LOS ANGELES — A NEW appliance that sits in the center of my stovetop has changed my life.
It has a futuristic shape like Artoo Deetoo, with buttons, lights, and beepers - but it takes me back in time.
Like Walter Mitty, the famous James Thurber character who fantasized about otherwordly adventure on cue, I travel through time with the tap of a control panel: back to Old-World Italy ... back to an Indian village on the Great Plains ... back to the cave man huddled in hunger before the first stone oven.
Don't mess with me, I'm baking bread.
OK, I'm behind the curve. Bread machines started getting hot about two years ago. But now they're the rage: "Mr. Loaf," "Breadman," "Accu-Bakery," "BreadOven" are just a handful of the proliferating names by such companies as DAK, Welbilt, Zojirishi, and Trillium. Panasonic was first into the market, followed by Zojirishi. Both lead the market, both are Japanese.
The machines are getting more and better features.
There are special settings for wheat, oat, white, french, and egg breads. There are stronger motors and rotor-kneaders that can handle denser, multigrain breads - even fruit and nuts.
There are timers for overnight baking, and special "turbo" settings that cut about 90 minutes off baking time (by maximizing heat and humidity for faster, more- controlled rising). And there is also a burgeoning sub-industry of cookbooks with hundreds of recipes from spaghetti and cola bread to chocolate chip and mint bread. Not to mention special gourmet yeasts, ceramic baking stones, and professional-sized wooden spatulas designed to scoop your steaming loaf from the oven with a satisfying swish. (With
most machines, you can take the dough out after the kneading cycle and bake it in your own oven for a crisper crust).
The machines I've seen run from about $80 to $400 with most reasonable and decent models being between $120 and $250. Nearly penniless before the last Christmas season, I sprung for mine, a DAK Turbo IV ($149).
Since my family of four inhales bread, I have averaged one loaf of machine-made bread a day since early December. I figure if I've saved $1.00 per one-and-a-half-pound loaf (I buy both flour and yeast in bulk), my machine will be paid for in another month.
That's not bad for the taste and smell of in-home bread baked on a whim with about five minutes of preparation (usually about one tablespoon yeast, 3-4 cups of flour, sugar/salt, a cup or so of water - and special ingredients, from caraway seeds to raisins.)
Start-to-finish - mixing, kneading, rising, and baking - takes from about two-and-a-half to four hours.
Local health-food stores have every kind of grain imaginable from oats to barley, cracked wheat to triticale. Not to mention brans, germs, and glutens - a wheat-derived protein that helps bread rise and hold together better.
When I can't make up my mind, I just mix them all.
There was a yuppie restaurant joke around a few years ago: "Hi, I'm Todd, your waiter, and we have some really, really fresh breads happening here tonight." Well, I'm Dan, your friendly home-office journalist, and I have rilly, rilly fresh bread happening just outside my office every morning. Purists may scoff at the intrusion of electronics that take all the art out of the kneading/rising/kneading cycle. But I say, once the bread-bug has bitten who knows where it will lead.
My favorite part is taking the dough out of the machine after its kneading cycle, letting it rise into a ball, and baking it on a ceramic slab in my oven, which gives it a crispy crust. The timer "dings," I grab my spatula, and whoosh, I am at one with every baker from today back to pre-history.