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ANNUAL HOLIDAY COOKBOOK ISSUE : IN THE KITCHEN : Wry Bread Unplugged : Books for Baking's Machine Age


When I began baking bread, here is the equipment I needed: steel bowls and a big wooden spoon.

I combined flour and salt in one bowl and water and dried yeast in another. With the spoon, I stirred the two together, adding water until it formed a shaggy mass that felt just right.

I turned that out onto a floured table and pounded and slapped and kneaded until, almost miraculously, that rough hunk of flour and water became as smooth and soft as living skin.

This I set aside in a warm place while it came further to life, growing and swelling. When I knew it had risen enough, I punched it down and divided it into pieces. Each of these pieces I fashioned into loaves, punching and pulling and stretching and rolling.

After another rise, I ever-so-gently transferred these loaves to a cookie sheet that had been spread with cornmeal, painted them with egg wash and slashed the tops. Then I placed them in the oven to bake. They were done when I could tap one on the bottom and get a hollow sound, like a door.

Eventually, of course, I invested in some equipment: a heavy-duty mixer and then a food processor. They took some of the heavy lifting out of the kneading, but making bread was still a lot of trouble and, to tell the truth, I didn't do it all that often.

But when I did, there were two things that made it worthwhile. The first is that for a nice dinner, a good loaf of bread is a necessity, and in those days the only way you could get one was to make your own. The second is subtler. There is something about the feel of the dough under hand and the patient handling of the loaf that is pleasing in a way that is different from other kinds of cooking. Bread baking is a cooperative venture between you and the dough.

Still, I haven't baked more than a couple of loaves in several years now. With good handmade bread available in most groceries, what would be the point?

So I admit a certain bias when it came to trying out the bread machine. No, let me put that a little more strongly: I don't own even a microwave and I certainly never expected to buy a bread machine.

This is not some knee-jerk Luddite reaction against kitchen technology. If any hammer-wielding know-nothing came anywhere near my Cuisinart, well, he'd probably get conked on the head with my KitchenAid. And that would hurt.

But in my kitchen, equipment must serve a purpose. First, obviously, it must make the job of cooking easier. At the same time, it must create a better product than you could without using it, or one at least as good.

Could the bread machine meet those tests? That was the question in mind when I bought one. And frankly, it didn't give me a good feeling that the first thing most bread machine enthusiasts say about their toys is that they like the smell of bread baking when they wake up.

The first loaf I baked came from the manufacturer's cookbook. I quickly learned that with these machines, none of the basic bakers' skills count. All you need to be able to do is measure.

You measure the water and pour it in the pan. You measure the flour and add it. You measure the salt and sugar and add them (almost all of the bread machine recipes contain sugar; I don't know whether this is because it is necessary for a good rise or is simply a matter of questionable taste). You measure the yeast and add it. With some machines, the order is different.

Then you punch a couple of buttons and you go away. The bread is done when the machine tells you it is.

Making the first loaf was something of an exploration. The new machine had quirks and noises that were strange to me. First, for the initial half hour, it seems to do nothing. It sits, warming the ingredients. Then, when the timer says it's ready, it begins to knead, making a noise that can best be compared to the sounds my stomach makes when I'm in a meeting and lunch is late.

On it goes, kneading and resting and rising until it decides the bread is ready to bake. That's when you start to really notice the smell. That homely perfume of flour and yeast is about the only connection between bread machine baking and the old way.

Finally, almost four hours later, the machine emits a timid little beeping, like the sound of a cheap watch. After a brief cooling, the bread slides out of its non-stick container.

It's an ugly thing, there's no two ways about it. In the first place, it's vertical. Bread is supposed to be horizontal. But beyond that, there is something vaguely tumorous about this loaf; the top is misshapen with swells and folds no baker would have made. And there's a deep navel in the bottom, where the bread machine's mixing blade sits.

When it's sliced, the bread is, well, adequate. A really persnickety baker would notice that the crumb is very close and moist. And anyone who has eaten good bread will notice that this comes much closer to the old standby commercial loaf than to anything from a home oven.

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