed to baking that way. The authors preferred it, too. “To me, the reason to do it is, it’s much faster. People talk about the accuracy (being greater), but I’m pretty good at the cup measurements, and I’d say it takes twice as long with the cup measurements.”

2. Gluten-free bread is here to stay (and can taste very good): It wasn’t even on the radar during the original book discussions, said Francois, but it quickly became one of the top requests they got for recipes. “It was a tough start for us, because it’s a totally different chemical game with gluten-free. It needed to taste great, but it also needed to be as quick and fast and easy as our regular method.” Through “a whole lot of conversation and trial and error,” they developed a chapter of breads using a rice-tapioca-potato flour mix they’re pleased with. Gluten-free recipes are far from a food fad, Hertzberg noted — there’s a consensus that about 1 percent of Americans have celiac disease and that the numbers have been rising, and many others have a sensitivity to gluten. One other thing their readers taught them: “A lot of people who are sensitive to wheat are also sensitive to things like corn,” Francois said, so they had to develop recipes free of as many allergens as they could manage.

3. Less is more: Their new recipes use both less salt and less yeast than the original ones. “Zoe and I have a very salty palate and love salty things, so our first book has a really salty bread,” Hertzberg said. Now they include a range depending on reader tastes. For yeast, they initially thought “if it didn’t rise exuberantly right away, we’d lose the beginners.” But the well-hydrated dough works just as well with a smaller amount.

4. The most common troubleshooting questions they get: The biggest one has been about the density of bread, Hertzberg said. The authors used to tell readers to let shaped dough rest for 40 minutes before putting it in the oven. For people who keep cooler kitchens, though, or those who prefer a less dense bread, they now recommend leaving it for up to 90 minutes. They also make sure readers are measuring flour the same way they are if it’s not done by weight — scooping and sweeping it, rather than spooning it into the cup, which would “give you a lighter cup and is going to give you too liquidy a dough which doesn’t hold its shape.”

5. How to be virtual baking assistants: I noted years ago that Hertzberg and Francois were unusually available to readers who had baking questions, inviting queries through a website and Twitter feed. The list of ways to contact them has now grown to include a YouTube channel, Pinterest, Facebook, and much more. The advantage: “You’d think from a business standpoint it would take up most of our time,” Hertzberg said. (Yes!) But after six years, they’ve already answered the majority of what people come up with. They can direct readers to a FAQ section, or other readers in their online community might step in with assistance — “it’s not as burdensome as you might think, and it’s an incredible service.” They’ve also adjusted recipes to anticipate or answer the most common questions. Whatever’s left over, they still address online. Here’s the best place to start out finding them.

Comments | Topics: Artisan Bread in Five, Jeff Hertzberg, no-knead bread


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