In a speeded-up world, where byways became highways and dial-up gave way to DSL, it's no surprise that yeast had to speed up, too.
In 1859, Louis Pasteur discovered the fermentation process by which yeast, a living microorganism, makes bread rise: (1) the yeast feeds on the starches in flour, producing carbon dioxide; (2) the carbon dioxide expands the flour's gluten proteins, which in turn (3) cause the dough, whose main ingredient is flour, to expand and rise.
Eight years later, brothers Charles and Max Fleischmann, who had immigrated to the US from Austria-Hungary, decided to market the breads they remembered from home, but knew they'd need a more reliable starter in order to mass produce their product. Together with James Gaff, who provided the financial backing, the brothers built a yeast plant in Cincinnati. In 1876, at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition, they introduced fresh (compressed) yeast at their concession stand, called "The Vienna Bakery."
Fleischmann's developed active dry yeast during World War II, and it's the most popular form of yeast sold today. Dry yeast is fresh yeast that has been pressed and dried until the moisture content is approximately 8 percent, which makes the yeast dormant. Dry yeast has a much longer shelf life than fresh, and does not need to be refrigerated, making it ideal for the less-than-ideal circumstances of preparing meals for soldiers in the field.
In 1984, Fleischmann's introduced RapidRise, a highly active, finer grain of yeast that cuts the rising time by up to 50 percent, so that in most cases, dough will only need one rising. There is some loss of flavor and texture compared to results when yeast is allowed to develop on its natural timetable, but in most cases (especially if the dough is sweetened or flavored), the difference is acceptable.
Use dry active and RapidRise yeast interchangeably in most recipes. Although many recipes call for the yeast to be "proofed" (dissolved in warm water until it starts to get foamy and bubbly), this really isn't necessary as long as the yeast has not passed the expiration date marked on the packet.
If you've had a fear of yeast — will I kill it? will my bread collapse? — now's the time to give yeast a chance. You'll be enjoying your own home-baked cinnamon buns, pita bread, English muffins and coffee cake in no time.
Last December, Ellen, who runs our local yoga center, gave me a lovely gift of five small cookbooks published in 1927 by Woman's World Magazine Co. of Chicago. This recipe is from Cakes and Desserts: Being a collection of 150 tested recipes for home cookery, arranged by months. Olykoeks (usually seen as one word, though in the cookbook it's two words), meaning "oily cakes", are a Dutch creation, the precursor of our modern doughnut. Here's the original recipe; the notations in brackets are mine.
2 cups milk
1 compressed yeast cake [or 1 package dry active yeast]
2/3 cup shortening
1-1/2 cups sugar
About 7 cups flour [all-purpose flour]
1 tsp salt
Frying fat [grapeseed, canola, or rice bran oil]
[Confectioner's sugar for rolling the baked oly koeks]
Scald the milk and cool it until lukewarm. Dissolve the yeast in a half cup of the milk, add a Tbsp of flour, and set aside in a warm place for 20 minutes. Meanwhile cream the shortening and sugar until light, add the eggs, well beaten, then the dissolved yeast the remaining milk (lukewarm) alternatively with the flour and salt sifted together. Knead to a light dough and set aside to rise for about four hours, or until doubled in bulk. Turn onto a well-floured board, roll out one-third inch thick, cut into rounds with a large cutter and put one or two raisins and a teaspoon of brown sugar into the center of each round. Wet the edges and gather the dough up round the filling, being careful to pinch the edges firmly together. Cover and set aside to rise until light —about three-quarters of an hour, then cook until golden brown in frying fat hot enough to brown a piece of bread in one minute, or if using a frying thermometer this should register 350 degrees. When cold, roll each Oly Koek in confectioner's sugar.
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