One of my favorite school memories is coming home on very cold days when my mother was baking bread – she baked ALL the bread we ate – and having a hot bowl of soup with slices of fresh bread slathered with butter. Yum!
I am not as skilled as my mother is at baking bread. She did it with a mixer and let it rise, punched it down, let it rise — all that. She let hers rise in the gas oven heated with the pilot light alone. In my chilly Colorado lodge, however, it’s hard to find that special warm spot where you can let the bread rise. Finding a ‘warm spot’ has been the key problem with regards to my bread baking efforts.
Years ago, I went to a seminar taught by the wonderful folks at King Arthur Flour and they gave me some tips on this issue, including:
- warm up the oven to 150 degrees, put the bowl with your (covered) bread mixture in it and turn off the oven.
- use the microwave – heat the interior of the microwave by placing a bowl of water in there and set it to boiling. Switch the boiling water with your bowl of dough very quickly and shut the door.
- give up on the ‘warm’ spot, cover the mixture with plastic wrap and let it rise in the refrigerator overnight instead.
I’ve tried all of these and each have worked some of the time, but nothing worked consistently until my wonderful parents took pity and got me a bread machine (probably to shut me up about the damn bread). This great bread machine has worked to make a nice fluffy loaf of bread – just plain whole wheat thank you – almost every single time. Except when I forget and use old yeast, then I get what I deserve.
So, a couple weeks ago, I put on a bean soup and whipped out my bread machine. I put in the standard ingredients for my standard whole wheat loaf, started it up, and walked away. Later, when the bread machine was finished, I came back and discovered a flat, dense loaf. I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong, so I tried warming up the bowl that goes inside the machine, a fresh batch of yeast, etc. Ergh! two more loaves of dense, flat deer feed (like on a farm, there is never a shortage of mouths to clear out my baking disasters here at the lodge).
So, I thought it was perhaps my beloved bread maker. I write ‘beloved’ loosely because I’m famously disloyal to appliances who fail me. I’ll get rid of them in the quickest of heartbeats and buy a shiny new replacement. My husband, on the other hand, takes a more measured approach with failing appliances. He’ll examine the poor thing, take bits of it apart, order new parts on the web, and put it back together and “Ta-dah!” the damn thing works again and it wriggles its sorry butt back into my good graces and I’ll eventually love it again. Although memories of its last failure will linger and I’ll constantly be eying it for any misstep. In the face of my bread maker frustration, my husband began reading my recipe and tried his own version and he used actual bread flour – half and half with whole wheat – which I never do. He got slightly better results.
So, I picked up a new bread maker with the intent of running an scientific experiment.
My plan: I’ll use the same steps, the same ingredients, the same recipe, and pit the two bread makers against each other to see which one makes a better loaf of bread.
Here they are in their dueling mode:
Exciting stuff, I know. The bigger one on the left? That’s old reliable … the other is shiny new guy.
Old reliable wants a little more time to bake the loaf of bread:
… and shiny new guy wants a little less time:
Who am I rooting for? Shiny new guy, of course! He takes up less space on the counter, appears to need less time to bake a loaf, and he’s shiny and new. Like I said, when it comes to appliances, I’m famously disloyal.
Old reliable won, however. Shiny new guy gave me a dense and collapsed loaf that the deer and rabbits and birds were happy to make disappear:
… but old reliable gave me a delicious loaf of bread.
Of course, I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t feel the pressure of Shiny new guy next to him chugging away on the dough. So, what did I learn?
– use honey, not sugar in my dough
– warm the bowl with hot water before you add the ingredients
– check the date on my yeast before I use it
– and thanks to my husband’s experimenting: after 10 minutes, check the dough (if it’s dry, add a little warm water; too wet, add a little more flour)
– my friend, C, also says try vital gluten, so I’ll try that next time
The bread machine war has concluded. Shiny new guy went back to the store, thanks to generous return policies. There were three other Shiny new guys in their boxes stacked behind the counter the day I took him back too! Hmmm …. interesting.
Old reliable has worked his way back into my graces and he happily baked another nice loaf last weekend. So, he gets to stay a little longer … at least as long as he keeps on his toes and does his job. I don’t have time for lazy appliances who do shoddy work.