"five-minute" miracle

During a phone call with my friend Mindy, she asked if I like to make bread.  Instead of replying with a simple “yes” or “no” I launched into a description of the conflict between how much I love eating bread and how much I dread the laborious process of making it.  One of my defensive arguments–why I bothered getting defensive about my  sporadic-bread-making lifestyle I don’t know–was that it’s hard to invest in a process that yields such inconsistent results.  I cited the fact that humidity, yeast, the temperature of the kitchen, and the demands of my schedule can all frustrate my hopes for golden, airy, wondrous loaves.

She listened patiently.  Then she let me in on the secret she’d been waiting to share: Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.  It’s a website.*  It’s a cookbook.  It might even be a revolution.  Turned my thinking around, at least.

From four humble standbys–water, salt, yeast, and flour–emerges a practical example of synergism.  Behold:

The shaped loaves above are in the midst of their second rising, which lasts 40 minutes.  Before this point, the unshaped dough must rise for an hour, after which it can be refrigerated, frozen, or shaped for immediate baking.  The latter choice is my new standby, despite the fact that the original recipe advises refrigerating the dough to make it less sticky.

I’ve found that I prefer to alter the original recipe in several ways to achieve softer, less crusty loaves.  I’ll list the alterations at the end of this post.  For now, let’s marvel at the beauty of fresh-baked bread.

In case you’re like me and have trouble leaving well enough alone (poor Well Enough: so beset with annoyances) you can add a yummy embellishment, like Thyme Butter.  I got the idea from my October issue of Bon Appetit.  Here’s a link to an article almost identical to the one they printed.

All I did was lay cut up sticks of softened butter on a cutting board, slide some (rinsed) thyme leaves off their woody stems, sprinkling the butter with leafy confetti…

…and then chop, chop, chop through the mess repeatedly until the herbs were mixed into the butter.  I scraped the butter onto a square of parchment paper, rolled it up and twisted the ends like old-fashioned candy, and chilled it until it held that shape.  To serve I brought it back to room temperature.

This bread-and-butter combo graced the table at our October open house.  You’ll be virtually, retroactively invited to that event tomorrow.  Until then, you can keep yourself busy warming up your house (or apartment!) baking the easiest bread you ever made.  Unless you’re a bread machine user, in which case I have nothing to offer you.  Except maybe a promise that making this will satisfy you more…?  Because it’s so easy and you can truthfully say it’s from scratch…?  Still want to just load ingredients and push a button?  Okay, then I really have nothing to offer you.

*Are you ready for the follow-up to the asterisk above?  Here it is: when you visit the website, on the right side you’ll see a Red Star Yeast ad.  At the bottom of that ad there’s a link to a tutorial for this quick bread-making process…but I have to warn you it takes a bit more than five minutes start-to-finish.  (Their time estimate is based on hands-on time–stirring, shaping, and putting in/taking out of the oven.)  All told you could have this bread on the table in less than 2 1/2 hours, by my very scientific guesstimations.

Here are the things I like to change:
-I stir up the dough in my biggest mixing bowl, throw a towel over the top, and let it rise a couple hours if I have the time.  I’ll cut it off after the mandatory one hour if I’m on a schedule.
-I almost never refrigerate the dough anymore.  I used to, and, as Jeff & Zoe promised in their first book, it would take on more of a sourdough flavor the longer it aged.  (There is an upper limit to this; be forewarned.)  Now I prefer to shape and bake all four loaves immediately.
-I still preheat my oven 20 minutes into the shaped-loaf rising time.  However, I do not preheat my pans.  I have never had a baking stone, so in an effort to adhere to the original recipe here is what I used to do:
-Shape loaves and place on cornmeal-covered cutting boards.  (I’ve never had a pizza peel either.)
-Preheat oven and pans for half of the rising time.
-Slide shaped loaves from boards to pans when it was time to bake.
-Add a cake pan of hot water to the oven to achieve steam-crackled crusts.
Here is what I do now:
-Shape loaves and place directly on cornmeal-covered pans.
-Preheat oven for half of the rising time.
-Put pans in oven when it’s time to bake.  (Duh?  Sorry; maybe this parallelism thing is getting out of hand.)
-Omit the steamy step.  I like a softer crust, not crackly crumbs flying hither and thither with every bite.

This bread pairs fabulously with pasta and soup, has great texture for toast and French toast, and makes for excellent croutons when “fresh-baked” no longer accurately describes it.  Toss cubes with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper; scatter on a cookie sheet; and bake at 400 degrees F for 10 minutes.  If the cubes are still pale and spongy, stir and check for goldenness every 3 minutes or so until they’re gorgeous and crisp.  Sometimes I don’t even bother making a salad; I eat the croutons plain as a snack.

There is a very simple moral to this story: Make This Bread and You Will Love It.  Then tell me about it.  Did you make any of your own adaptations?  I keep thinking I’m going to make a cheesy bread with this recipe, but I haven’t gotten past the beauty of the basics yet.

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