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Jonathan Day

In praise of a bread machine

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I have made a lot of bread over the years: real French bread (thank you, Julia Child and Messrs Calvel and Poilane), all manner of sourdoughs, starters from grapes, bigas, poulisches, pizza doughs. Even pane carasau, the Sardinian (leavened) flat bread that is a kind of pinnacle of breadmaking technique -- rather like causing French bread to emerge from the oven as a balloon of crust with no crumb at all. And while my product wasn't as good as that made by Sardinian artisans it was undeniably pane carasau. All this not to brag but to say that I'm not afraid of or uninterested in bread making.

Yet, sitting in one corner of our kitchen, we now have a Panasonic bread machine. We use it every day. And I am glad we do.

It happened like this. My wife had tried to get one of these things for years. I had steadfastly refused. We had enough machines. Bread was easy to put together. Why did we need it? I was a card carrying foodie. What if a friend spotted a bread machine in our kitchen? My egullet licence might be cancelled forthwith.

Finally, on her birthday, I relented and bought the Panasonic. We have used it almost every day since.

We don't use it for "creative" breads. In fact, I believe we have only ever made 2 or 3 different recipes. Our daily bread is the so-called "French": 400g of flour, 300ml of water, salt, yeast. That's it. It takes exactly 2 minutes and 45 seconds to measure the ingredients, push the button to start the machine and clean up. No measuring cup: it's all weighed into the machine itself.

The product isn't near what you would buy in a good French bakery, but it is simple and good. It gets a long, leisurely rise (6 hours minimum, sometimes 8). The texture is chewy, it actually tastes like bread, and the crust is better than almost anything available in the supermarket. Our children like it and they no longer eat tasteless supermarket bread, filled with chemicals.

There are all sorts of other ways we could get bread. We could go to the local bakery in the morning, if it opened early enough. We could bake our own bread. But with two working spouses, 3 children and a busy household, that wouldn't happen. The children's nanny, a catering college graduate who is a formidable cook, just doesn't have time for daily bread buying, let alone baking her own. Neither my wife nor I have time, except on the occasional weekend and holiday.

In France, we live in a town surrounded by bakeries: some 30 of them nearby the last time I counted, including one specialising in pain au levain, sourdough breads. The daily bread run is a pleasure. A bread machine would be completely superfluous. Perhaps this is true in central New York as well. In suburban London, it makes a lot of sense.

Off my chest at last. As usual, my wife was right. There.

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Please clarify: do you mean to say the bread machine's bowl has a scale built in so you don't have to separately measure anything? That is really cool, if so and may be worth upgrading my machine. (that is when it gets unpacked after the current kitchen remodel)

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Rachel, the bowl comes out of the machine and goes onto a digital scale. Yeast and 400g of flour go in, followed by salt. Water weighs 1g per ml, so another 300g of water are added. Done.

We chose the Panasonic machine because it had good reviews and because it is fundamentally simple.  I can imagine a manufacturer making a machine with a built-in scale, but would imagine this wouldn't hold up well under the stresses of heating and cooling. The digital scales are cheap and useful.  Ours has a "TARE" button so that you can reset it to 0 after putting the bowl on the machine.

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Duh. Now why haven't I thought of doing that!? Of course, getting the digital scale would help! :wink:

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JD (London), this makes perfect sense to me. And you obviously have the palate to be able to distinguish, so if you're happy with it, that's splendid.

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A well presented case for the bread machine, essentially irrefutable under the parameters presented, that is, busy people wanting decent bread every day with close to no effort.

My own baking is almost entirely for recreation, therapy, and aesthetic reasons, so I'm not a candidate. Also, as JD(London) points out, living in New York City, very good bread is available at retail.

Note: would posters agree and consider posting replies under The Bread Thread so as to keep everything together?

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I also have a Panasonic breadmaker - I use it to prove & mix the bread but find its better to bake the dough in the oven.

You mentioned grapes & other exotica as a starter (pre-b'maker).  Can you elaborate & perhaps supply a recipe or some guidence as I have only recently learned of such things and would appreciate learning from your experience.

Thanks

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This poster wouldn't agree, but of course I'm speaking solely as one poster among many and not as a moderator/coordinator.  Buying bread, making bread, appreciating bread, using bread machines etc. are all different topics.  Until critical mass reaches such a point, I guess there's no harm in collecting links in a Bread Thread until our search engine meets user demands.  But we don't have an all-consuming chocolate thread--because the subject is so vast.  Tempering chocolate instructions, visits to Jacques Torres' new chocolate shop, the differences between Pierre Herme's chocolate varieties in Paris versus those produced by Wegmans, how to bake a liquid center chocolate cake--all belong on separate threads.

Feed the bread thread biga or start your own little pockets of bubbling interest.

Thank you for a wonderful, touching report JD.  I'm glad it is here as a headliner, and so are the bread machine fairies, Panasonic and otherwise.

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You mentioned grapes & other exotica as a starter (pre-b'maker).  Can you elaborate & perhaps supply a recipe or some guidence?

BLH, the procedure for grape sourdough starters is is a lengthy one.

There is a detailed essay in Bertolli and Waters, Chez Panisse Cooking. It was contributed by Steve Sullivan, the owner of the Acme Bread company and supplier of bread to Chez Panisse.

Also see the US public broadcasting website (click here) for Julia Child's programme on Nancy Silverton of the La Brea Bakery.  

Essentially, you crush some grapes into a flour/water batter, then let this develop, feeding it periodically, until you have a strong starter. This takes about 10 days, if I recall correctly. You can then use this to make a range of "levain" breads. They are delicious and for some mysterious reason they keep a long time, even though you haven't added fat to the dough.

Both of the above sources provide American recipes (by volume, not weight) but it's easy enough to adapt them for UK use.

But you must procure organic, untreated wine grapes, you need a large container and a place in your house that's exactly the right temperature. And you have to keep checking and feeding the starter. Get it wrong and you have to start all over again.

Once you've got a working starter, you hold back a lump of dough from each batch and use it to leaven the next dough. Even this levain needs to be coddled and "fed". I recommend doing this, without reservation; you learn a lot and the product is delicious, but it takes a lot of time.

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Ok, so here it stays. I thought that's what Steve wanted, but I get confused easily.

On the topic of using grapes, spices, etc., there is a large group of serious bakers, both amateur and professional, who counsel against this, or at least don't see the value in it. The idea is that any bacteria contributed by these materials will soon be dominated by local organisms in the feeding/maintenance routine for a starter. So it would be ok for a one-time starter, but unlikely to contribute anything in the long run. It's a fun thing to try, but I'm among those who don't see the point over time. I still think it's best to acquire a sample of an established, stable starter.

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Oh, I have a bread machine, a Zojirushi, hideous white-plastic-encased machine roosting on the counter.  I tuck it way over in the corner so I don’t notice it so much.  But I can’t hide it away, because it would get to be such a major drag hauling it out over and over and over.  Because, with very rare exceptions, it gets used EVERY DAY.

I, too, have made many sorts of bread over the years (as I said in The Bread Thread, not sourdough, though), often by hand, especially at the beginning, or, allowing the KitchenAid to do its thing.  There is some element of pleasure and discovery to this cooking task, of course.  But decent bread, daily, is the motivator. 

The bread machine, and my digital scale, make this possible.  Truly, as JD describes, bunging the ingredients into the pan takes seconds.  Yeast activity, as Elizabeth David quoted somebody, needs no supervision--something like “bread can be trusted alone in the house.”  And then however much later there’s lovely proofed dough, and it’s practically a-b-c-d Bob’s yer uncle, all that.  Practically.

Priscilla

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JD(London): I was intrigued by your mention of pane carasau, so I looked it up in Flatbreads and Flavors by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. Their recipe does not include yeast, and describes the bread as a "parchment bread", saying (t)hese breads are very forgiving and easy to work with."

I'm wondering if yours isn't a different version of this bread. Can you offer a recipe, perhaps with your comments on technique? Since yours sounds difficult, I'd be more interested in trying it than one that's easy.

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Robert, the recipe in Flatbreads and Flavors seems to me completely incorrect. This error has, for me, put the rest of the book in doubt. I first bought F&F after reading an enthusiastic review by Corby Kummer, in The Atlantic and trying their recipe for pita bread. The recipe works a treat, and the technique is very similar to pita making I have observed in Turkey.

Alas, their recipe for pane carasau (it is also called carta da musica, music paper bread) does not come up to this standard. I can only surmise that Alford and Duguid did not actually observe the bread being made in Sardinia. Their recipe, as you say, has no yeast. It produces a flat bread that isn't bad, but lacks the character of pane carasau.

There is a detailed recipe, with photographs, in Giuliano Bugialli, Foods of Sicily and Sardinia and the Smaller Islands. It is authentic, as far as I can tell, but unfortunately far from foolproof. I am working on an article on this bread that will try to improve on this.

The dough is very soft: ironically, it somewhat resembles the dough from the pita recipe in Flatbreads and Flavors. It is made with semolina flour, ordinary flour, yeast, water and salt. You make a sponge and let it rise overnight. Then you make a dough, knead it, let it rise, and divide it into pieces. These are rolled into very thin circles -- traditionally, about 500 cm in diameter, but this is large for most ovens. The dough circles are baked in a very hot oven, classically a wood-fired brick oven, but you can use a pizza stone or quarry tiles. If they have been prepared just right, the dough circles instantly puff up like pita breads. They are flipped once during this first baking, which takes less than 2 minutes.

Each puffed up circle is removed from the oven and sliced in half. The halves are stacked up and weighted. When all of then have been baked, each half goes back into the oven to crisp for a few seconds. The bread can be further dried in the sun, on special linen cloths, to eliminate all moisture.

The result is delicious and somewhat mysterious: crisp and light, but with the flavour of leavened bread. It keeps forever, and can be used in all sorts of ways.

I have made pane carasau several times (and have a lot more experimenting to do for the article). It is very difficult to get right. The dough has to be soft, but not too soft. It has to be rolled out to almost perfect smoothness, or the discs rise unevenly. The oven has to be very hot, but too hot and the bread burns. Everything has to be done at lightning speed, or the dough gets dry and does not puff up.

Bugialli says that, occasionally, pane carasau is dried, then ground and used in place of flour, rather as matzo is ground into meal for use at Passover. He suggests that this practice started "when the carta da musica was still unleavened". He does not elaborate on this. However, none of the Sardinians I asked recognised Alford and Duguid's yeastless recipe as a plausible variant.

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JD(London), Many thanks for that very interesting discussion of an equally interesting bread. I find Bugialli to be rigorous, to say the least, so I would accept his word on the subject, and would attempt his method with confidence in its authenticity. I have a sense from what you've told us that foolproof with respect to this bread is only something that comes with regular doing.

While I have others by Bugialli, this book has escaped me. I will look for a copy. Meantime, please let us know the progress of your article, and where we can acquire a copy once published.

The method you describe seems to vary from pita particularly in the thinness of the rolled pieces, (and, obviously, in the use of a sponge), hence the rapid puffing and the absence of crumb. When the halved pieces are weighted, how much weight are we talking about? This could make a fine project in the fall, and a good way to drive my wife nuts.

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That's about it, but with this bread the devil is truly in the details. The website you cited has drawn on Bugialli's recipe.

A couple of notes:

1. Bugialli starts with a sponge which rises overnight; I found that this improved the consistency of the final dough. The best flour, by the way, is a mixture of semolina (durum) and ordinary flour.

2. "Soft, slightly damp consistency" -- this is right. This dough should not have much too body. It needs to be soft enough to be rolled very thin and then to rise. Much softer than ordinary bread doughs, even softer than French bread.

3. Heating an oven stone for 30 minutes doesn't sound enough to me: I would do at least 45 and probably an hour.

4. Bugialli recommends, and I agree, that the best way to form the dough is to shape it into a sausage and then slice the sausage into rounds.

5. I found it difficult to keep the dough properly moist during the rolling, especially if, as the website recommends, you are constantly dusting with flour. Dry spots lead to places where it won't rise. I finally ended up keeping the individual portions in a big plastic bag during the rolling out process.

6. The first few times out with this bread it is far better to roll one piece, then bake it, then remove it, then start on the next piece. You will be in less of a panic, and the oven will have a chance to recover its heat from the opening. It takes forever, but then if you want quick pane carasau you are better off buying it pre-made! If you roll three, you will need to keep the second two moist while baking the first. The best way is to have one person rolling and the other managing the oven.

7. Bugialli recommends that you flip the risen rounds after about 1 minute of baking and bake for another 30 seconds. I have always done this.

Good luck! I found this bread a sort of "ascent to Parnassus" in difficulty. But it was a lot of fun.

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Thanks again, JD(London). I'll continue to collect notes until baking season reopens in my kitchen in the fall.

Do you have quantities for flour and water so I can work out the hydration of the dough? What's the proportion of semolina to white all purpose? How fine is the semolina you use?

Also, I imagine that the overnight sponge, if it is like others I'm familliar with, would be half the total flour and all the water, and all the flour used for the sponge should be white flour, yes?

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JD(London), Another question looking over your last post: when you say "soft" dough, do you mean it literally, as opposed to "wet" or "sticky" dough?

If the former, then I am speculating that the white flour to be used should be of a lower protein variety. In combination with durum, which I think is high protein, this would help the dough's extensibility, and so make it easier to stretch and roll without lots of resting. If the latter, I imagine all kinds of problems rolling something wet to be so thin, without using more flour. I think I might try rice flour for the "ball bearings" if that's the case.

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The problem with the bread machine is that the crust sucks, and for me that's such a critical component of bread that a bad crust renders bread unacceptable to me. I don't think there is any way around the problem, given the construction of bread machines (they're all pretty much the same). I had one when I was in law school. I eventually graduated to the practice of using the machine as a dough mixer and doing the baking in the oven where I could create steam and reproduce more hearth-like conditions. Then, when I got the KitchenAid, I ditched the machine altogether, because the more powerful motor creates a more professional dough (however, even the top-of-the-line KitchenAid falls far short of professional dough-mixer strength, and so no bread I've ever baked has had the crumb and correctly-sized air bubbles of a loaf from, for example, Le Pain Quotidien). For me, bread machine bread ranks close in quality to the generic bread you find in large supermarket fresh-baked departments. It doesn't begin to rival real hearth-baked bread. And once I had my KitchenAid procedure streamlined, I don't think the actual labor time was significant. Maybe 15 minutes all added together. Still, I don't bake any bread anymore. There's no reason to if you live in New York -- and the bakeries open early enough for me!

JD: Will you give us your critical assessment of the quality of bread-machine-generated crust?

Also, have a look at the book Bread in Half the Time. It has a number of shortcuts, including use of a Cuisinart and microwave oven, that make bread baking almost as efficient as in a bread-machine, but with markedly better results.

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Just to be clear: I am by no means advocating that anyone buy a bread machine. For me it is a compromise, though one that works pretty well given the constraints under which we operate as a family.

The crust I get on the French bread recipe from the Panasonic machine is... well, I've had much better but I've had far worse. It is as good as the best supermarket baked bread in the UK and a lot of supermarket bread in France. It is not as good as artisanal bread (which is hard to find, even in London) or what can be produced at home with a bit of work.

The Panasonic machine, by the way, claims to be designed to produce a better crust -- for example, it does not have a "window" and thus distributes the heat more evenly. But I have not done any comparisons between bread machines!

Some notes on the crust:

Colour: usually a good rich red-brown, though occasionally it comes out slightly paler than usual.

Texture: surprisingly thick, just a bit chewy, not as crunchy as it could be. The gluten web is often visible in the crust itself.

Taste: Very good. Better than I had expected, especially on the top. Deep flavours of wheat, with good distribution of saltiness. Crust on the sides is sometimes a bit lacking in character. And the big irritant, of course, is the cavity in the bottom where the kneading paddle penetrates the loaf.

We had a lot of trouble weaning the children from the squishy bread they were served at school to the crustier French bread (often "à l'ancienne") that we get in France. The bread machine solved this problem: because what they now get at home has a proper crust, they cheerfully eat what we give them in France, as well as the artisanal breads we sometimes buy on weekends, or the breads we make by hand.

I am familiar with (and have) a KitchenAid, Cuisinart, microwave; I have not tried proving dough in a microwave but have heard it is possible. I will look up Bread in Half the Time as suggested. We have an Aga cooker, with one oven permanently pre-heated to about 240C = 465F, so it is not a problem to bung the loaf right onto the hot metal floor. There is no need to pre-heat an oven or wrestle with an oven stone.

The issue is not labour time. It is the need to pay attention to the dough, knock it back, knead it again, pop it in the fridge to slow down the rise, slash it, get steam into the oven, and so on. That attention and focus are what I most enjoy when baking bread. They are hard to come by in the normal course of working weekdays and even weekends filled with judo-football-ballet-birthdayparties-neighbours-homework-etc-etc.

The bread machine takes care of all that. And there is no cleanup involved: you shake out the bread, give the bowl a wipe with a cloth, and you're ready to go again. The KitchenAid and Cuisinart and the counter and the bread scraper don't clean themselves!

The better way, of course, would be to change our lifestyle so as to make it possible to pay more attention to important things like bread, not to mention children. Some day, perhaps.

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I don't bake any bread anymore. There's no reason to if you live in New York

Not quite, FG. I have cited therapy, recreation, craft, and, above all, the pure and simple challenge of being able to do it as well or better than anyone.

JD(London), please do not allow the FG's skilled debating tactics to distract you from replying to my much more important queries concerning pane carasau. Besides, he doesn't even bake, and as the guy somewhere in Canada said, he's not that fat.

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Yeah, but at least I know how to use quote tags. :raz:

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Robert, I only replied to the Fat Guy's post earlier because I didn't need my notes to do so.

Now having gathered my pane carasau notes, I find that they are somewhat disordered and self-contradictory. I need to do more experiments to get the proportions right. So here are Bugialli's proportions. Unfortunately they are in the American measurement by volume system.

For the sponge

1 cup + 1 tablespoon unbleached all purpose flour

1/4 cup very fine semolina flour

1/2 teaspoon coarse salt

1 cup water

1 ounce fresh or 2 packages dried yeast

For the dough (sponge plus the following):

2 cups unbleached all purpose flour, plus 1/2 cup for kneading

1/2 cup very fine semolina flour

3/4 cup water

The texture of the finished dough should be soft, not wet; rather like the pita in the recipe from Flatbreads and Flavors.I would use restraint in dusting, rice flouring, etc., because the soft dough will quickly absorb anything on the rolling surface.

The right rolling pin is probably important, as well; I use a large ball-bearing French pin, but this is probably not right. The photos in Bugialli show the Sardinians using a narrow (but not tapered) pin.

The finished sheets of dough should be very thin. A peel is useful for sliding them onto the hot baking stone, for flipping them and for removing them when done.

I wish you lots of luck in making this and hope you'll share your notes!

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