I've never used a bread machine so I want to make sure my understanding is correct: basically you add all the ingredients and it, mixes, kneads, proofs and bakes without being touched again?
First of all any home baked bread beats the hell out of store bought and I have tasted really good bread made in a machine.
I would recommend the book I tested in the podcast thread I posted here, Bread Illustrated by America's Test Kitchen as well as Peter Reinhart's Bread Baker's Apprentice. The reason is that both books explain the theory and practicalities behind the procedures. Even though the recipes are not formulated for machines you strike me as the type of person capable of adapting the recipes when given the science behind the recipes.
The most important thing about making good bread is the same as making good beer: manipulating the timing and temperature of fermentation. I assume that sometimes you would like to get some fermented flavor in the bread. Since my impression is that the machine kind of goes ahead and makes the bread pretty quickly I would look into using pre ferments as a portion of your recipe. You can find recipes that use bigas or pate fermente (relatively dry, maybe 60% hydration, doughs that are allowed to ferment for a day or more) and sponges (wet pre ferments) as well as sourdough starters. All of these will go a long way in making your bread more tasty and also easier to digest. I try to keep a batch of my favorite pizza dough recipe portioned out in my freezer. I can thaw a piece out , cut it into pieces and use it as pate fermente.
I also wonder if it's possible to remove the dough before it bakes. Simply putting it in the fridge overnight will add fermented flavor.
You pretty much have it right-on with how a bread machine works. You simply add the ingredients in the correct order for that particular machine (mine is wet first, the dry, then yeast added to a pocket in the dry ingredients), and the machine handles the mixing, proofing, kneading and baking from there. There is also an alarm that goes off at the time where you'd add in nuts, fruit, chocolate chips, etc. My machine has 8 different bread settings (plus 2 for dough), 3 different loaf sizes, and 3 different crust darkness settings. So while a lot of the steps are out of your control, you do have a little room for customization.
Thanks for the tips. I'll have to look into those books. You're right that I'm more interested in the "whys" rather than simply the "hows". Much like beer, I want the tools to be able to design and adapt my own recipes for my process, so I can get my ideas from my brain into a finished loaf.
And, aside from the dough settings, the machine can be opened at any point (i.e., to add extra water or flour in the kneading process if the dough is looking to wet/dry), so I can remove the dough at any stage in the process if I want. A baguette pan is probably my next purchase, so I can make smaller loaves, and ones shaped like something other than a large cube.