Friday, January 15, 2010

Our Daily Bread

Lead us on into temptation

I have a bread machine. It’s my second. The first one always put these giant holes in the middle of the bread where the little metal stirrer would spin. Nobody wants a big hole in the middle of their bread, so I got rid of it. That was ages ago – maybe ten years or more. Now I have a new one and so far I’m quite happy with it.

I’ve only used it to make three types of bread, and one of them was a failure. I tried to make dinner rolls when I first got the machine, and they came out all brittle and baked into hard little rocks. I don’t know what I did wrong, but I’ve never worked up the courage to try them again. I really need to sometime.

But the other two recipes are AWESOME! I make each of them about once a week. The recipes came in the booklet that was included with the bread machine, which is nice because they tell me exactly what settings to use. More on that later.

The first recipe is for French bread. It’s a very simple recipe – dump in some bread flour, water, salt, butter and yeast, and bam! You’ve got bread. (Disclaimer: the “Bam!” part actually takes 6 hours. It’s more of a Baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa…aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam!)

I can imagine that it was always pretty easy to make French bread, I just never bothered. But now, as long as I remember to make it by around 11 AM, we can have bread with dinner any old time. And it’s really excellent-tasting bread, which sure helps. It comes out with a nice crisp crust and a firm but soft center. I love to have it with spaghetti, and it’s delicious with a thick slice of warm meatloaf on it. I only had a problem with it once. I think I did something different, like I let the ingredients sit for a bit before I turned on the machine. The bread came out underdone and gluey at the very center. Sadly, this was for Christmas Eve when we had a whole bunch of people over to the house, so I was fairly annoyed. But every single other time I’ve made it, it’s come out precisely the same perfect way.

The other recipe I use all the time is for pizza dough. It has some more ingredients, like sugar and milk powder, but as a trade-off it only takes 45 minutes to cycle through the bread machine. Then you let it rise for another 20 minutes or so. For some reason, the pizza dough never comes out the same twice. I’ve made it dozens of times now and I’d swear that every single time has been a little different than every other time. It’s the damndest thing – I measure pretty carefully and the ingredients are always the same (literally from the same cartons in most cases), but sometimes it’s dry, while other times it’s sticky. Sometimes it stretches easily, other times I immediately get big gaping rips in it or it refuses to form into anything other than a long oval.

I like to hand-toss my pizza, and I’m pretty good at it. I learned how to do it when I worked at Wegmans, way back in the old days when they actually used to hand-toss it. They’ve had presses for about twenty years, now, but when I worked there they made it the old-fashioned way, just like a real pizzeria. I was there when the presses were installed – it was a sad day for pizza.

I should qualify that I’m good at hand-tossing when I’ve got decent dough. There are probably lots of authentic pizza chefs who can hand-toss a wad of old bubblegum wrappers and make it come out looking great, but I’m not that good. If I’ve got good, pliable dough that doesn’t rip and tear all over, though, I can make a heck of a pizza. My dough comes out like that about 25% of the time. I don’t get it – I swear that I make it exactly the same way every time. It doesn’t matter, though. The only difference between my pizzas when the dough cooperates and when it doesn’t is how much swearing goes on when I’m trying to toss them. Everybody seems to love the way they taste no matter what I do.

For my daughter’s birthday, she had a sleep-over and I even made four pizzas, by hand, for them to customize with their favorite toppings. Yeah, I’m a cool dad! For my household, we usually stick with one cheese and one pepperoni, though occasionally I get crazy and make a ham & mushroom or even a garlic. Not counting last week (when I cranked the oven up to BROIL by accident and burned them a little on the bottom), they always come out perfect on the bottom rack of a well-pre-heated 500-degree oven for 5-6 minutes. I also swear by actual whole-milk mozzarella, not that crappy part-skim junk.

My conundrum, though, is that there are lots more bread recipes – even bread machine recipes – in the world that I might like the try. Sadly, I only really know how to do exactly what the booklet tells me to. It’s got all sorts of settings, but I’m not a sufficiently inspired baker to be able to intuitively grasp how to use all of the complicated settings to match up with a recipe that’s not in the official book. That’ll have to be the next challenge, I suppose. Maybe I can get my wife to help figure it out – she’s way better at this stuff than I am.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep whipping up these existing recipes and maybe take a stab at the dinner rolls one more time. There’s just nothing quite like the smell of baking bread to really stir up the appetite and the taste of a fresh loaf, its warm, moist heat melting the butter into every pore, to satisfy it. And finally having the right tool to make it myself is pretty darn cool.

If you’re thinking about a bread machine, I’m very happy with my Panasonic SD-YD250 Automatic Bread Maker and would recommend it highly. It’s got more settings than I know what to do with, it’s reasonably compact, and the removable cauldron inside it the absolutely slipperiest thing I’ve ever seen. It takes non-stick to new levels, and the bread really slips right out (the pizza dough tends to stick a bit, but it also comes out pretty easily with a little coaxing). It also has a great feature where you put the yeast in a well in the lid and it automatically adds it to the dough at the proper time.

This endorsement is, sadly, uncompensated (I’m looking at YOU Panasonic!).

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