The price of bread is skyrocketing along with everything else. When my favorite walnut bread costs $6 at the bakery but I can make a similar loaf at home for about 60 cents, it's time to pull out the old bread machine.

Back when bread machines were the rage, European-style specialty breads weren't available at every supermarket and bakery in town. But as baguettes, boules and batards became common, I rarely used my bread machine any longer. But now cleaning up a bit of flour and waiting for dough to rise in the bread machine seems worth my time.

There's one essential trick I've learned as I've been experimenting: To get bread that's closer to European styles, use the bread machine's dough cycle but shape your own loaves and bake them in a conventional oven.

Perhaps this doesn't sound especially desperate, but be assured it's incredibly easy. It takes five minutes to assemble the ingredients, and there's no kneading and no worrying. The high baking temperature, plus spraying a little water into the oven a couple of times during baking, helps form a crisp crust (if not quite as chewy as the bakery's).

I must confess that no two loaves look exactly alike, and my baguettes wouldn't win a beauty contest. No matter. They taste great, smell amazing and cost a tenth of the professional version.

If you don't own a bread machine, the cheapest possible one works great with my dough-cycle-only method. We've spotted bread machines starting at $50 (not on sale). After a dozen loaves, the machine will have more than paid for itself.

MY VERY OWN WALNUT BREAD

Start to finish: 7 minutes preparation; 60 to 90 minutes unattended bread-machine time; additional 30 minutes rising time; 25 to 30 minutes baking time

Cook's note: Reduce the amount of yeast to 1 1/4 teaspoons if using "rapid rise," "quick rise" or "bread machine" yeast.

You can replace the olive oil with walnut oil for an extra nutty flavor.

Walnuts can be toasted in the microwave. Place them on a microwave-safe plate and microwave, uncovered on high, until fragrant, stopping every 30 seconds to stir and rotate the plate. The exact time will vary depending on the microwave's power, but figure roughly 3 to 4 minutes.

2 teaspoons active dry yeast (see Cook's note)

3 cups bread flour

1 1/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon water

1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil (see Cook's note)

1 1/4 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup coarsely chopped, toasted walnuts (see Cook's note)

Cooking-oil spray

Extra flour, for forming the loaves

Place the first seven ingredients into the bread machine in the order listed. Choose the dough setting (or the setting that mixes but does not bake the bread). Turn on the machine.

Spray a loaf pan or baking sheet with cooking-oil spray, and set aside. When the dough cycle ends, sprinkle a little flour on a clean counter or large cutting board. Punch the dough a couple of times with your fist to let the air escape, and remove the dough from the machine onto the floured surface. Turn the dough to coat lightly with flour. To form the dough into oblong loaves, pull and stretch the dough into an oblong loaf shape. Cut the oblong dough in half, and tap the cut ends in the flour. Pull each half into an oblong, baguette shape (or form into two round loaves). Let the loaves rise, uncovered, at room temperature for 30 to 50 minutes, or until they reach the desired size. (The time will depend on the ambient temperature. If your room is chilly, put the loaf in a cold oven with just the oven light on.)

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Using kitchen scissors, snip three slashes in the top of each loaf that are about 1 inch deep and 1 1/2 inches wide. Place the loaves in the hot oven, and spray a little water on the sides of the oven. (If you don't have a spray bottle, flick it with your fingers.) Bake, uncovered, until the bread is golden brown and sounds hollow when tapped, about 25 to 35 minutes. Spray the oven again with a little water after about 10 minutes if desired. If not eating immediately, remove from the pan, preferably to a wire rack, to cool.

Makes 2 loaves, for 6 servings each. (Extra loaves can be frozen, covered well with plastic wrap and then with foil, for up to 1 month.)

Approximate values per serving: 169 calories (26 percent from fat), 5 g fat (1 g saturated), 0 mg cholesterol, 5 g protein, 26 g carbohydrates, 1 g dietary fiber, 244 mg sodium.


Beverly Mills and Alicia Ross are co-authors of "Desperation Dinners!" (Workman, 1997), "Desperation Entertaining!" (Workman, 2002) and "Cheap.Fast.Good!" (Workman, 2006). Contact them at Desperation Dinners, c/o United Media, 200 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10016. Or visit the Desperation Dinners Web site at www.desperationdinners.com. © United Feature Syndicate Inc.