The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread Longtime users toast the breadmaker as manna from heaven for busy gourmets

December 20, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie | Karol V. Menzie,Staff Writer

For Marianne Felice, the Christmas-gift guessing game is just about over.

Is it bigger than a breadbox?

Well, actually, it's exactly the same size, and in one way, it is a breadbox.

Dr. Felice, a professor of pediatrics and director of adolescent medicine at the University of Maryland at Baltimore, already knows Santa Claus is bringing her an electric bread-making machine.

"When I grew up, my mother made her own fresh bread every Saturday. And I awakened to the smell of bread baking, . . . and, although I do make bread, I just don't have time anymore."

Traditional bread-making can take all day, what with mixing ingredients, kneading, rising and baking. But bread machines take out all the labor and save a lot of time. Typically they take two to four hours to prepare a loaf from start to finish; a person using one of the widely available packaged mixes can spend as little as 90 seconds putting in the ingredients, and then the machine takes over. Besides ease of preparation, the machines offer great flexibility in timing. Many machines have 12- or 13-hour timers, so you can put in the ingredients ahead and have it baked and ready any time you wish.

Dr. Felice got interested in the machines last summer, when someone gave her a sample of machine-baked bread. "It was really very good. And I decided that what I wanted for Christmas was a bread machine. What I really want to do is put my ingredients in in the evening, and wake up in the morning and smell the bread baking, like my mother used to do."

Santa may have to get an auxiliary sleigh this year; recent statistics indicate he and other holiday, birthday, wedding and housewarming gift-givers may be lugging a lot of these machines around.

"It's been one of the most exciting sales categories this whole fall season," said Peter Kahn, sales manager for housewares at Macy's at Pentagon City, in suburban Washington. But in the holiday shopping season, he said, "It's really taking off."

Researchers who track appliance sales say more than 1 million people bought bread machines in 1991, and that figure is expected to double for 1992. Part of the growth in sales may be traced to a drop in prices. When they were introduced a few years ago, the machines were expensive, but these days there's a model for nearly everyone, with prices starting at just $99. In addition, machines are often on sale, some are widely discounted and some of the least expensive brands are available by mail order.

Nifty gift

About half the people who buy the machines are giving them as gifts, Mr. Kahn said. Models on the market today are the "second and third generation," he said, and more versatile than older versions. Besides specialty breads, such as whole grain and fruit and nut breads, today's machines also make pizza dough, dough for croissants -- and some make rice or jam as well.

Macy's currently is selling about five different machines, Mr. Kahn said. "Prices start at $199 and go up to $349," he said. "The main difference in price is the size of the loaf they make and the capabilities of the timer."

Like Dr. Felice, a lot of people find the timer aspect appealing, Mr. Kahn said. "You can start the bread at night, and set the timer so at 6 a.m. you have a steaming loaf of fresh bread." The aroma is wonderful, he said. "It really is like being in a bakery. It fills the whole house."

Dr. Felice, faced with the wide range of price and features among the various machines -- there are at least 10 brands, and each brand offers many models -- approached her choice as a research project. "I've been going around asking everybody under the sun -- it's become a joke -- 'Do you have a bread machine? Do you like it?' "

She went to the library to check out Consumer Reports recommendations, but couldn't find a recent survey. So she and a number of colleagues who had become fascinated by her search organized a bread-machine "taste-off," with three people who owned the machines using the same recipes and bringing in the results. The taste-off was scheduled for the last day of a graduate-level class in adolescent growth and development taught by Dr. Felice and colleagues from the division of adolescent medicine, and tasters included a dozen or so students in the class. (See accompanying story for results of the taste-off.) A "control" was provided by the husband of another colleague, who prepared a traditional handmade loaf.

But even before the taste-off, she had begun to identify features she liked: a manual cycle (so you can take the dough out and knead it yourself, or shape it and bake it in the oven); a cycle for quick breads; and a cool-down period, which allows you to leave the bread in the machine for a while after it's done, rather than removing it immediately.

Besides the timer, she said, "To me those were the three criteria that were absolutely essential."

Round or square

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