Bread ~ The Yeast Is A Tricky Beast

What is it about Bread, the staff of life??? Allegedly, it was a grain shortage which started the Syrian conflict, which beget the great migration into Europe. Have to have our daily bread….it’s in our prayers. Yet, bread has been a sore spot for me, my entire life. I can’t make bread….. just ask my Mother-In-Law. In the USA, when bad weather hits, we all run to the store for bread and milk. During the south’s latest snowstorm, grocery store shelves were empty for an extended period as restocking supplies was not an option. We were on our own. Time to make my own bread.

I have attempted to make bread many times but had an irrational fear of the process, for just cause. It was one skill I could NOT master. My bread-making efforts were sometimes terrific, other times, a total flop. For me, the yeast was a tricky beast.

In my early 20’s, I found a recipe for scratch pizza dough, with recommendations for toppings and sauce. The first time I made it, we entered pizza nirvana. It was spectacular, truly, one of the best meals of my lifetime. A healthy adult could only eat one piece. Yet, I made it again for friends and it was a disaster. Bummer, not a reliable outcome for me. That recipe remained on a shelf for two decades. Sad face…..

When I developed a relationship with my future mother-in-law, she tried to cure the problem of my bread-making. By that time, I was a fairly good cook when it came to ANYTHING ELSE, but she was a Goddess when it came to bread and rolls. She explained, the trick was in allowing the yeast to “foam” before proceeding with remainder of ingredients, thus ensuring a positive outcome. As in, place a cup of water in a glass measuring cup, microwave for a minute, check temp to make sure you’re at about 110-115 degrees, add a tablespoon of sugar to ACTIVATE/FEED the yeast, and then add the yeast granules. Let it sit for about 10 minutes to “foam”.

I recall MIL looking at me as if I was silly, or raised in a cave by wolves. How could I not know “the trick”? I was angry, frustrated for years, because I didn’t know the “secret”. Yet, how could I go from a “wolf cub” to a “Bread Goddess” in a single day? I was still intimidated…. but determined.

The day Mother-In-Law came to the little house to teach me how to make bread was more like an appointment, a house call, with an expert physician. I spent hours scrubbing the kitchen, cleaning, waiting on her arrival. She arrived on time, a little before noon. There I was, implements all laid out, an assortment of bowls, ready to assist in the “surgery”. Well, she was there for about 20 minutes, told me about the “foam”, a flurry of arm movements with flour flying …..a big mound of dough in the biggest bowl I had…. and she was gone…… off for lunch with her girlfriends. All that, in about 20 minutes.

She returned later, I don’t think I had moved….. I was watching the bread rise…..like I was waiting for an epiphany…. She was happy from her luncheon. She wrestled with the dough, “punching” it, slapping it around, wound it around to make “happy little oblong balls” and tossed it into greased bread pans. “I’ll be back….”, she said. And there I sat, watching the bread rise, again. She returned, into the oven they went, and the unmistakable aroma of fresh bread took over the whole house.

The end product was fabulous.

I was encouraged with MIL’s visit and purchased more bread pans, unusual flours, I was determined to learn how to make bread. First effort…… total fail. Second effort……… total fail…… Soon, we bought the big house, moved, and I was consumed with a larger effort. The exotic flours ended up in the garbage and the gorgeous bread pans …. on a high shelf in the new kitchen… collecting dust.

Over the years, MIL made the family yeast rolls and bread……. as she explained,….. “Daughn’s a great cook, but she just can’t make bread…… poor dear…..” She always added the “poor dear” at the end. I narrowed my eyes every time she said it.

Flash forward about 15yrs.

She was no longer my MIL, Big T and I were married, Gunner had been born and was about 12yrs old. Every time T talked about making bread, I grumbled. He never understood my reluctance but accepted it. But this was a Saturday morning in January, a slow time for us, and Gunner was gone for the day at a Birthday party. T had been to a garage sale that morning and came home with a big Italian cookbook from the 50’s, all about making Pizza…….. and I dug out the old pizza recipe. As an added bonus, I had kept the old baking stone from the original oven to the house. We both agreed, it would be perfect for pizza.

It was time to try again.

T was thrilled at the idea of making pizza that day. Because of my propensity for failure, we decided we would make four batches, four different efforts, to try to get ONE to turn out well. He was up for the challenge and off to the grocery store we went to shop for ingredients. We already had 100lbs of fresh marinara in the freezers so a sauce base was no problem. A basket full of groceries and $150 later, were were home again……

And the great pizza effort began….

It looked right, felt right, but would it work……. or turn into a brick? I was apprehensive.

About 5-6pm, we were ready to put them all in the oven when the phone rang. It was the mother of the Birthday Boy, in charge of the party where Gunner was for the day. She sounded completely frazzled. Apparently, all the boys wanted to spend the night and her house was not big enough for 8 young men. So….. Gunner invited them all to our house. She wanted to know if it was OKAY????? And then told me they had not eaten dinner yet, cuz she had not planned on them all staying late…….. so I would have to feed them…… She causally mentioned, “I suppose you could just order pizzas for them all.” I was fairly insulted the birthday party for her son was pushed off to me and at least a $100 worth of pizzas would be required. Yet, Gunner volunteered.

I said a prayer to the Pizza God…….. please let this pizza work…..

And the boys showed up, and the pizza worked……. We rolled out steaming pizzas from the oven, one after the other, all different….. to their delight. Boys peering in the oven…. awaiting tasty goodness…..surreal…. Best pizza they had ever had……. “Never had “fresh” pizza like that before Miss D”, and it was a success. BUT – I wasn’t convinced. Was I just lucky? OR, had I finally beaten the Yeast Beast?

I invited them all back the next weekend to see if we could replicate the pizzas, and only then would regard my skill as “somewhat reliable”. I explained it as if it was akin to a science experiment. The boys made requests for their favorite toppings and we would meet again, next weekend…… which made their presence at our house for a sleepover somewhat more important when they asked their parents if they could come. A few of the Moms even called me, “You’re going to try making pizza???? Why?????”

It worked. The Yeast Beast was cast asunder. I felt silly and stupid for missing out on so many great things for the past decades because of simple skill I could not master. I was free……., free at last.

Thus, when the snow hit Texas and extended to Mississippi this February, I didn’t have the heart to take the LAST LOAF of bread from the grocery shelf. I decided to come home and make bread….. once again.

And I did.

A couple of the loaves were shorter than others….. Was it the last vestiges of the Yeast Beast haunting me or did I simply not apportion the dough equally?

With all the snow that week, the entire business world was stuck on stop. We even had postal employees staying with us …..cuz…… neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow….. meant the USPS had to work…. and they could walk to the post office from our house. Yet, in this snowstorm, once in a century, no trucks brought mail…. there was NO mail to deliver. We were all stranded, together.

And so, the 28 quarts of beef stew and 9 huge loaves of homemade bread had to stretch for a few days, as day after day, bathroom after bathroom froze and went down…. We finally made it through, happy and healthy…. and humbled.

During that “emergency” I began to run out of eggs for breakfast. I found a recipe for French Toast, advertised as “the best French Toast recipe”. Yeah, right……., but I was desperate to feed hungry people with ingredients I had remaining. Well, that French Toast recipe turned into a major winner. People who stayed here left reviews for our B&B began to comment on it and then, new guests requested it. Problem was, it wasn’t so much the recipe….. it was home made bread which was required to make it a terrific dish.

Which meant I had to make more bread. Hadn’t planned on that one…I mean, it’s an all day long kind of thing.

Gunner kept asking about the bread. Huh? He was a young male, interested in engineering, working out, and cars…. What did he care about bread? But he kept asking….

One day, Gunner came home with a load of groceries, including cartons of egg whites. He was convinced he found a recipe to make a “leaner” version of my French Toast…….. with “X” amount of protein per serving…….supremely healthy, but I HAD to make the bread.

I relented and made another big batch, filling the freezer section of one refrigerator. Gunner went through it in about a month, and he groaned when I had to use a piece or two for guests who requested the “fat version” of French Toast.

And then, we were out of bread…..

A week went by…..

“Mom, I’m out of bread.”, he said. “When are you going to make bread again?”, he was almost anxious. He got up every morning and had created a ritual, spending 10-15 minutes on his French toast. Out of “our bread”, he sputtered and spit until he finally came home with a loaf of weird looking thick sourdough bread from a bakery in Memphis. He tried using that bread one morning…… and met me in the bathroom as I came out of the shower ….. barely holding on to my towel. “Look at this”, he said. The bread was flat and sunken in the middle. Let’s just say….. negative points for visual presentation. “Taste it”, he said and shoved a piece into my mouth. It was foul. “It tastes like wet paper, doesn’t it?”, he was frowning.

“You’re gonna have to make more bread, Mom.”, he pronounced, turned and spun, back to the kitchen he went.

I narrowed my eyes. This is the kid who has eaten the same sandwich for the last 10yrs. He’s an engineer. He plans everything. He’s methodical. Does that mean I’m a bread maker for the next decade? What would he do without my bread in his own apartment/house? Donning a robe and meeting him in the kitchen, I voiced my apprehension and the need for variety in his menu. He was not impressed.

“But Mom, you can’t just buy bread like that….. I’ve looked at stores in Memphis, here, everywhere.”, he said. He added, “And the recipe is trash without good bread. I’ve tried.” He was pointing at the pan of foul bread. And then he said the magic words, “I’ll even help you move the pans.”

Ahhhhh, that’s tempting. A real joint effort? I could teach him to make his own bread. I could rationalize that part. I shifted weight to my back foot, hand on hip, and took a long look at him, “You’re going to HELP ME MAKE BREAD?”, I waited for the answer. For a brief moment, there was fear in his eyes, but he was one tough customer. “Yes, I will HELP YOU make bread.”, he said. Well, how could ANY Mom resist that one….

Later that day, he caught me in the bedroom. “I’m going to the grocery store for the supplies for the bread. Can you make me a grocery list?” He was determined and informed me he watched numerous Youtube videos on bread-making and “He knew how to do it”. So, like a spider to a fly, I made out the list and shook my head in wonderment.

Off he went; home he came.

Next morning was a Sunday. He did help, all day long, and groaned very little. He took notes, which I thought was hilarious. Understand, he came home with FOUR yeast strips/3 and 30lbs of flour. It would take 46 cups of flour and 12packs of yeast – he decided. My eyes practically fell out of my head. He had no idea how much bread that was. To knead the dough, there was no bowl big enough and we had to turn it out on to the counter. Folks, I have a 32″ deep slate counters and I could barely keep that blob from falling off to the floor. Had to go to two 24qt stainless bowls to BARELY hold the first rise……

And you should have seen him….

“Mom”, he said in his stern voice, “Grandma Norris’ recipe says the bread has to rise at 80-85 degrees and it’s too cool in the house…… I fixed it…..” He’s SUCH an engineer in these moments….. My eyes went wide… What had he done? It was a gorgeous spring day in May. The house was wide open. He turned the fireplace on in my bedroom and placed the bowls in front of the fire, sitting on the marble. “The heat will transfer through the stainless and up from the marble…”, he explained. He was satisfied….

He was impatient, however, and popped into the bedroom to “check” every 15 minutes or so. He had a timer on his cellphone, clocking the bread rise.

Second rise took almost every loaf pan I had in the house. He turned the floor warmer on for the bathroom floor to get proper temp. I could barely get to the sink to wash my hands, dodging bread pans.

Loaf after loaf went into the ovens. Every one of them came out prettier than the next. Yeast Beast was dead. We were confident.

After an all day effort, we were ready to Ziplock the bread. Gunner loaded the most of the bread into the top of one freezer section and paused there for a moment, freezer door wide open. He stood there for so long I thought the cold air would frost the hair in his nostrils but he didn’t care…. He was surveying his stash. Under his breath, barely laudable, he said…..”I feel rich.”

Now, will he make his own bread? Probably not.

Will he learn HOW to make his own bread? You betcha, if he wants more of it.

Will I make more bread? Probably so.

And then….. about a week ago, Gunner came home and asked me if I had any friends with a Sourdough starter I could get a sample of……. cuz his favorite bread was Sourdough. Apparently, he told the elder ladies at his new job about making bread and they are giving him tips…… I almost choked but responded positively. As long as he is enthralled with the idea, we will all benefit. And with the Yeast Beast defeated, it’s time to experiment a little.

10 thoughts on “Bread ~ The Yeast Is A Tricky Beast

  1. You do know what is first cousin to making bread?

    “Light of the Daughn, Fine Ales and Stouts”!

  2. By way of contrast, a little anecdote about my personal prehistory (seeing that I wasn’t born yet).

    When my parents were married and started to set up a home together, my mom (who is possibly the world’s worst cook) set out to make a beef stew with dumplings.

    She made the proto-dumplings and set them to rise, then got all of the stew into the pot. Returning to the dumplings, they were ginormous, so she hacked them into smaller pieces, then kneaded them, then set them for a second rise. The stew seemed to be going according to plan, so she got to set out dishes on the table.

    When the requisite time had passed, the dumplings had, again, grown to an exceptional size, so she cut them apart again and smushed them into a reasonable shape, then put them in the oven to bake.

    Finally, the moment came where she’d have the stew at the table, and float the dumplings on top…..but when she put them on — bloop! — they disappeared. She added a few, and they all sank to the bottom. Surprised, but carrying on, she had a ladle and served a bowl to my dad.

    Of course, my dad ate his way through it — though, in later days, he said he may have chipped a tooth on a dumpling — and declared it to be a repast fit for a king. A year and some later, I showed up, and the rest is history….but the tale is still told of my mom slaying the Dumpling Menace.

  3. Yep – your Mother in Law was absolutely right – one of the secrets of making yeast breads is ‘activating’ the yeast in warm water and a bit of sugar.

    The next secret is to not kill it with ingredients too hot or cold.

    I’ve also been known to add extra yeast to ensure a healthy rise or to mix regular yeast with ‘quick rise’ to get it pepped up and going.

    And once you knead it enough – then put it in a well greased dishpan and let it rise in a warm – not too hot – location. I usually cover the big old dishpan full of dough with another plastic greased dishpan turned upside down.

    I have a lot of wheat berries sealed in airtight bags in a plastic bin that I grind in my Kitchen-aid grinder – and keep the ground whole wheat flour in the freezer.

    I have made lots of bread, rolls, yeast bread, cinnamon rolls over the years. It’s probably my only Daughn-type ‘big cooking’, except for big pots of chili and vegetable soup. Occasionally, I’ll make a bunch of whole wheat buttermilk waffles to freeze and pop in the toaster.

    I used to make as many as 70 yeast bread coffee rings as gifts each Christmas season.
    I had 10 white plastic dishpans dedicated to hold the coffee cake dough. My coffee cakes were chewy, dense, very yeasty and gluteny. I used half bread flour, half all-purpose. Unbleached. Lots of butter, cinnamon, pecans, raisins as filling. Or alternately, butter, brown sugar, pecans. I also loved the hard to find chopped fruitcake bits and pecans as filling.

    I like chewy breads like French bread, dense and substantial like Ciabatta, whole grain wheat, and what are now called artisan breads. I hate fluffy, light bread that clings to your teeth. I buy Toufayan whole wheat pitas as my staple bread because it’s handy. Other breads, I buy in the Publix bakery.

    Don’t make much bread any more, but do have a couple of 3 packs of yeast in the pantry, one regular and one quick rise, in case the spirit moves me!

  4. Your stories are always so full and rewarding. I’m surprised yeast was ever an adversary. Thanks for another great one.

  5. Your mother-in-law should have been able to tell you what you were doing wrong since she was so good at making bread. It would have been much easier to correct that way. My mom worked in the school cafeteria (1st through 12th) grade in one school, then at Hot Shoppes (Marriott). She was a great cook.

    I am so glad you were successful – it make you feel good.

  6. DD has mastered the crusty bread making with the high gluten flour. I’m in the process of trying…… I think I need to learn to LEAVE IT ALONE!!! It’s hard, cause it’s very different from making regular bread. I like to handle the dough, knead and shape it. I’m going to make regular bread next time and experiment later.

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