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Baker vs. bread machine: Determination wins out

Sunday, May 04, 2003

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

There's not much chance I'll ever skydive from a speeding airplane. I probably won't take up scuba diving, and, unlike my devil-may-care sister and her husband, I doubt I'll cycle pell-mell down the side of a volcanic crater.

Both loaves of sourdough bread were made in a bread machine. The one at left was mixed, raised and baked in the machine. (The yeast must have been working hard, because it developed a little cap on top.) The loaf at right was mixed in the machine but shaped by hand and baked in the oven. Home-baked bread is best cut with a serrated knife. Some tasters thought the bread baked in the machine had a more intense flavor. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

But I can try to make bread in a machine. It's the least I can do.

"That's a mighty big piece of equipment," my husband, Ace, said when I plopped my friend Nancy's bread-maker down on our kitchen counter, which already had more machines than an airplane hangar. First job: finding a space to plug it in on already overloaded sockets.

Glancing at our electrical outlets, you might think I love machines. I do not. Sure, at the age of 11, I learned to use my mother's Mixmaster when my 4-H project was cakes. My heart went out to the neighbor kids, who did 250 strokes by hand.

Later, I learned to use a blender. The hard way. Now, after filling the bowl with milk and eggs, I seldom forget to press hard on the rubber top before pushing the button for "Blend." Splat! That stuff sure carried.

But I have avoided other dangerous machines, such as electric knives, and my corn on the cob denuder went into the bottom drawer when I noticed something red in the bowl where the kernels had dropped. Blood red.

Eventually, I learned to enjoy my food processor, once I learned what "Pulse" meant. It means never having to say your coleslaw has turned into cabbage soup.

And I love my KitchenAid mega-mixer, but it has few secrets. You have three choices of paddles: batter, whisk or dough hook. True, if not secured adequately, they can hit the side of the bowl like a ton of bricks, but that's why they make the bowls out of metal now, instead of those glass bowls like my grandmother had. A KitchenAid is easy to operate by the numbers: 1 is slo-o-o-o-o-ow and 10 is supersonic, with enough thrust to send flour to the moon. You can't turn your back on the machine, though, or your whipped cream is too soon butter.

These machines are in my kitchen domain, although I've about given up on all the other machines in the house. When Ace is away, I read a lot of books because I have never quite figured where VCR/Satellite/Direct TV fit into my viewing plan. As the critics say, there are all these channels but nothing to watch -- or at least nothing I can get to come up in focus on our TV screen.

Ditto, I am a dunce when it comes to the mechanism that supposedly starts the coffee pot before we awaken each morning. My tack is to snore so loudly that Ace gets up and makes the coffee.

As for the telephones, they seemed more worthwhile when they weren't capable of walking all over the house. If I can lay my hands on one (doubtful), I can't quite remember what it's used for. Is this for long distance, local, calling my mother from the turnpike or just to hide in the hamper under the dirty clothes?

When our daughter was still at home, she had the same take-charge attitude as her father, who turns to his "Reader's Digest How to Fix Everything" (except, presumably, dinner) for fix-it advice.

If we had a houseful of dinner guests and the microwave went out for no discernible reason, I always turned to Jessica. Soon it was humming again.

"What did you do?" I always asked.

"I unplugged it and plugged it back in," she always said.

It's a miracle.

When you get right down to it, there's no greater miracle than bread. Besides, I figured I had been behind the trend curve long enough. Still, I had suspected that bread machines are among those appliances that are met with a burst of enthusiasm, used for a few frantic weeks, then discarded either because:

The baker discovers that eating a warm loaf of bread every night with enough butter to provide permanent employment to a Jersey cow is fattening. Or:

If she (or he) wanted to be a commercial baker, she'd have gone to culinary school and would be getting paid for doing yet another task between loads of laundry.

But I was willing to give the bread machine a shot. I decided to start with whole wheat bread, even though the recipe I had been e-mailed by a bread-machine company had the capability of my making bread-cum-brick. Most recipes I'd seen combine whole wheat and all-purpose white flour for a better rise. This one was all whole wheat.

The machine immediately made me nervous, allegedly doing all the work. Every now and then, I'd run down to the kitchen, look in the machine's little window and see what was happening. Not much, as far I could tell, although it occasionally made funny groaning noises. There was some strange unmixed flour lying on top with some damp batter poking through. Nervously, I began reading the troubleshooting section of the booklet. Nothing like closing the barn door after the horse has gotten out. Too much flour? Poor yeast? That false start while I readjusted the buttons for whole wheat bread?

Finally, after what seemed like a day, it was time to remove the freshly baked loaf. It was a horrible, brown, dry lump. I didn't even consider giving it to our devoted dog, Socks, and no bird -- even a crow -- deserved this.

I remained undaunted. I would begin again. With sourdough. No machine is going to best me, though I am the poster child for mechanical ineptitude. I had bread flour; the loaf would be mine.

The second batch seemed better right from the first. The machine hopped about the counter, just as my hard-working stand mixer does when it's going hand-to-hand with a ball of bread.

I decided to do two loaves, one using dough mixed in the machine but shaped by hand and baked in an oven; the other mixed, shaped and baked by machine. The machine-made bread has a strange little hat -- the yeast must have gone crazy -- but the other looks normal. You be the judge.

In case you're interested, I have a nice whole-wheat doorstop, too. Cheap.

Sourdough Bread

We fell in love with sourdough bread when a Gresham (Ore.) PTA had a fund-raiser in which it sold the starter and a recipe booklet. Ours lived for years until a baby took precedence over "feeding the starter." The booklet is in tatters, but the love for sourdough remains.

  • 1/2 cup sourdough starter (recipe follows)
  • 3/4 cup warm water
  • 2 teaspoons sugar, honey or maple syrup (optional)
  • 1 tablespoon oil
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour or bread flour (we used King Arthur bread flour)
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons dry yeast

Add all ingredients to machine's bread pan in the order given. (We used maple syrup and canola oil.) Make a well with your fingertip for the yeast; it should not touch the liquid ingredients.

Choose your setting for brownness for the loaf's crust. Depending on degree of browning desired, the machine will take from 2 hours, 40 minutes to 3 hours.

If you set the machine on Dough, you remove it after 1 1/2 hours and shape into a loaf. (We made our dough into an oblong, cutting five slits in the top, and then allowed to rise, about 1 hour.) Bake in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 40 minutes. We placed the loaf on a cornmeal-covered pizza stone, though a cookie sheet would also work.

To crisp the crust, we placed a small bowl of hot water in the oven near the bread dough. Halfway through baking, we brushed the loaf with butter. The bread is done when an instant-read thermometer reaches 190 degrees. The loaf sounds hollow when tapped.

  • Sourdough Starter

    2 cups warm water

  • 1 tablespoon sugar, honey or maple syrup (optional)
  • 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon dry yeast

Beat all ingredients together in a 2-quart bowl. Cover the bowl with a towel and place it somewhere warm. (Use a towel, not plastic wrap, to allow airborne wild yeast to enter -- it will contribute to the unique character and flavor of your starter.)

The mixture will begin to bubble within a few minutes. Initially, it will double in bulk, but as it begins to ferment, it will settle down.

Let the mixture sit in a warm place, stirring the liquid back into the batter (as it will separate) once a day for 2 to 5 days. When the bubbling diminishes and it has a sour, yeasty aroma, it is ready to use.

Stir the mixture and measure out the amount you need. It will be the consistency of pancake batter.

To keep your starter going:

Store the finished starter in a sealed jar in the refrigerator.

Each time you remove some starter to bake, replenish it with equal amounts of flour and water. (If you use 1/2 cup of starter, stir in 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water.) Then let the starter sit in a warm place for 12 hours and let the yeast bubble and grow again before returning it to the refrigerator.

A starter can be kept indefinitely. Just stir and feed it very week or two. Stirring, removing and replenishing your starter serves to feed the remaining batter. (PG tested recipe.)

"Healthy Bread Recipes & Menu Planner "by White-Westinghouse (Kmart Corp.)

Food editor Suzanne Martinson may be reached at 412-263-1760 orsmartinson@post-gazette.com

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