Sunday, May 6, 2012

Winning the Yeast Wars

The first time I tried making bread was perhaps when I was about fifteen. With my sister, I would sit with a recipe book of my mothers' and attempt to make many strange things, many of which were not only edible, but made it into the permanent 'special occasion' menus of the old homestead. However, bread eluded us. Each attempt was an epic failure. They would come out looking beautiful and round and golden; but they were literally gal banis (rock hard buns). You could only eat them when they were hot out of the oven, and even then, they were very dense. 

I wondered how bakeries did it. We blamed it on poor quality yeast. On low temperatures. On hot temperatures. But we never got it right. Strangely, when used for pizza, the bread was fine. Sure, it was slightly dense, but we got a rise out of it (no pun intended). 

Then I moved to New York for an year, and for an year, I researched bread. In between the other things I was supposed to be doing there, I watched so many cooking shows that I  learnt a lot more in that year than over ten years of trying to make bread from a book. Thats when I learnt about the punch test, and the window pane test. That you have to be gentle with the yeast, that you have to gently coax it to rise, to breathe, to literally give you melt-in-your-mouth delicious bread. 

But the man I really have to thank for helping me defeat Yeast, once and for all, was Sanjay Thumma. Seriously. His recipes are AMAZING. I used his recipe for dinner rolls (which you can find here), and they came out perfect. I filled them with a fish, onion, curry powder and potato mix, which we Sri Lankans call maalu paang (or fish buns), and my husband gulped three of them down hot out of the oven. 

One tip for making bread, is to knead properly. While you are highly unlikely to over-knead if you knead by hand, you are VERY likely to under-knead, which will result in gal banis. Believe me, I know, I made those for ten years. My tips;

1. The key is to test the dough after kneading for ten minutes. Do the punch test (i.e when you stick a finger in the dough, it should not spring back immediately), and the window pane test (i.e. when you stretch a bit of dough between your fingers, it should stretch, allowing the light to come through, but not breaking.

2. Be Gentle. Don't punch down the dough after resting it as if you are punching your last ex boyfriend.  Just gently let the air out with your fist. Be gentle. You want the yeast alive and kicking, not bruised and half dead.

3. Hot oven. If the recipe says 225 deg. celsius, it says that for a reason. You need a hot oven to allow the yeast to rise properly before it dies ( I think). Anyway, if your oven is not hot enough, your buns will be a flop. Really. Invest in an oven thermometer if yours is not accurate.

Thats it folks. This is truly a recipe to try. Happy cooking!

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