A little over one year ago I purchased my first bread baking book ever: The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart. Up to that point challah was the only yeasted bread I’d ever made, and as I flipped through Reinhart’s collection of gorgeous recipes I remember feeling a mixture of anticipation and trepidation. I was so excited by the prospect of being able to create breads like this in my kitchen someday, but wondered when ‘someday’ would arrive, if ever. I looked around my tiny apartment kitchen and, for a moment, was tempted to scoff at the idea of becoming a home baker. But then I turned to my husband and said, “One year from now, I’m going to be able to make a loaf of artisan bread.” Without batting an eye he replied, “Of course you’ll do it baby! And I’ll help you eat all the breads you bake between now and then.”
Since that day, every loaf of bread I’ve made has been a little piece of magic. People sometimes laugh at how excited I get when I talk about bread but for me it’s a passion. The smell of bread baking in the oven makes me feel content, the feel of dough beneath my hands relaxes me, and that first bite – the crunch, followed by the soft, resilient texture – there’s nothing like it. When I was visiting my family this past December my father told me that my great-grandfather was a baker who owned a panaderia (bakery) in Salinas, California. Then he went into the back room and emerged with a decades old photograph of this man, whose life was bread and whose blood ran through my veins. I must confess that a romantic part of me wondered whether there was such a thing as a “baking gene,” and whether it was possible that my way with dough was somehow connected to this man I’d never met.
Around 3 o’clock this afternoon snow started falling outside, the temperature dropped, and after several days of unusually warm weather winter returned to Connecticut. I sat near the window and watched the flakes fall for a while, then decided that tonight’s dinner would feature fresh bread and hot soup. After all, what is more comforting in winter? Chilly winds may be blowing, ice may be drifting down, but steam rising from a bowl and the welcoming scent of bread makes even the coldest evenings cozy.
A few hours later a rustic loaf of spinach feta bread emerged from the oven. As it cooled I prepared a pot of potato and leek soup, then gently fried sage leaves in a mixture of olive oil and butter. When my husband got home we sliced the bread, toasted the pieces, then dipped each one into the fragrant olive oil and butter concoction. It was a delightful combination, and as we sat down to enjoy our meal I found myself feeling grateful for the gift of bread, and glad that I didn’t give up when the prospect of making it seemed so daunting.
Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day contains a wealth of delicious bread recipes and makes artisan home baking seem not only approachable, but easy. All the tricks I learned over months of baking are gathered together in this book. The authors teach you, for instance, that you don’t need to make fresh dough every day to have fresh bread every day, that you don’t need to proof your yeast, and that you don’t always have to knead your dough. These aren’t new ideas, but while I had to read many baking books to learn these helpful tips, “Artisan Baking in Five Minutes a Day” condenses them all into one highly accessible text. I will admit that having a solid background of baking experience helped me make the recipes I tried from this book, and that at times I kneaded the dough a bit or proofed my yeast – old habits die hard – but even when I didn’t give in to the temptation to knead or proof, the resulting breads were remarkably satisfying. I especially enjoyed the “Tips and Techniques” chapter, which explains moisture content and how to successfully modify doughs. It also tackles problems associated with underbaking or overbaking your loaves, giving you a helpful breakdown of signs to look for and how to improve your baking as a result. Though photos do not accompany the majority of the recipes, a handful of color photos are included in the middle of the book along with how-to photos in the “Master Recipe” section. The 5 minutes a day part stems from the fact that the authors often have you mix a big batch of various kinds of doughs, then give you instructions for making different breads from the initial batch throughout the week. I thought this technique was successful, with the exception of the Raisin Bread, which I felt would have been improved if it were based on a sweet, rather than a buttermilk, dough. But that’s a matter of personal preference, as is my wish that the authors hadn’t included quite so many “accompaniment” recipes, such as bean dips or soups to eat with certain breads. I would have preferred it if even more scrumptious bread recipes were featured on those pages instead. Yet, overall this book is an excellent addition to any library. I highly recommend the “Foccacia with Onion and Rosemary” and the “Spinach Feta Bread.”
Chapters include: Introduction; Ingredients; Equipment; Tips and Techniques; The Master Recipe; Peasant Loaves; Flatbreads and Pizzas; and Enriched Breads and Pastries.
Spinach Feta Bread
Reprinted with permission from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois.
Ingredients: Makes four 1lb loaves
- 1 cup packed cooked (lightly steamed, boiled or sauteed), chopped spinach
- 3 cups lukewarm water
- 1 1/2 tablespoons granulated yeast (About 1 1/2 packets)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2/3 cup crumbled feta cheese
- 1 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 6 1/2 cups all purpose flour
- Cornmeal for pizza peel
Mixing and storing the dough: Squeeze the cooked spinach through a strainer to get rid of excess liquid. Mix the yeast, salt, spinach, cheese and sugar with the water in a 5-quart bowl, or a lidded (not airtight) food container. Mix in the flour without kneading, using a spoon, a 14-cup capacity food processor (with dough attachment), or a heavy-duty mixer (with dough hook). If you’re not using a machine, you may need to use wet hands to incorporate the last bit of flour.
Cover (not airtight), and allow to rest at room temperature until the dough rises and collapses (or flattens on top), approximately 2 hours.
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 7 days.
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 to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. Allow to rest and rise on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel for 1 hour (or just 40 minutes if you’re using fresh, unrefrigerated dough).
Twenty minutes before baking time, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F, with a baking stone placed on the middle rack. Place an empty boiler tray on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread.
Sprinkle the loaf liberally with flour and slash a cross or tic-tac-toe pattern into the top, using a serrated bread knife. Leave the flour in place for baking; tap some of it off before eating.
Slide the loaf directly onto the hot stone. Pour 1 cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray, and quickly close the oven door. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until deeply browned and firm. Smaller or larger loaves will require adjustments in baking time.
Allow to cool before slicing or eating.