If holiday gift-givers are aiming to buy one new cookbook title for the bakers in their lives, they should look no further than the remarkable “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.95).
Judging on their resumes alone, authors Jeff Hertzberg, a Minneapolis physician, and Zoë François, a Minneapolis pastry chef and baking instructor, are an unlikely duo, and at first glance their bread-making method sounds similarly unusual. But anyone familiar with the no-knead sensation created last year by New York City baker Jim Lahey (and trumpeted by food writer Mark Bittman in the New York Times) will be thrilled to learn that the Hertzberg-François formula is a considerable improvement over Lahey’s breakthrough.
Their secret: an easy-to-make dough that can be refrigerated for up to weeks and baked off at will. Hertzberg and François could have called their burst of genius “Breadmaking for Dummies” — that’s how user-friendly it is — but there’s more: unlike Lahey’s method, their master recipe is also wildly flexible, generously adapting to a wide range of breads, pizzas, flatbreads and pastries. In a recent conversation — during which the duo deftly baked up a storm — Hertzberg and François discussed their easy-does-it approach and the considerable merits of following a leader.

Q Why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?
Zoë François: That’s the million dollar question. I remember when Jeff first showed it to me, my first thought was that it sort of flies in the face of everything I learned at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], which is that there is this very specific sequence of events that makes bread happen. And I think that a lot of cooking is about tradition.
Jeff Hertzberg: We’re wondering what the baking establishment will make of it. Our innovation is not wet dough, and it’s not that you don’t have to knead bread. It’s that you can store the dough for two weeks.
ZF: The real test for when I knew it would work was when my mom did it [laughs]. She is a really pathetic baker.
JH: That’s so sweet.
ZF: Baking is not her forte, it just isn’t; she has many other skills [laughs]. So I sent her the recipe and said, 'Mom, try it,’ I didn’t say anything else about it, and now she makes it every day. She makes bialys, she makes rye bread, she brings it for gifts, she’s unbeliveable. I mean, Jeff has been doing this for 20 years, so he doesn’t count. This is what I do, you know, so I don’t count. But when she could do it I knew that anyone could do it.

Q What is keeping people from baking bread at home? Are we become conditioned to buy it at the supermarket?
JH: That’s part of it.
ZF: But also when people talk to me about it, they say, 'I can’t touch it, it’s so complicated.’ I think the whole impression is that it’s such a scientific endeavor, and it’s not.
JH: But with the traditional method, to an extent, it is.
ZF: True. I mean, as fabulous as [cookbook author] Nancy Silverton’s bread is, it’s intimidating for a home baker. There’s a place for all that, but the average person is not going to go through it. We know that people want to eat real food, and they want to make real food. They just don’t want to spend all day doing it. I think our timing has been really lucky, because this is the direction that people are going in. We’re all coming back and wanting to be in the kitchen.

Q This dough really keeps in the refrigerator for 14 days?
ZF: I actually prefer it as it goes further along in the process. In those first couple of days it has a lot of flavor and texture, but by week two it has a lot more depth in terms of flavor, it takes on a lot more sort of sourdough characteristics.
JH: The bread also develops bigger holes by the second week, because the gluten breaks down a bit.
ZF: I’ll take the last little bit of dough and just throw the next batch of ingredients over it, that way I get almost a sourdough without having to feed a starter all the time.

Q Do Five-Minute bakers really need to invest in a peel and a whole punch of lidded plastic containers?
ZF: No. For a peel, an open-sided, non-rimmed cookie sheet works brilliantly. A wood cutting board works really well, too.
JH: You can do it in a bowl with plastic wrap over it, it just isn’t as convenient.
ZF: I got some containers at Target that I like [square plastic, and lidded] because you can stack them, they’re really convenient.

Q What was your reaction when Mark Bittman’s article about Jim Lahey’s no-knead method became such a sensation?
JH: The nice thing that Jim Lahey did was starting this craze. We all finally got over the don’t-eat-bread diets. His article came out midway through our writing, and at first, we were, 'Oh no, someone has gotten there first,’ but ours goes even farther in simplifying the process. The great thing is he got so many people excited about baking bread.
ZF: I have to say that he was amazing for us. He has a fantastic bakery, he clearly knows his stuff, so for him to be doing this, well, it gives our method legitimacy. The truth of the matter is that Jeff is a doctor and I’m a pastry chef from Minneapolis. So if we can ride what [Lahey] started, that’s just great for us.
ZF: Easy is one thing, fast is another. You have to be able to come home from work and bake bread. With the Lahey recipe you have to get the timing just right to have the bread coming out right when you want it. But this way, you pull the dough out of the refrigerator and 20 minutes later it’s in the oven. I think that’s the part that’s going resonate with people: It’s easy, and it’s fast. The other thing that I love about it is that it’s flexible; you can do naan, pizza, beignets, caramel rolls, panettone, focaccia. There are so many things you can do with this recipe.
JH: We’ve dropped the last intimidating barrier: How are you going to make good bread every day if it isn’t fast? You’re not going to do it. You can’t.

Q A big difference between the two methods is that the Lahey dough is almost freakishly wet.
ZF: Jeff and I went back and fourth about this. His original recipe was much wetter, but we decided in the end that [a drier, firmer dough] was easier for people to handle. [Lahey’s] wet dough is a bit tricky to get your hands into, and a dough that wet doesn’t allow you to do the variety of breads that we do. You couldn’t do a pizza with a dough that wet, for example. So we compromised and made the dough a little bit drier.

Q So this story begins about 20 years ago, when a New Yorker moves to the Twin Cities and discovers a depressing dearth of decent bread.
JH: That’s why I started baking. I was a medical resident. I went through the 'freeze it’ phase, not that good. Then I went through the 'freeze the dough’ phase, which was OK but it takes up the whole freezer, and you’ve got to remember to take it out and defrost it. Then I started making buckets of dough and keeping it in the refrigerator, trying to use the dough up quickly. I eventually realized that using it quickly didn’t matter.

Q And how does Lynne Rossetto Kasper and “The Splendid Table” radio show fit in?
JH: I called in on a lark, in 2000. I was bragging, and she said, 'Wow, it sounds like you’ve already got a book written,’ and I said, 'Uh, uh, well, parts of it.’ [laughs]. She had some brilliant things to say, one of which was, 'Get an agent.’ She didn’t say, 'Get a co-author who is a pastry chef,’ which would have been really good advice. Without Lynne, we wouldn’t have the book. For thee years I did nothing with it because we had a second baby, That second baby is the reason we have the book because otherwise I never would have met Zoë, so it all comes around.

Q How did the two of you meet?
ZF: Our kids were both taking a class at MacPhail.
JH: I asked you what you did, and you said something really arcane about flour, something like, 'You really can’t make French bread in the United States,’ and I was like, 'Uh, yeah, I knew that.’ And then the wheels starting turning because I had given up the whole idea of writing a book. To me, the one recipe is the only one you need, so why can’t you make a book out of that? But then the publisher said, you need to write 99 more, and I thought, 'That will never happen.’ Then when I met her I thought, 'If there were two people, and someone knew what they were doing . . .’ She knew about French flour. I was in awe.
ZF: And then we eliminated the need for French flour. We got great results using basics, and that’s what most people would use anyway, we wanted to make completely accessible to everybody.

Q Zoë, did you ever imagine that your first cookbook would be about bread?
ZF: OK, no. And I have to say that when Jeff showed this to me and I made it, my mind immediately went to sweet, I really want to go sweet all the time. So I made brioche, I made caramel rolls, and I thought that could be the first chapter; unfortunately, the publisher made it the last. Never in a million years would I have thought that bread would be my first book, but it was perfect timing, because my kids were little and I had no time, and because the bread was so easy.

Q When the publisher said, 'Great, you’ve got one great recipe, now give me me 99 others,’ what was your reaction?
JH: We never slept. At least I didn’t, I don’t know about you.
ZF: I was the complete opposite. Writing the book and developing the recipes was fun to me, and it came so easily to me.
JH: I didn’t say it wasn’t fun.
ZH: It’s the after part that’s more difficult. We’re doing our own promotion, for example, and, that’s unfamiliar to me. I’m a baker, I’m not a PR person.
JH: I’m worried they’re going to make me go back to my real life now. I don’t have any other bright ideas. [laughs]

Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757