On buying a breadmaker

Posted on 24 September 2012 in Food and Drink (No comments)

Pain de Campagne

It must have been around 2002 when I first baked my own loaf. And by "baked" I mean made it from scratch using my hands, flour, yeast, the works and not that I got some part-baked bread out of a packet and shoved it in the oven. Instead I kneaded the dough with my hands, put it in the oven and admired the result.

I did occasional baking for a couple of years, but the mainstay of our house continued to be sliced supermarket bread - rarely eaten apart from the odd slice of toast. The fresh stuff would be wolfed down in a day. The supermarket white would sit in the freezer and bunged in the toaster on the odd weekend morning.

Then in 2006 I made an active decision to stop buying supermarket bread. Instead I'd only eat bread I'd baked myself. I'd make bread in bulk, and freeze what I didn't need immediately.

Over the years my bread making got better and better. I made ciabattas, pain de campagnes, baguettes and bagels. I even tried, with varying degrees of success, sour-dough. Some worked better than others, but generally there was always good bread in the house.

Supermarket sliced was banished for good - the only bought in bread coming from an artisan bakery, or (rarely) a supermarket bakery crusty roll.

There's something great about a handmade loaf. You get those imperfect shapes. You get a slightly different results every time. And you get the great satisfaction of having made it yourself.

So why, after all these years, have I just bought a breadmaker?

The answer is pretty simple. It boils down to time. And the fact that in around 6-8 weeks I'll have a lot less of it.

Indeed in recent months I've already been struggling to keep up with the bread demand in our house. For various reasons it's been difficult.

My baking regime has, for some time, been to mix and knead dough on a Saturday morning, then go to the gym whilst it rises. As soon as I get back it's normally time for it to go in the oven around lunchtime. It was a perfect bread-sized gap in my weekend schedule. Normally I'd bake three loaves every two weeks and that would cover us.

But for a couple of months my Saturday regime hasn't always happened. I've been away, or visiting people, or decorating the house. And believe me, the last thing you want to do after emulsioning a bedroom is start baking bread - bread making should be an enjoyable thing, but at times like that it feels more like a chore. Then there was at least one weekend where I simply ran out of flour and (as it was the only thing I needed from the supermarket) never got round to buying some.

That wasn't the only reason for making me think again. In around six weeks time we're expecting something that's going to change our lives forever as the number of people in the house increases from two to three. We're about to have a baby and, as any parent will tell you, babies have a habit of eating your time away.

And whilst Catherine's going to be at home a lot in the early stages, we made a plan where we'd fill the freezer with homemade soup - something easy to prepare when time is short. And what goes nicely with soup? Bread!

All of a sudden I realised bread consumption could rapidly increase in our house. I'd need to bake more often to keep up with demand, all at a time when time was likely to be shorter.

I wasn't willing to go back to supermarket bread. For starters it would probably require visiting the supermarket a lot more, but also homemade bread generally tastes far better as well as being cheaper. And I also didn't want to compromise on quality. When baking my own bread I buy good quality ingredients. I know everything that's in that loaf when I bake it. Flour, yeast, water, salt and (usually) a little oil. That's it. No calcium propionate, no amylase and certainly no L-cysteine hydrochloride. Whatever they are (although they are common ingredients in a lot of bread on the supermarket shelves.)

All things considered, a breadmaker seemed a sensible option. Something we could fill up, put on a timer (if we needed to) and leave it to do its stuff. Something that I could set to bake a loaf overnight so there'd be fresh bread in the morning. Every morning if needs be.

I bought one on Monday. A top of the line model as, frankly, if you're going to use something a lot, you might as well buy something good. £140 at Argos got me the Panasonic SD-2501. It has a dough-only mode, can make jams and compotes. There's even a nut and raisin dispenser. But most useful of all is the thirteen hour timer. And it takes minutes to fill it up and set it on its way.

The bread it does is good - perhaps a little too light and fluffy compared to my old handmade options - machines can always knead dough more effectively than a human but also the flour I had in was Hovis Super Strong White which is great for a hand baker as it makes it easier to get a lighter loaf as it has lots of gluten in it. However as machines are better at kneading I may need to play around with a more normal bread flour to make something a little firmer. I reckon I should be able to adapt some of my favourite recipes quite well too.

True you can do less bread in one go - I tended to do three loaves at once by hand - but with the timer option I can simply bake smaller batches on demand, and won't have the need to fill up the freezer any more.

We've not even had it a week and three loaves have been baked. I've done bread in the evening. I've baked overnight. We went out on Saturday to look at prams and cots for several hours. Once again I had no bread baking time. Never mind. Before we left I set the timer to come on so that we'd have some finished not long after we got back.

True it's not the same as making it yourself. But sometimes you make sacrifices. The next year is going to be busy, but at least there will always be good bread in the house.

p.s. this post might also give you a hint as to why my blogging has slowed down recently. And it's no because I've been baking bread...

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