BOSTON — MY mother baked cinnamon raisin bread every week during the years she worked at a small boarding school. Two big loaves for the family's breakfast, and six small loaves, baked in rectangular coffee tins, for the students. It went fast. The smell of homemade bread advertised itself all over campus, providing a reminder of home for the students, many of whom were hundreds of miles away from home cooking.
Nothing evokes memories of hearth and home like freshly baked bread. And if the bread is sweet and fruity, so much the better.
Jim Dodge, cookbook author and senior vice president of the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vt., explains that lifestyle changes have led to the current popularity of breakfast breads. Busy schedules aren't conducive to elaborate omelette feasts, so the morning meal typically consists of bread, fruit or fruit juice, and a hot drink. Whether you're a New Englander dunking your morning doughnut, a Southerner munching on a batch of freshly-made biscuits, or a New Yorker noshing on a bagel, ma ny breakfast breads not only taste good, but they can also be eaten while dashing out the door.
While most people appreciate fresh-from-the-oven bread, the act of baking bread is also enjoying a resurgence in popularity.
According to P.J. Hamel, senior editor at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt., bread baking took off as a pastime seven or eight years ago, and she sees no end to its popularity.
In fact, Ms. Hamel cites a recent study indicating that, as the workplace becomes still more technologically driven, people will seek relief from their jobs by returning to simpler activities, such as baking bread.
And bread baking doesn't seem to be solely woman's work.
Unlike other forms of baking, Hamel adds, more and more men are rolling up their sleeves and plunging into bread dough. ''You don't see very many new male cookie bakers, but you do see new male bread bakers,'' Hamel says.
Mr. Dodge explains what he sees as the inherent charm in breadmaking: ''I think it's just the process - combining everything in one bowl. It's more simplified than other types of cooking.... Breadmaking evokes the senses. There are all the changes in texture, and, of course, the aromas. It's a pleasing and almost therapeutic activity. People find it extremely relaxing.''
Many breakfast breads are easy to make, such as muffins, biscuits, and scones. These are known as ''quick breads,'' because they use baking powder instead of yeast as a leavening agent so they don't require time to rise. Their ease of preparation boosts their appeal, Hamel explains, since bread-baking trends are determined not only by public tastes but also by skill level.
Hamel says new foods first appear on restaurant menus, and then people begin making them at home. Stuffed french toast, for example, has yet to find its way to home kitchens. It's remarkably simple, and can be made in a short amount of time. Just take a piece of french toast about one inch thick, cut a small opening in it, and stuff the opening with sweetened cream cheese, jam, or fresh berries.
As for future trends, Dodge says: ''We've seen almost every imaginable form of muffin. I think we're definitely on the edge of something different.'' He says interest will turn to the fruit brioche, or perhaps again to the danish. But Hamel is banking on the bagel, particularly with the advent of Maxim-Stalon's bagel machine, due out in October. For those who love fresh bagels, but are daunted by the difficulty of preparation, Hamel suggests making dough in the bread machine to avoid ''half the battle.' '
For Dodge, the greatest advance for working with softer breads like brioche, which needs a lot of steam when cooking, is the food processor with its flat dough blade. ''It allows you to knead the dough quickly and sufficiently without adding extra flour,'' he says.
This, Dodge explains, is a common tendency when kneading dough by hand. ''People are a little disgusted by the sticky consistency. It has so much butter and all the richness of the eggs, it's a harder dough to knead.'' Unfortunately, too much flour will ruin brioche's feathery texture.
Judging by consumer response, the technological approach is here to stay. Hamel says sales of bread machines this year are expected to reach 4 million. Manufacturers currently aim their product at busy nonbakers, who want nothing more complicated than the push of a button.
But Dodge takes an optimistic view, predicting that, after mastering the machine, these ''nonbakers'' will be inspired to push themselves a bit more.
''In general, the bread machine is a good thing,'' he says. It gives people confidence, and it also gives them fresh bread, which is addicting.
''Once people have more confidence and knowledge, they will go the next step to [making bread in] a Cuisinart or a machine with a dough hook.''
Spoken like a true baker.