Saturday, April 10, 2010

Building a better loaf

We eat a lot of bread in this house. When the price of a loaf of 'good' bread shot to $5 in late 2008, I'd had enough of being held hostage. Paying a high price for mystery ingredients had turned me into a crazy woman. OK, maybe I was already there, but this certainly did not help toward any recovery.

I did some research, asked around and consulted consumer reports. I decided on a Zojirushi BBCC-X20, which makes a large horizontal loaf. It does have the wierd paddle holes in the bottom, but you can get accustomed to that if the bread is good enough.

Next problem was actually buying one. Luckily it was near Christmas so they were abundant. Thank goodness for the internet. I did some comparison shopping and found that the price varied wildly for a new one. High was around $250 PLUS shipping down to a low around $200 including shipping. I did the math, even if ingredients and electricity cost me $2.50 a loaf, the machine would pay for itself in 40 weeks. Not bad. I went for it. I found a great deal on eBay from a seller that also has a brick-and-mortar store and 100% satisfaction, so that's where I ordered.

Bread, even if you are not doing the kneading, is still fascinating stuff. How did man ever figure it out? Powdering grain and mixing it with just the right stuff, especially the yeast, to get a light network of nutty goodness -- I couldn't have done it in a lifetime, yet we have inherited the secrets and take them for granted!

We live at 5000+ feet, so even with the bread machine there are subtlties that I NEVER imagined before. I can't dump the stuff in, turn it on and walk away. The humidity here is so low, and varies so much from day to day that you must actually adjust the recipes for the RH. There may be as much difference as a quarter of a cup of water to keep the 'loaf' from becoming a load of small, round, hard dog treats. My big, dumb golden retriever takes great interest in the process, knowing that if I goof, she gets the good stuff!

In making bread, some balance must be learned. The zen of bread making was previously unknown to me, but there is definitely a bread zone to enter! A few times I have put in too much of something I love -- like chopped dried fruit. I quickly learned how fruitcake was discovered when I retrieved a heavy, wet loaf of it from my machine. Another lesson: a cup of flour is not a cup of flour! At my altitude and humidity, a cup of flour, which is about 4.5 ounces, actually measures at 3/4 of a cup. That explained a lot of dog treats! I have come to appreciate what amazing stuff BREAD is and how we take it for granted because it has become such a small part of our bounty in this day and age.

The GOOD stuff is another reason I make my own bread now. Oh, we've jumped in with both feet. Not just buying the good King Arthur flour, which has gone up $2 a bag since the end of 2008, by the way. Same cost-benefit analysis led us to buy a small hand grinder for grain. We now grind our wheat, rye, brown rice -- you get the idea. We use local honey and have graduated to virgin olive and coconut oils rather than just butter or shortening.

We're down to two basic loaves a week, with an occasional third of sourdough just for variety. We also use the sourdough for pizza dough -- yes, Domino's misses us! I'm surprised they haven't sent a 'missing you' card! The first loaf replaces the morning bagels I bought for my husband. I feel really bad about that because the local bagel joint went out of business about 6 months after we bought the bread machine. I did not imagine my bread machine as a business murderer, but I guess it shares the guilt with me and others.

Our daily bread is now high protein, high fiber and really good. I know what is in it and rarely feel guilty eating it, because it is wholesome and healing. We do not scrimp on quality but are not 'breaking the bank' because the price of grain is still less than the price of white flour. Above all else, I am starting to feel the contentment of providing for my family in a different, much more visceral way. Some day soon I will probably stop using the bread machine and just do it all myself, but until then, Zo and I will continue to crank out the good stuff!

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