Over the years, we've made several attempts to bake bread using various methods and a couple of bread machines later, I think I've finally nailed it... except I only use the macine to mix the dough, the rest is done by hand. The results are worth the extra effort.
Without going into recipes and methods right now, I'll just include the following taken from Christina Pirello's book "Cooking the Whole Foods Way" on the process of baking bread:
"Bread has always symbolized life to me. Bread baking teaches us about success and failure, perseverance and patience. There is no better feeling than the satisfaction we get as golden crusty loaves, kneaded by our hands, are pulled from the oven.
Baking bread keeps you humble. We all begin with the same simple ingredients - flour, water and leavening. We all perform the same ritual tasks of baking - mixing, kneading, forming, baking to perfection (hopefully). Bread dough is uncompromising and unpredictable. Whether we realize it or not, we must submit to the influences of our environment: heat, cold, drafts, oven temperature.
My mother [...] taught me to bake with personality. Master the basics, she would say, and then create loaves of bread; don't just bake them. Bread making is a symbol that we possess the ability to nourish not only ourselves, but those we love. My mother used to say that you could always tell homemade loaves of bread because they looked as though they were baked by someone who cared."
She sums it up beautifully.