A RECENT casual but fairly extensive survey of bread bakers has turned up two major philosophical currents. One holds that all you need to make bread is a bowl, a spoon and a baking pan. Devotees of the other tend to devote major chunks of time to pilgrimages toward various meccas: the perfect baguette pan, a better way to slash french loaves before baking, an oven atomizing system that most closely approximates a French baker's oven.
The minimalist approach works best if what you're after is a "home-style" loaf, the American ideal that can be baked in the same pan in which you make meat loaf. But even if you are fiercely attached to your old aluminum pans, there are two pieces of equipment, neither of them specifically designed for breadbaking, that could help you out.
One is a pastry scraper, an inexpensive and incredibly useful little number that acts like an improved extra hand. The scraper, which is nothing but a square of thin metal with a wooden or rolled metal handle at one side, is perfect for scooping rich sticky doughs like challah or brioche off the counter with one hand while you knead with the other hand. And it is invaluable for cleaning the counter after you're finished. It generally costs between $5 and $10.
The other piece of equipment is the mighty KitchenAid K5SS mixer (formerly called the K5A), a revered and expensive machine that will knead your bread for you on days when you are overcome by sloth or malaise. And if you're really in a hurry, the more powerful food processors will mix and knead bread dough in about 60 seconds. This, I know, is heresy to the minimalist school, but I have not been able to detect the slightest difference between bread I have kneaded with my own hands and that kneaded by either machine. Of course if it's a choice between kneading some inanimate bread and thrashing a loved one, you will want to dispense with the equipment. Price of the K5SS is more than $300, but check discount stores.
There are some variations worth noting in the old aluminum, regulation-shape loaf pan. Black or "blued" steel is one. Black steel produces a thicker, crustier crust than lighter metals, a quality that makes it more suitable for heavier, denser loaves than for light breads. Sheets for free-form loaves, French bread forms and loaf pans all come in black steel.
I've become attached to some tinned steel loaf pans slightly smaller than the usual 8 1/2-by-4 1/2. Three of these smaller, deeper pans hold the same amount of dough as two larger ones, so recipes don't have to be reworked, and the loaves are a more manageable size for a small family. Measuring about 7 1/2-by-3 1/2, the pans I have are made by the German company Dr. Oetker, and are widely available.
Tinned steel and black steel are susceptible to rust, so it's better to wipe them out after use rather than washing. If you do wash them, dry thoroughly, preferably in the oven.
Entrepreneurs, meanwhile, have been busy devising all kinds of ways to keep happy the seekers of a perfect crusty, chic, European loaf. In one of their inventions, a two-part clay bread-baker called La Cloche, the heavenly ideal comes several giant steps closer. The bell-shaped top of La Cloche fits over a bottom that looks like a deep-dish pie pan. The bread finishes its last rise and is baked in La Cloche with the top on.
Recipes for French-type loaves often suggest some sort of oven atomizing system to keep the crust from hardening until the maximum rise has been achieved. When bread is baked inside La Cloche, steam automatically builds up inside. The bread is uncovered for the last five minutes of baking so the crust can brown. The crust produced this way is a crusty and crackling reddish-brown, very close to real French bread.
The disadvantages of La Cloche are its cumbersome shape and the fact that only round loaves can be produced. It also is fairly expensive, retailing for about $33.
Directions for French bread sometimes direct the baker to let the formed loaves rise on sheets of heavy canvas, roll them onto a wooden board or "peel," then carefully turn them out onto preheated quarry tiles or commercial baking "stones." This is a tricky process. An alternative is to let the bread do its last rise in baguette-shaped baking pans. Heavy black steel pans produce a crisp heavy crust, slightly less crackling than from quarry tiles or baking stone, but good.
Another alternative is to let the loaves rise on the light wooden paddle called a peel, then gently slide them onto the hot tiles. Bread done this way will have to be shaped to accommodate the peel, which is about 14-by-14 inches.
Peels, sometimes called pizza peels, are available in kitchenware and department stores for about $14. Black steel pans to hold one to five loaves also are widely available. Prices vary according to store and to gauge of the steel.
Then there are the esoterica. It is possible to purchase an implement called a lame made specifically for slashing the tops of French-type loaves before they go into the oven. It costs a dollar or two. You also can use a razor blade or a sharp knife. Baskets called bannetons also can be purchased. Dense European-type rye or pumpernickel doughs or French bread can be left for their last rise in the banneton, then turned out onto a baking sheet. In denser loaves the pattern of the basket remains after the loaf is baked.
Finally, a soft pastry brush is a good thing to have around when it's time to brush the loaves with egg wash or water.