Maine Voices: Ode to the Bread Machine

Hey, Maine Course readers! Today, BDN reporter Nick Sambides Jr. shares how he fell in love with his bread machine. Enjoy!

Do you have a favorite dish? A favorite cooking tool? If you want to share a short ode to your favorites, drop me a line at scaron@bangordailynews.com. 

Why I love my bread machine

By Nick Sambides Jr.

Bread Machine Raisin Bread

Nick Sambides Jr.’s raisin bread/Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

My microwave oven was shot. The plastic wheels that spun the plate had peeled away the paint underneath them over the seven years it’d been in my kitchen. I was in Walmart lowering a new oven into my shopping cart when something caught my eye.

A $49 bread machine.

Instantly, I thought of my grandmother’s homey old kitchen. The rich, yeasty smell of the white bread she made, so rich it almost qualified as challah, has never quite left me. Nor has the warm and deeply proud smile she wore when she served it. In the stifling quiet of the small northeastern Pennsylvania town in which Nana lived – counting tombstones in the cemetery behind her house was about as much fun as we kids ever had there – her handmade bread was a joyous culinary excursion, a trip back in time where store-bought bread and canned vegetables were shunned and homemade bread was as common as the milk men who went door to door dispensing curvy short glass bottles of milk capped with tinfoil.

And among the 15 or so families that were the immediate limbs of my Ukranian ancestral tree, my grandmother was a respected cook. As a child, I had only a vague sense of the emotional currents flowing among my relatives, but even then I could sense that in a family so vast and so close in proximity, respect was an elusive thing. Breadmaking, my mom used to tell me, is like an art, and your grandmother is like an artist.

Nick's bread machine gets frequent use/Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

Nick’s bread machine gets frequent use/Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

In the year that I’ve had the machine, I don’t think I’ve ever made bread that would pass Nana’s scrutiny. Sometimes her smile haunts me. I’ll be checking the ball of flour spinning in the machine’s baking chamber and see in my mind’s eye that same gentle expression — except she’s usually shaking her head. But a breadmaking machine is a lot of fun, saves money and can offer some insight into the art of breadmaking. It doesn’t really provide a pathway to the past as much as an avenue into the ingeniousness of the present.

Consider. The one bread machine cookbook I have, “Better Crocker’s Best Bread Machine Cookbook,” lists more than 100 recipes. Beside the basic recipes for white, wheat, buttermilk, oatmeal, pumpernickel and fruit loaves, the book contains such exotic breads as chocolate walnut, vanilla sour cream – my favorite – chocolate mint (!!), peppery potato and carrot, caramelized onion and double-corn jalapeño.

I don’t think it ever even occurred to Nana to try to make beer nut bread.

Plus, according to the book, the bread machine can help produce rolls, breadsticks, buns, coffee cakes, Focaccia, Baguettes, braids, twists, rings and wreaths — far beyond, I would think, the range of most bread chefs.

Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

Photo by Sarah Walker Caron

I haven’t been that adventurous. Vanilla sour cream and cinnamon raisin breads are my mainstays. The vanilla sour cream bread tastes like white bread on steroids, a very full but still pretty light-sitting white bread with tinges of sour and buttery sweet flavors. The cinnamon raisin bread combines two things I dearly love and seems by far the best-liked offering to friends and family. I liked apricot bread, failed miserably in making Mediterranean herbed bread — it just never rose, for some reason — and had varied degrees of success with other breads.

My choices have been conservative because the more exotic breads produce varying results. Pretzel mustard bread, for example, has none of the rubbery texture and light, salty taste that I find in the ballpark pretzels I find so addicting. The idea of a chocolate bread seems distasteful to me, so I won’t even attempt it. Bread, let’s face it, should basically taste like bread, not cake, I think.

Yet bread is a great gift. People enjoy it whenever I bring it to the main office of the newspaper, friends have occasionally sought a boxful of loaves in the mail, and nothing can quell a boundary dispute with a neighbor like a freshly baked loaf of bread. My first gift, a loaf of cinnamon raisin bread, went to the parents of my friend Guy when they were staying at a Boston hotel. (They’re all from the deep south, so if it bombed, I figured I wouldn’t hear about it too much.) The bread’s aroma drew strangers to them who asked for slices.

Bread machines make bread-making easy. My grandmother used to mix and pound the bread dough in the early evening, awaken around midnight or so to punch it down again, and then awoke before my mom went to school to fire up the coal stove and start baking. The ingredients take about 15 minutes to assemble in the machine pan and about three hours to bake. You select your settings – loaf size and crust color – and press the START button.

It’s so easy no wonder Nana wouldn’t approve.

Sarah Walker Caron

About Sarah Walker Caron

Sarah Walker Caron is senior features editor for the Bangor Daily News, and resident cook. She writes a cooking column, Maine Course, and is also author of "Grains as Mains: Modern Recipes Using Ancient Grains." Her recipes have appeared in the BDN, Betty Crocker publications, Glamour.com and more.