The winner ... Panasonic SD-2501 bread maker.
Never judge a book by its cover - or bread by its appearance. The first loaf I pulled from the Panasonic was tall, proud and boasted a lovely golden crust. Then it collapsed like a sorry blancmange, teaching me an invaluable lesson: "bread improver" can be a bread ruiner in the hands of the overzealous. And, as with first impressions of said loaf, so it is with the SD-2501. It's an unassuming, white-plastic affair next to the Breville's brushed metal yet offers much the same: automatic fruit and nut dispenser, rapid-bake mode and the ability to make jams in less than 90 minutes. It does so without sounding like Vesuvius giving off a warning rumble, too, and, like the Breville, has a timer to ensure you awaken to a fresh, piping loaf.
Breville Custom Loaf Pro
Once you add up ingredient costs, baking time and cleaning, you might wonder why you don't nip to the bakery. Yet the aroma as your loaf nears completion and the ability to get creative have their appeal. Certainly you can go nuts (or seeds or fruit) with this, which comes with an instruction book that's as much bible or thesis. It will get you baking breads you've never heard of and goes into fine detail about ingredients; it even, as step 14 of its 15-step Beginner's Guide, reminds you to "Slice the Bread", in case you were thinking of devouring it in one. A hefty steel unit, it's not exactly quiet - banging out African drum rhythms at times - but it boasts dexterity, too, such as the ability to pause baking so you can mould or decorate your bread.
And the winner is ... the uber-keen can find more to fiddle with in the Custom Loaf Pro but the unassuming SD-2501, with its smaller footprint, softer hum and impressive results, takes the chequered flag.