Machine bread is better with attention from baker

April 06, 1994|By Pat Dailey | Pat Dailey,Chicago Tribune

At 5:10 a.m., wide awake and seriously jet-lagged, I decide to make bread. My grandmother was an early-morning baker, too, starting her cardamom coffee bread well before dawn on Sunday so it was ready after morning church services.

I briefly muse over the connection and look at her old dough bowl, which I have inherited. But it would be a stretch to say we'd share a tradition on this particular morning. The day before, I had carted home a new bread machine.

Everyone is talking about bread machines the way everyone talked about food processors a decade or so ago. Freshly made bread is the reward and complete effortlessness is the promise. As many as 8 million have been sold since the late 1980s, costing as much as $350 a pop, and sales increase every year.

Many, including myself, have looked at bread machines with more than a little disdain. Bread-making has always been a labor of love, a chance to experience the pure passion of working with dough, kneading it, shaping it, watching it come to life.

Lora Brody, a Boston-based author who has written two cookbooks for bread machines, calls the appliances the culinary equivalent of "The Bridges of Madison County" -- loved by the masses while derided by the elite.

But they can't be ignored and they aren't going to go away. It is time to see what the hype is all about. So at 5:10, I grab the instruction book and give it a go.

The controls are digital and need to be programmed, so the same anxiety and frustration that come with trying to figure out the VCR hang in the air.

Scratch those fears. By 5:15, I'm done, finito, feeling like a techno-wizard. The clock has been set, the parts figured out and put in place, the ingredients added and the proper cycle set.

For this first attempt I use one of the new bread-machine mixes that includes everything except the water. Most manufacturers recommend this as a fearless, foolproof beginning. I dump in the water, rip open the bag that has the flour and whatever else they've added (including way too much salt), pour it on top and sprinkle on the yeast. The bread machine, which has asked so little of me, now takes over. I go off to read the paper.

By 9, I'm chomping on a big slab of warm bread.

I'm fascinated. On one hand, this is not cooking. It is not creative or tactile, soothing or stimulating. But it has made bread. The bread is soft, squooshy and a little dense, kind of like angel food cake -- not exactly a ringer for the great breads of France or Italy, or even of the old neighborhood bakery.

Even so, it is as good as almost any bread you can buy in a supermarket, though it looks strange. And there is practically nothing to clean up. Even the non-stick pan is a snap to clean -- not a crumb was left inside.

Instead of using a mix for the next loaf, I measure ingredients for whole-wheat buttermilk bread. This, too, is easy and produces a slightly more interesting loaf, just in time for dinner. Before bedtime, I decide to make French bread, programming the machine to kick into gear in the wee hours so the aroma of baking bread will greet me as I awake. This it does and the smell is seductive and wonderful. Sacre bleu! The bread is a far cry from French but it isn't bad.

Over the next several days, I try about a dozen different breads, first following recipes from some of the many bread-machine cookbooks, then trying a few of my own. All the while, I look for common signs of trouble: slosh instead of dough, bricks instead of bread, no crust or crust that's an inch thick. While none of the breads have inspired me to rhapsody -- most are a bit dense -- all of them were tasty.

One thing becomes clear. The breads turned out considerably better when I paid close attention to the dough during the kneading cycle, adjusting the amount of liquid until the dough was soft and supple. While traditional bread recipes always include a range on the amount of flour, machine recipes don't, so cooks tend to ignore the whole process. Good cooking, it seems, can't be completely hands-off.

As my experiments draw to a close, I'm more accepting of these odd machines that stretch the notion of cooking to the limits. I understand their appeal although I eagerly anticipate going back to the old-fashioned way.

As Ms. Brody says, "Anything that gets people mucking around in the kitchen can't be all bad." And it's not. Not at all.

*

This recipe has been adapted from "The Best Bread Machine Cookbook Ever." If your machine's capacity is less than 1 1/2 pounds, decrease the amounts by a third.

Soutine's rosemary whole-wheat bread

Makes one 1 1/2 -pound loaf

2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast

3/4 cup bread flour

2 2/3 cups whole-wheat flour

3 tablespoons wheat bran

1 tablespoon dried rosemary

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

1/4 cup each: vegetable oil, honey

1 cup plus 2 tablespoons water (or more as needed)

Add ingredients in the order suggested by your bread-machine manual and process on the basic bread cycle according to the manufacturer's instructions.

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