Let’s talk about yeast, my friends. It’s absolutely fascinating stuff, when you think about it. We all know that without yeast there would be no bread, and no beer, but did you know that yeast was the first eukaryote to have its genome sequenced as part of the Genome Project? It’s also being used to help clean up the environment – the yeast eats up nasty chemicals that leach into the soil. Pretty heady stuff for a simple one-celled fungus!
Well, this weekend I did not spend any time sequencing genomes, nor did I attempt any bioremediation with the instant yeast in my fridge. I did, however, make several kinds of bread that I’d like to share with you.
The first was a monkey bread for my nephew’s third birthday. Monkey bread is forbidden in our household, so I really only make it once a year for this event. Essentially yeasted rolls dipped in butter and sugar and then baked into a sticky, caramelly mass in a Bundt pan, it is forbidden because you simply pull apart the balls of dough and pop them into your mouth. This is rather addictive and given that monkey bread is maybe one of the most egregiously bad for you desserts in my baking arsenal it is not allowed in the house for waistline-security reasons.
Some people will tell you that you can make monkey bread with Pillsbury Rolls from a can. These people are wrong. I think that the true appeal of the monkey bread is that, underneath all that butter and sugar is a beautiful, hardly-sweetened yeast bread. Yeast makes bread rise, of course, but it also imparts its own wonderful flavor to a baked good, a warm mustiness that cuts through the sweetness of whatever the treat is and adds depth. It seems a shame to lose that in favor of convenience.
Next we made pizza! This is another place where people will go out to the store to buy dough, and I just don’t understand. It’s incredibly easy to make your own dough, and even easier if you have a food processor. Since it only takes an hour to rise, even time isn’t so much of a consideration. The etymology of the word yeast comes from a word meaning “to boil, to bubble over.” In On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee notes that “this derivation underlines the way in which fermentation seemed to be a kind of cooking of the cereal gruel, a transformation from within.” Watching your homemade pizza dough go from this tiny, tight little ball to a great shaggy mass is a fine first hand experience of that transformation. In addition I think this weekend we made one of our most beautiful pizzas yet!
Simultaneous to the pizza cooking I decided to make some wheat bread in the bread machine to have the following morning. I have a friend who makes gorgeous artisan loaves at home, and it always makes me feel a bit guilty about the bread machine. Certainly you don’t get the same kind of bread out of it – it’s quite uniform and dull, and necessarily cannot have the beautiful shiny crust of a well-baked bread in the oven. However, I can have wheat bread cooking at the same time as a pizza that requires a 500-degree oven, and it makes perfectly lovely toast for breakfast. This winter I do hope to spend a bit more time on bread from the oven.
Alas, I don’t seem to have a picture of the bread! Half white, half wheat, it has a lovely airyness due to the yeast – the little fungus lightens and tenderizes baked goods by eating up the sugars in the dough and expelling carbon dioxide, making the bubbles that you see as the holes in your bread. A tiny bit of extra sugar makes the yeast go wild and makes very light bread, but a large amount of sugar decreases activity, which is why a sweet bread like a cinnamon bun is more dense than sandwich bread.
It was nice to get back to harnessing the power of yeast – in the summer I don’t use it nearly as much. I hope to use it again soon to make bagels, and perhaps return to brewing beer. What have you been making with yeast lately?