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June 30, 2010
Bread? In the microwave? Are you sure?

I well understood my friend's scepticism: strange and unlovely things happen to bread when you nuke it -- that weird combination of softness and rubberiness known to anyone who has tried to reheat a sandwich. But the temperature outside was over 90 degrees Farenheit, and we were almost out of bread. A microwave doesn't produce external heat, unlike a 400-degree oven heating up the kitchen for half an hour. It was worth a Google.

The recipe I chose calls its end product "English Muffin Bread." I doubt that, but we shall see. One must make allowances in cooking for poetic licence, which is really what an "English muffin" is anyway -- I have never eaten or even seen an English muffin in England. English muffins are American. The closest thing the Brits have is a crumpet.

Okay -- you proof it right in the microwave at 50 percent power. I think I won't do that, but will let it rise in the usual way. And the recipe called for loaf pans -- my loaf pans are metal, and can't go in the microwave. Okay -- I have some ramekins. I'll do half in the ramekins and half as small round loaves, which I will bake on wooden cutting boards that love the micowave -- it'll dispatch any bacteria that might be lurking on them while the bread bakes.

One reviewer said she followed the recipe and the result was bland. Well, then, don't follow the recipe. Let it a guide, an ideal, a springboard. You want flavor? Add more whole wheat flour and less white flour. Besides, I would imagine that the firmer grain of whole wheat flour would go some distance in mitigation of the unnatural softness that afflicts any microwaved grain product, and its brown color would help with the bread's color -- microwaves don't brown things, and a loaf of completely white bread from a microwave would, it seemed to me, look rather like a large marshmallow.

You bake the little loaves for four minutes. Four minutes? Good Lord.

I did the ramekins first, just because I love ramekins. They emerged ready for the circular file -- underdone on the bottom and rock hard on top, an inauspicious beginning that augured a wholesale waste of some perfectly good flour and yeast. But I still had two cutting boards full of little round loaves. No point throwing them out unbaked, and I could certainly spare ten minutes to complete my experiment before chalking the whole doomed project up to experience. Not expecting much, I put the first wooden board in the oven and set it to four minutes.

Five minutes later, I bit into one of the best slices of bread I've ever eaten. Why they call it "English Muffin Bread" remains a mystery -- it neither tasted nor looked anything like an English muffin. But it was delicate in texture and delightful in flavorful.

I am an old-fashioned bread baker. I don't want a bread machine -- I like to see the dough develop its gluten, becoming elastic and full of air, a fascinating process hidden from the eyes of bread machine users. But a loaf of lovely bread in under an hour. Traditionalist though I am where bread is concerned, there are days -- hot days, rushed days -- that demand another approach. All advances in technology have been born of such bending to necessity. There is more than one way to do almost anything.

Bread For When It's just Too Hot to Bake

1/4 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1 (.25 ounce) package active dry yeast
1 cup lukewarm milk
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon baking soda
2 cup whole wheat flour
1 cups all-purpose flour
Cover a wooden cutting board or a flat, microwave-safe tray with parchment paper.
In a large bowl or bowl of mixer, dissolve yeast in water. Add milk, sugar, salt, soda and 1 cup whole wheat flour; beat well. Beat in the rest of the flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until a soft dough is formed. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface, and knead for about 5 minutes, or until smooth -- or, as I did, use the dough hook in a stand mixer for the whole operation. Place in a greased bowl -- I just use PAM -- and spray the top of the dough as well. Cover with a clean towel and let rise until double, about an hour, maybe a litle more. Punch down.

Form into four round loaves, and place on the parchment paper. Cover and let rise again for half an hour.

Microwave on high for 4 to 6 minutes, until top is no longer moist -- check it at 4 minutes, as a lot can happen in the course of a minute in a microwave. Let stand for 5 minutes in pan. Remove and cool on a rack. Yum.
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