In Which I Become a Wannabe Artisan Baker

Check out that crust!

Per last week's post on New Year's Food Resolutions, I wasted no time in tackling Resolution #1: learn to make a decent loaf of whole-wheatish artisan bread to tide me over until the Market opens again in May. Mind you, I had no desire to become a genuine artisan, just a faux one. And I am happy to report that becoming a faux artisan baker is now within the home cook's reach, with minimal initial investment and even more minimal effort.

After checking out Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François' Bread in Five website, I borrowed a copy of their book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day from the library and set about tackling their French boule recipe because the authors advised, "You should become familiar with the following recipe before going through the rest of the book." Okey-doke. Except the boule recipe makes four loaves of completely white bread, and I wasn't having any of that after reading Fat Chance, so take everything I say about the recipe and their book after this with a grain of salt and 1.5 cups of whole wheat flour. (The authors also have a follow-up book called Healthy Breads in Five Minutes a Day, and I'm trying that one next.)

I've been a dedicated bread-machiner for years, making my own pizza crusts, rolls, and breads to accompany soup, but now that I've discovered this method I'm more likely to go this route, or at least stick to the Dough cycle on my bread machine and then bake the loaf in the oven for the delicious crust.

I did need some special equipment:

On this rock I will bake my loaves

A pizza or baking stone, and a pizza peel (basically a thin wooden or aluminum, long-handled spatula thingy for sliding the dough in and loaves/pizzas out--if you've gotten a slice of Veraci at the Market, you know what I'm talking about). My pizza peel hasn't arrived yet, so I've been making do with a lipless cookie sheet. Not ideal. The first pizza I made stuck to the cookie sheet and got all mushed up as I tried to coax it off. It became not quite a calzone, but more like whipped pizza. Nevertheless, the crust was crisper!

Back to the artisan bread. With this book's method, you whip up a bunch of dough, let it sit on the counter a while, and then stick it in the fridge to be used over the course of two weeks. I went for the absolute easiest method, mixing the minimal ingredients right in the 6-quart container with a wooden spoon. Afterward, I just had one spoon to wash. And the authors say you don't even have to clean out the container when you make the next batch--it'll give you a jumpstart on a "sourdough"!

Dough, ready to go

After the dough has been in the fridge at least three hours, you cut off a "grapefruit-sized" hank of it and tuck all the rough ends underneath. This took me about twenty seconds. I'm not kidding.

Note all the cornmeal underneath. No pizza repeats!

After cutting a couple artistic slashes on top, I then let it rise not long enough (read directions wrong), while I preheated the oven and stone. Two things to note: (1) by "grapefruit-sized," they mean one of those big hummers you get in gift boxes, not the piddly ones that aren't much bigger than navel oranges; and (2) doughs with whole wheat are supposed to rest a little longer and bake a little longer. I did neither--oops.

When the oven beeped, in went the loaf, skating right off that cornmeal-covered sheet, as did all the cornmeal. The hardest part was pouring a cup of hot water in a broiling pan to do the initial "steam." I tried to do it without pulling the rack out and ended up spilling 1/3 of it. Too late! I slammed the oven door to preserve whatever water made it in and then proceeded to mop up the liquid dribbling out from the underside of the door.

Half an hour later, out emerged my beautiful loaf! Crunchy crust, nice "thump" when you tapped it, dense crumb. We enjoyed it very much with our ham and bean soup. The only drawback was that, because my hank of dough was too small and I let it rest for only half the requested time before baking, the loaf came out the size of a guinea pig. A tasty, well-fed guinea pig, but a guinea pig all the same. As a family of five, we need loaves the size of small puppies.

All that said, the book lives up to its promise! Almost non-existent time and effort required. "Five Minutes" might be an exaggeration--the hands-on time probably comes to more like 3.5 minutes. I'm eager to try again, doing a better job following instructions.

If I had any quibble about the book (having tried only one recipe), it would be that it doesn't actually contain that many bread recipes, but it has plenty of recipes for things to go with your homemade bread. I'd also love an index that goes by basic bread recipe, listing all the variations you can make with it. For example, I noticed the "French boule" I made could also be used for cinnamon rolls, naan, pita bread, and so on, but I only discovered this by looking at each of those recipes.

Looking forward to fulfilling this New Year's Resolution over and over! Highly recommend other wannabe artisan bakers give this a try.