I, breadbot

It's almost certainly slipped your attention that January is Bread Machine Baking Month, declared so by the Bread Machine Industry Association. That obscure group has a vested in saying so. I don't.

But it's reason enough to tell you a few things about life with a bread machine, and why you might consider making the investment. One of the most practical reasons is that it will pay for itself pretty quickly if you're freaky for a quality loaf, the kind that's sold for four, five, six bucks a loaf even in most supermarkets, where Wonder Bread and other gummy mass-market stuff still holds sway.

(A tangent: Way back in grade school, one of my best friends often showed up in the cafeteria carrying a sodden brown bag holding a wax paper-wrapped sandwich of Wonder Bread and imitation maple syrup. In the time since it was prepared in the morning, the two ingredients had melted together in a drippy mass that was terrible to behold. He was always eager to make a swap, especially for the not-altogether-uncommon peanut butter and marshmallow cream sammy. There were never any takers — except the salted lard sandwich kid.)

Making dough and baking bread intimidates many home cooks despite the fact that it was routine until only a couple of generations ago. Many have tried, many failed, never to try again.

It is a skill, no question about it, one that takes practice, and a lot of failures, to acquire. Learning to do it is even harder when there's no teacher, no one to explain how and why to "proof" the yeast to be certain it hasn't died (it's a living organism that just loves sugar); how the dough should look — and, more importantly, feel — when it's ready to be set aside to rise the first time, then the second and sometimes a third; little tips like putting the covered dough to rise in an unheated oven with the light on, which provides just enough warmth to encourage good yeast action; misting the preheated oven with water just before baking to help form a crunchy crust. (Doesn't make sense, but it works.)

But even if you've got it down, making bread is involved enough that it's often relegated to leisure time, a quiet and sometimes even soothing activity that can be anything but a chore if you're not rushed or preoccupied with the demands of life outside the kitchen.

I make bread and have for a long time. I enjoy it, and fortunately don't have to rely on it for my living, as did the grandfather I never knew, who I'm told was built like me but with enormous arms and shoulders from endlessly kneading 40-pound wads of dough by hand.

Kneading the dough for a loaf or bread or two can be one of baking's biggest charms, as it is transformed from a wrinkly, lumpy, lifeless mass into an elastic, aromatic, living material with a sleek surface sheen. But I want fresh bread more often than I want to spend time I don't have kneading the dough.

With a bread machine, you can split responsibilities or let it take over altogether.

When they came to market, first in Japan in 1987 and here the following year, they were plain, simple and ultimately disappointing. They produced ugly little square loaves, often misshapen, with very little taste. A friend bought one and enthused about the convenience, leaving comments about quality unspoken.

But a few years went by, sales persisted and the machines improved. They were given all kinds of bells and whistles, useful ones, and most of the manufacturers figured a way to make traditional rectangular loaves. (I'd like to know how many hours were spent in meetings and R & D sessions before somebody figured out that changing the shape of the machine's baking pan would change the shape of the bread.)

Prices, which had been as high as $400, dropped, and consistency of results improved dramatically. I bought one, a Breadman Ultimate, and have been using it since. It has a little contraption to add fruit or nuts to the dough during kneading (I've never used it), and the baking pan is nonstick, a vast improvement over the early machines. Best of all, it's programmable to automatically mix, knead and bake just about any bread you'd want, from banana to baguettes. And you can set it to start in the middle of the night and finish with fresh baked bread first thing in the morning (as long as there are no perishable ingredients, like milk and eggs).

One setting has the machine do nothing but mix the ingredients and knead the dough. This is what I use most, removing the wad from the breadmaker, working it a minute or two by hand, then shaping and baking. Most often it's French bread, using nothing more than flour, yeast, water and a pinch of salt. Let the machine do the hard work, and when that almost erotic aroma starts leaking from the oven, sit back and take the credit.

Bread machines are available for as little as $45 and as much as several hundred dollars. If you decide to buy, do a little research. There's no end of information and recipes online. I'll vouch for the Breadman, of course, at around $75. But there's a lot of agreement among reviewers that the Zojirushi Home Bakery Supreme is king. For it, you have to have bread to make bread — about $200.

Even if you wake in the morning with a nausea that can countenance nothing but strong coffee and a smoke, it's still handy to have a breadbot in the house.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected] or call