No Knead Bread Book. The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. Zoe Francois and Jeff Hertzberg. Book Review
Posted on 27th of January, 2014 by Lévana
I have a good problem with Zoe François: I don’t mind her radiant smile and her luminous curls. I don’t even mind that she is always photographed in a skimpy t-shirt, even though she lives in mind-numbing-ly frigid Minnesota. No, none of this is my gripe. The problem is, she is thin as a rail and looks the very picture of good form. Which begs the question: How does this bread baker do it? Then comes her co-author, Jeff Hertzberg, no-less handsome and fit, a medical doctor, if you can believe it, who got into developing the magic formula for this no-knead dough, with his revolutionary and ridiculously simple method. How many doctors can you name who bake bread for a hobby, let alone develop a foolproof formula for the dough? Last I checked at the hospital cafeteria, doctors were mindlessly chomping down on insipid tuna-and-Wonder-bread sandwiches slathered in mayo, and chuckling at the hopeless naiveté of the nutrition establishment and its gullible followers, proclaiming repeatedly that what you eat has no bearing whatsoever on your overall good health. Is that right? Could times be a changin?
Until recently, my elderly mother, bless her, kneaded bread six days a week (never on the holy Sabbath: Shabbos bread was baked Friday, in a double big batch that would last both Shabbos days) her entire life. The way I remember the daily whirlwind is, she woke up at the crack of dawn, washed, changed, served breakfast, sent us off to school, kneaded dough, shaped the loaves, let them rise, went on with the thousand and one next daily chores, and waited for the young boy who came every morning to take them to the municipal oven and brought them back to the house, baked and beautiful, just in time for lunch, as if by enchantment. No wonder the city streets are so fragrant and the local children so well coordinated, always racing around as they are, barefoot, with huge trays balanced on their heads! You will not even find instructions for baking in most Moroccan bread recipes. They simply end with, “Let the loaves rise and send them to the oven.”
When it comes to bread baking, all my mother believes in is brute force, punching the dough into submission with a vengeance, and kneading it black and blue, at lightening speed, swiveling the blob a quarter of a turn every minute or so and pounding all over again with all her might. No, no gentleness applied in bread baking as I recall, that was harnessed for us kids. Her bread being absolutely magnificent to eat, inhale and look at, I know better than to argue with success. My state of the art dough maker is supplanted by her furious kneading. In response to my plea, “Maman, it has a very powerful motor!” she dismissively replies, “I know, I know, but it doesn’t have a heart!” Is it any wonder my mom had such wonderfully toned arms? Which brings me to these quasi existentialist questions: To Knead or Not to Knead? Was a lifetime of kneading spent for naught? Does this momentous no-knead discovery threaten to strip her of her raison d’etre? Was the classical preliminary bubbling – proofing – of the yeast overrated, a mystification of sorts, some kind of shtick? Where does it leave Claude Nougaro’s beautiful song Les Mains d’Une Femme Dans La Farine? Were Zoe and Jeff born fifty years too late? Half a century earlier, would they have freed her daily kneading time for something more “noble” and more carefree? As importantly, I wondered what might become of my mom’s frequent half-joke: Growing up in Casablanca, we had a rich cousin who had a masseuse come to her house twice a week to help reduce her unsightly bulges. Once her intrigued maid asked her, “What is it that this lady does to you each time she comes?” To which my cousin answered self-consciously, “You know, if you massage a fat area, you end up reducing it.” The maid looked horrified and said vehemently, “Oh, no, Madame! When you knead the dough, it grows, and grows, and grows!”
The day I finally decided to bite the bullet, forget all I was taught, go for broke and make my first batch of no-knead dough (last week, with valuable help from Jeff Hertzberg whom I plied with questions on their site: thanks so much Jeff!) I felt as if, by taking the road less traveled, Gd forgive me, I was committing some vague infidelity, I was being an unworthy daughter, repudiating all my good delicious industrious and super nutritious upbringing. Still, I soldiered on, and as serendipity would have it, that morning I passed by the gorgeous bakery of Eric Kayser Artisan Boulanger, in Columbus Circle, whose front boasted an inspiring and encouraging bilingual sign that seemed planted there just to spur me on:
I settled on a large batch of Basic Dough, 1 batch of Challah, and 1 recipe of Chocolate Prune Bread, all from Zoe and Jeff’s wonderful latest book, The New Artisan Bread in 5 Minutes a Day. By then, I knew the book practically by heart, as I had read it dutifully cover to cover, soaking up the amazing tutorial they supplied so clearly and generously, and watching their youtube clips. I made the basic dough, using their mnemonic 6-2-2-13 magic formula (water-yeast-salt-flour) and practically ran with it for everything I made that day: Our anise-scented round flat Moroccan bread, Khobz, which we practically couldn’t live without; baguettes; couronne; Challah, with which I seem to be in a perennial war of attrition, tweaking the amount of eggs, oil and sugar given in their book to make it less cake-like and more bread-like (sorry guys: eating such rich bread on top of a copious Shabbos meal turns the weekly experience into a real rough sport! Have a heart, use some restraint, OK? Challah recipes from several Kosher cookbooks: Ditto!), without losing sight of the liquid-solid ratio that seems to be the dough’s secret; and Prune Chocolate Brioche. The brioche especially intrigued me: prunes, like beets, invariably conjure up loaded remarks about, uhmmm, never mind . . Pairing the lowly prune with the glorious chocolate was a brilliant way to give it proper vindication, a bit like the wallflower making her great entrance to the party on the heartthrob’s arm. I watched my dough grow, smiling delightedly as my bucket “shrank” and my dough expanded by leaps and bounds.
So, you are probably asking: How did my no-knead bread come out? We food professionals are tough on ourselves. I still don’t have the highly recommended pizza stone that yields such crusty bread, and settled for a very good quality heavy-gauge baking sheet. So my verdict is: The bread looked quite presentable, rustic and inviting, although it lacked the perfection and drama that comes with practice. But the flavor and texture, by all accounts, were fantastic. So: A triumph!
I should tell you I only use whole-grain spelt flour, for absolutely everything (cookies, cakes, breads, pizza), so I used about 10% more flour than listed in the book’s recipe, to make up for the fact that spelt is a low gluten flour and absorbs a little less liquid than regular wheat. I was thrilled with the results.
I am saving the brioche for my daughter Bella and her little family, with whom we are spending Shabbos this week. I already know how delicious it tastes, as I made a mini loaf of it to eat on the sly, leaving the larger loaf intact. For good measure, I am also bringing her a copy of the book, and 2 loaves of bread I froze for her (one couronne, and one Khobz). Bella listened politely and skeptically (so uncharacteristic of her, who makes almost nothing but my recipes all the time!) to my excited account of my no-knead adventure, so this is a perfect chance for me to gain a new convert.
I saved the best and most liberating part for the end: Do not divide the dough recipe. Let the dough rest as they instruct you, refrigerate it (up to two weeks for basic bread, up to one week for richer egg-based dough) and take only as much dough as you need for the day, shape it and let it rise, then bake it. The book includes so many exciting bread and pizza recipes. Gluten-Free diners, the book is for you too, as it has an extensive gluten-free chapter.
Now I can bake perfect bread more often! Have I told my mother yet? I find tackling the formidable master somewhat harder than making the dough, but I intend to tell her soon, just as soon as my loaves get almost as beautiful as hers and I can bring them along!