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To knead or not to knead? Local bakers rewriting the book(s) on bread

Dr. Jeff Hertzberg and baker Zoe Francois
Photo by Mark Luinenburg
Dr. Jeff Hertzberg and baker Zoe Francois, authors of “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.”

The fear of belly fat and the vilification of the carb led to millions of people leaving bread off their plates during the Atkins diet craze in the early part of this century. Bakeries went out of business, restaurants put bun-free burgers on their menus and the staff of life seemed to be dying. Then Dr. Robert Atkins himself died, and bread began to rise again.

A flurry of recent bread books by Minnesotans proves that serious bakers are unmoved by the whims of fashion. Beatrice Ojakangas writes about quick breads, Wayzata native Amy Scherber shares the secrets of her fancy New York bakery, Kim Ode chronicles her experiences with the St. Paul Bread Club, and pastry chef Zoe Francois teaches timid cooks to become daily bakers with an easy no-knead recipe.

Why is bread so hot in the Upper Midwest? Blame the weather, says physician Jeff Hertzberg, who with Francois wrote “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.” The book hit the shelves in late November and the New York Times best-seller list soon after. “You can run the oven and the kitchen becomes this little hearth, and everyone becomes all lovey, and it’s perfect,” he says. “I love turning on that oven in the winter. And in the summer I cook bread on the grill.”

Doc finds no need to knead
Hertzberg moved to the Twin Cities from New York for a medical residency, and was dismayed by the lack of good bread. He started baking his own, and, like any true scientific mind, began experimenting. “I read every serious bread book out there, and started weeding out the steps that you don’t need. I started to not knead it and made the dough wetter. And then I started storing it in the refrigerator, mostly out of laziness. I ended up with this recipe that I thought was really something.”

He found the perfect person to share it with when he met Francois five years ago; their small children were enrolled in the same music class at MacPhail Center for Music. “I was skeptical,” admits the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef. “It went against everything I’d learned about making bread. But it worked, and I started playing with it, and pretty soon we were obsessed. We started seeing what else we could do with the master recipe, and that’s where the book began.”

They regularly run into skeptics. “At one of our book readings, this guy insisted that kneading made a big difference, and that our recipe wouldn’t work. He insisted that you could not get the gluten to develop without kneading,” said Francois. “So Jeff said, ‘Try our bread,’ and he [tried a sample], and he said it was definitely kneaded. Obviously, it was never kneaded.”

The idea of a no-knead bread recipe isn’t that outlandish anymore, since a similar concept by chef Jim Lahey was discussed by food writer Mark Bittman in the New York Times in late 2006. That recipe spread across the blogosphere like a wild yeast, and its simplicity turned a multitude of bread buyers into bread bakers.

“That article came out while we were in the heart of writing our book, and it sent us reeling,” says Francois. “But there are a number of things that are different. Ours is much more versatile. Because you are storing the bread dough, you can have it ready to go in minutes — it’s almost instant gratification. We have over 100 recipes for our bread. And we get comments that our bread, aged for a week or longer in the refrigerator, tastes better than Lahey’s aged 18 hours.”

And, Times writer Nick Fox raved about their bread and book in November, saying the recipes include “several doughs that made great pizza and a rich, delicate brioche loaf.”

The two no-knead recipes have one thing in common: Any dummy can make them.

I’ve tried them both, and these easy, excellent loaves fool people into thinking I can cook. But to some bakers, the no-knead method’s simplicity is its downfall.

Kim Ode in her back yard.
Photo by John Danicic
Kim Ode in her back yard.

Baking it old-school
“We were laughing at [the St. Paul] bread club about the very idea of no-knead bread. Some of us were like, why would you bake bread that you don’t get to knead? Kneading is the Zen part of it, the therapy that we go through,” says Kim Ode, who began baking bread seriously seven or eight years ago, when she built a wood-fired brick oven in her back yard. When she fires it up monthly, she bakes a couple dozen loaves in one weekend.

“The traditional method of bread-making connects us with something that’s been going on for millennia,” says Ode, a Star Tribune writer. “We want to get back to something authentic, do something hands-on, that our families benefit from, that isn’t just a solo pursuit.”

Still, she has tried and likes both no-knead recipes. “The 5-minute recipe enables a lot of people to put a warm loaf on the table. And who can mess with that?” she says. “But I think we have an impulse to take things to the next level. No knead breads are a wonderful entry point, but I think people will want to explore deeper. This will be the starting point for many people who will eventually find great satisfaction in the traditional way.”

Francois, meanwhile, says she hasn’t once made a loaf of kneaded dough in the five years since she met Hertzberg. “This recipe does everything I want it to,” she says. And she’s still experimenting with it; a companion book is in the works.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Dayevents

Saturday, Jan. 19: 4-6 p.m., 3038 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis, Magers and Quinn Booksellers

Feb. 6: 4-6 p.m., 300 Washington Ave. SE, Minneapolis, Coffman Union Bookstoreat the University of Minnesota’s East Bank campus, 612-625-6564

Feb. 21, 5:30 p.m., Macy’s, 700 Nicollet Mall, Macy’s Gourmet Gathering/Twin Cities Food and Wine Experience

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