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Feature Thu Nov 06 2008
What is a benchmark of a truly great kitchen gadget? Or of any great tool, really? There may be a number of benchmarks, but one of them might be the tool's ability to change the way you live.
About a month ago, my husband went to use the bathroom at the Best Buy in Lakeview. When he came out, he spotted a Kitchen Aid artisan mixer on a shelf right outside of the corridor to the bathroom. As an ardent lover of kitchen gadgets, he walked over, and discovered with glee that it was offered less-than-half-price at $150. He called me over. We stood in front of the shiny machine and contemplated for a good 10 minutes.
"It's really an awesome deal," said my husband. "These things never get below $250."
"But I don't know if I'm ever gonna need it," I said. I already had a hand-held mixer from the same manufacturer, and was quite happy with it. I'm not really a baker, and I'd never had any mixing need that was beyond the power of the little hand-held machine. At the same time, though, a rather agreeable image started to take shape in my head--this horribly adorable mixer quietly sitting on the corner of our kitchen counter. I couldn't bring myself to say the decisive no. But I wasn't ready to say yes to this extravagant purchase, either, even at a hefty discount. Seeing that there were at least two of the mixers at the sale price (and also at a not-so-obvious location in the store), we left the store and took a bus home, where we would debate the tilt-head mixer off and on for hours.
Well, long story short, we went back to the store the next day (with a little foldable cart thingy for easy transportation), and bought the darn thing. And boy, our life has never been the same since.
The first thing I made with the mixer was Chinese steamed buns with red bean paste filling. I'd made them before, and though they were very tasty, it'd seemed much more trouble than it was worth. For one thing, home-made steamed buns never look as appetizingly smooth and white as the store-bought ones. To knead the tough, rubbery dough for what seems like forever, wait around for the dough to rise for what seems like another eternity, and eventually find a bunch of misshapen, lumpy-looking buns with an unappealing yellow cast in the steamer is not exactly inspiring. After my first foray into this avenue of cooking, I'd never attempted again.
Now armed with the famed mixer, I decided to give the buns another try. In the mixing bowl, I placed the dry ingredients and turned on the machine. With a deep whirring noise of the motor, the mixing arm started to spin around the flour mixture. As I gradually added warm water, it started to look a little grim in the bowl: there were a number of moist lumps, while the rest of the flour remained mostly dry. I stopped the machine to scrape the bowl, and became even more concerned. The flour on the bottom of the bowl didn't seem to have moved at all. I scraped off the flour on the bottom, and incorporated it into the wetter part, and turned the machine on again. After a few minutes, the mixture was showing some sign of hope. The uneven lumps had disappeared, and it actually started to look like dough--though still with a rough skin.
"It's so cool," said my husband, who was hovering around in the kitchen, peeking into the mixing bowl from time to time. "The way the dough changes as it's kneaded!"
Indeed. It was almost magical to see the half-dry, half-wet mass gradually form itself into a mostly smooth dough. Now the dough was cleaning itself off the mixing bowl. The mixer's dough hook had a planet-like double rotation (rotating around itself while making rounds in the bowl), and this seemed to ensure that all the peripheral parts of the dough got incorporated into the main dough ball. To watch the fluid rotation of the hook and its effect on the dough was mesmerizing. I wished it had taken longer than the ten minutes it took to get the dough where it needed to be, just so the spell wouldn't break.
After the kneading, the dough was risen in the unheated oven, divided and shaped into buns with filling inside (another fun part), risen again, and steamed in bamboo steamers. When I took the lid off the steamers, behind the cloud of hot vapor were the steamed buns, much better-looking than my previous attempt. The surface was still uneven and the yellowish cast was still there, but the irregularities were within the "hand-made charm" parameters. The buns were delicious, too: the thorough mixing and kneading developed a good gluten structure that was at once fluffy and chewy.
Since then, I've been using the mixer literally every weekend. After making another (larger) batch of steamed buns when my parents visited, I've ventured into bread making--something I'd always been afraid of. I'd heard so many stories about temperamental dough refusing to rise or sticking to every inch of the kitchen counter (as well as the baker). I'd witnessed, first hand, my mother's inglorious foray into bread making that lasted for probably a few months off and on until she completely gave up, when I was in kindergarten. I suspect kneading the dough in the sweltering heat of her Bangkok apartment wasn't her thing after all. All things considered, I didn't think bread making was for me.
With the Kitchen Aid, though, kneading is a breeze, and the magical transformation of the dough, as it gets kneaded, never ceases to amaze me. Thanks to the thorough and even kneading the Kitchen Aid gives the dough, the resulting breads are beautiful in all aspects from shape to texture to flavor. When I saw my first loaf come out of the oven, all golden and crusty, I couldn't believe it. Just a few hours ago, it was a simple mixture of flour, water, sugar, salt and yeast. Now, it looked and smelled like real bread, something you'd buy in, dare I say it, Red Hen Bakery.
Perhaps the coolest part is that much of the transformation is a result of a living organism: yeast. Imaging thousands upon thousands of yeast cells hard at work, puffing out little bubbles of carbon dioxide, creating the distinct texture of each bread, is a bit more magical (or endearing, depending on your viewpoint) than knowing that cakes are risen by inorganic baking powder (which also gives out carbon dioxide). The process has such magical power over me, as well as my husband, that we haven solely been eating homemade bread for three weeks--and counting. (As an added bonus, my husband is much more interested in the process of making food these days. I seem to find him in the kitchen much more frequently than just a few weeks ago, which is kind of fun.)
It may not be entirely a result of the Kitchen Aid, but this gadget has changed the way we live. For one thing, we've become eaters of homemade bread. But the change may a little more far-reaching than that. Something I thought was a mere commodity suddenly acquired a new depth; it's as if peeking behind what looked like a photograph and discovering that it was actually a 3-D object with an extra dimension that had been hidden from view. Now whenever I see a loaf of bread, I think of all the things I'd never thought of: the living creature that makes the bread rise; the luxuriant feel and the subtle warmth of the dough once it's kneaded; the telltale hollow sound that my finger makes when I tap the loaf that's ready to come out of the oven. I feel like I somehow "know" the bread more intimately than before, even if it's a bread that came out of some industrial oven.
I also think of the long tradition of bread making that connects me to those who came and went well before my time. Perhaps because bread making is so sensual (the touch, the smell, the sound), my imagining of the ancient bread makers in distant places is not only intellectual, but also somehow tactile. As I shape a loaf, rough hands of Roman bread maker also shape it; as I tap the top of a boule, a French housewife also listens for that hollow sound. It's a strange feeling to know that essentially the same process has been feeding the body and soul of human beings for thousands of years. Strange, but comforting.
If a tool can put you in touch with microorganisms and dead people (and make awesome bread, too), I think it's a darn good tool.
I've been using Beth Hensperger's Bread Bible (via Google Books and Amazon) as the source of recipes. Recommended by a coworker who is a die-hard baker of 20 years (!), this book is very reliable.