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Feature

Jeff Hertzberg and Zoe Francois stand next to some pastries.

Jeff Hertzberg and Zo? Fran?ois stand next to some of their creations.

Pastry chefs, born and bread

U prof and established chef combine to create easy new bread-making method

By Martha Coventry

February 1, 2008

The smell of baking bread surpasses almost everything when it comes to evoking the safety and comfort of home, even if that home only exists in our imagination. Many of us have tried to give our families and ourselves that pleasure, only to wind up with dense hard loaves more fit for catapulting into castle walls than for eating. Despair quickly follows and we give up, regretfully leaving this wonderful craft to people who have a defter touch.

But now Zo? Fran?ois and Jeff Hertzberg have come to the rescue, warding off our plummeting self-esteem and bringing hope in the form of a revolutionary bread making technique. In their book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day , Hertzberg, an adjunct professor in the Medical School, and Fran?ois, a first-rate pastry chef, show us how to bring such things as boules, rye bread, brioche, bagels, and apricot pastries into our daily lives in less time than the average American spends taking a shower. You can hear them explain their technique and sample the results at the bookstore in Coffman Union on the Twin Cities campus at 4 p.m. Wednesday, February 6.

The secret to the great results is moisture--you use much more water than in traditional methods--and storage time in the fridge, which slows fermentation. That time also allows you to have fresh dough available every day with little work.

"A bunch of cookbook authors had figured out that you need a wet dough to produce a tender loaf, but no one had put that together with a long storage time," says Hertzberg.

The basic bread method is this: In a container that will fit in the refrigerator, you mix enough flour, salt, yeast, and water for about four loaves of bread (or you can double this). You leave the dough alone--no need to knead--to rise for two hours. You can use part of it right away and put the rest in the refrigerator for up to two weeks. Anytime you want a freshly made baguette for dinner or a pizza crust, you reach into the container, slice off a hunk of dough, and you're in business.

When Hertzberg came to the University as a resident 20 years ago, Minneapolis didn't have many good breads, and certainly not of the quality and variety he was used to growing up in New York. His wife taught him to bake bread the traditional way, but he couldn't do that every day, so he began playing around with stored doughs.

"For me, cooking is an escape from being a scientist. You just jump into your senses," says Hertzberg. "I teach at the U in health computer science. It's all about precision, reproducibility, data, and recording your results, and so when I baked, I didn't write anything down. Zo? was appalled!"

Rolling out a new idea

Hertzberg and Fran?ois met in 2004 when their children were taking a class together at MacPhail Center for the Arts. "The kids played xylophones and we talked gluten cloaking," Hertzberg writes. (Adding to the family feel of the book are the recipes for marmalades and jams created by Hertzberg's wife, Laura.)

In 2000 he had floated the idea of a cookbook on his bread-making method during the call-in section of The Splendid Table. A book editor was listening to the show and contacted him about writing a proposal. But with a new baby and a dissertation to write, he put the idea on the shelf. Then Fran?ois came along with her experience and, most importantly, her professionalism, and they launched into the work of putting together a cookbook.

Web site, campus visit

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day has an impressive Web site, designed by Fran?ois's husband, Graham. You can read Herzberg's and Francois's blog, learn baking tips, get new recipes, and watch videos of their method.

And don't forget to stop by the Coffman Union bookstore at 4 p.m., Wednesday, February 6, to hear Hertzberg and Fran?ois and to taste their bread and pastries.

"Basically, writing this book was one giant set of 100 experiments you have going simultaneously," says Hertzberg. "I can't imagine writing a cookbook by yourself without someone to bounce recipes off. It was so much fun."

Fran?ois also brought an ingredient Hertzberg hadn't thought of--sweet dough. "When Jeff first gave me his rough recipe, I said he had to do something with this," says Fran?ois. "And my mind immediately went to 'How can I use this with sweets?' So when I told him I would do the project with him, the very, very first recipe I worked on was brioche."

Trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), Fran?ois had been taught to make pastries the traditional way. "It was extremely laborious," she says. "It was one of the worst things to have to do in a restaurant. So when I came up with how to use Jeff's method for sweet dough, I wished that I had done it 10 years ago. I've gotten lots of e-mail from people from inns and bed and breakfasts where they're doing lots of morning pastries and they're just loving [the book]. They don't have to wake up at 3 o'clock in the morning any more to have these things ready for their breakfast guests."

The sweet dough for such things as brioche and caramel rolls, doughnuts, and chocolate babka can only be stored for five days because of the eggs, but you can freeze it one-pound portions .

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes is now the #3 selling hardcover cookbook in the country, according to BookScan. "Generally, the cookbook market is dominated by people with a platform, which means a TV show," says Hertzberg. "Television drives the cookbook market and it's very hard to break in to it. We think we have something radically different from the other bread books that all have a very similar formula--making bread takes a lot of time and you have to do a lot of work for each loaf you produce. Our book changes that equation and that's why I think it's selling so well."

Fran?ois and Hertzberg are both surprised by who is using their method. "This book was written to really speak to the novice baker, and we're just thrilled that even experienced bakers are trying it--even my professor at the CIA," says Fran?ois.

If you're still doubting your potential as a bread and pastry maker, stop by the bookstore next Wednesday. Hertzberg and Fran?ois just might make a believer out of you.