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Generally Recognized As True: Bread machine trials and tribulations

Friday, October 12, 2007

Bread machine trials and tribulations

So, I finally got myself a bread machine.

Like most things electronic, this market has been somewhat cheapened to the degree that you can get bread machines for well under $100. I assume you get what you pay for, but not necessarily in direct proportion to what you pay (i.e. although I believe that a $200 machine will be better than a $100 machine, I don't necessarily believe it'll be twice as good). But, I generally don't have confidence in things that are too cheap: I tend to feel, however stupid, that if I haven't paid enough for it then I don't have much of a right to complain when it breaks down 1 day after the warranty period expires and I also don't like to support a throwaway society that encourages planned obsolescence. I'd rather buy something once and have it work for a long time. Not only that, but I don't like returning things to the store (I can probably count on one hand the number of times I've returned something to the store for reasons other than defect), and I hate dealing with customer support telephone service. So, I like to get it right the first time.

Anyway, back to the story.

So, I ended up getting a Zojirushi Home Bakery Mini Breadmaker (BB-HAC10). They have a larger one that I found really interesting-looking because you could actually modify the lengths of some of the preparation phases and it also made traditional horizontal loaves but, sadly, it only makes 1.5 and 2.0 pound loaves because of the horizontal pan, which is too much for a single guy like me. So, I went with the smaller machine, which does the typical weird-shaped bread machine loaves but seems very solid and compact -- much more compact than most bread machines I've seen. About $250 from Golda's Kitchen in Mississauga (conveniently located on my drive-home-from-work route -- they have seen me many times). Relatively expensive, but... highly-regarded in this category and, well, you know: as above.

I was hesitant to get a bread machine because I've been doing bread by hand for awhile and really enjoy the process. It's quite humbling to be forced to wait through the whole process while the yeast does its job on rising the dough. You attend to it, but it in its warm place, and go back to what you were doing, remembering to come back in another hour or so and tend to it again. It's a natural process. It's exercising for your arms during the kneading phase when you're beating it up to get maximum penetration of the ingredients. It's so satisfying to see the finished product after about 4 hours of waiting: it's amazing to create something so great out of so few ingredients. The result comes from work and attention and knowledge, not from technical or chemical wizardry. There aren't many things that are that basic anymore.

So, I like making bread by hand.

And, by getting a bread machine, I was worried that it might come to an end. Although I'd undoubtedly make more bread with a machine, I was worried that I'd stop doing it by hand altogether because the motivation would be gone. I was worried that maybe the bread machine would be "good enough" -- I knew it wouldn't be as good because it just can't be. But, sometimes things are good enough and you just let them go.

But, in the end, I'd just had enough of supermarket bread. It's pretty devious stuff, and I had started to fall back into the habit of buying it again because I didn't have enough time to go through the whole breadmaking palaver each and every weekend. And, with the cold weather approaching, it's a bit harder to rise the dough because I don't keep my house very warm, and you need a warm place to get the yeast going and doing the best it can.

So, I got the bread machine.

I already feel a bit disappointed, having just loaded the first ingredients into the machine and started it on its way a few hours ago. What have I really done here? Not much. The machine is doing it all. I added the ingredients and pressed "Start". And it'll probably do an OK job and I'll feel that yet another one of my fun skills has been replaced by a machine that will be "good enough" for most people.


It reminds me of that old Betty Crocker story from Don Norman's book, Emotional Design. When Betty Crocker first introduced the packaged cake mix ("just add water"), people were really happy with the resulting cake, but the product did not sell very well after the introductory period. Upon further investigation, the company found out that the people buying the cake mix did not feel much accomplishment in having baked a cake from a package because all they had to do was add water. They didn't feel like they'd really done anything. So, what did they do? They required people to also add an egg to the mixture before baking. The product instantly became much more popular because the people using it felt as though they were actually baking something to which they'd added some kind of personal touch. I'm not saying that this is exactly the same as here because, with breadmaking, you are genuinely doing a lot of work. But, making bread with a bread machine just feels... far too easy. You once were useful, and now you're not.

Anyway, I just took the first loaf out of the "oven" and it's not bad-looking. It's soft, puffy, and has a nice colour. We'll see what it's like when it's cooled down. It doesn't have a proper oven crust, of course, because it wasn't cooked in a real oven, on a real baking stone, with real steam.

I can get so sentimental about bread sometimes.

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