Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Using Up a Pound of Cake Yeast

Cake Yeast?  In 2012?  Who uses this stuff?  The majority of bread cookbooks and recipes call for dried yeast of some kind or another, and much of what I've read seems to suggest that one cannot taste the difference between breads baked with with dried yeast and those baked with cake, or fresh, yeast.  I think there is a difference, but I could just be wishing it were so.

I have puzzled about all the fuss against using cake yeast.  Yes, it is more perishable than dried yeast, but is there any reason aside from convenience that should compel anyone to always choose dried over fresh?   Is so, why do some bakeries (keep reading) sill use fresh yeast by the pound instead of the dried?  

For one thing, when handling a lump of cake yeast,  the feel of this stuff is quite unlike any other cooking ingredient that I can call to mind.  Sort of a plasticity, with a velvety texture that crumbles when pressed.  When absolutely fresh, it has its own version of yeasty sweetness. For another, it holds on stubbornly to its very life.  I have successfully defrosted leftover two-ounce lumps of yeast from frozen and watched it do its magic.  I think the aroma is lessened, but the rising qualities are not lost. So the whole reason for this post is to see just how long cake yeast can be used from time of purchase.

Over the years, I have mostly baked with dried yeast, with occasional forays into using a starter instead of commercial yeast.  Since I bake regularly, it made more sense to buy it large quantities rather than the little packets.  I purchase it by the pound - actually, two one-pound bags -at Sam's Club or Costco, or in bulk quantities from a natural foods store.  Once the vacuum seal on the foil bag is broken, I store the powdery granules in an old coffee can in the freezer.  One pound lasts a long, long time, as I seldom need more than two teaspoons per six cups of flour.  Bread rises fast and well in my kitchen due to frequent baking, so I have used dried yeast that is still viable after two years in the freezer. 
Pilewskie kitchen circa Holy Saturday, 1981
However, I am a slave to the use of cake yeast when baking Polish Sweet Bread, our traditional family recipe passed from Grandpa to Grandma to Dad to the rest of us.*  Come Holy Saturday (the day before Easter) or Christmas Eve, Dad would buy a pound of the stuff for baking dozens of rolls and many loaves of bread.  The house smelled incredible on those special bread-baking days.  Dad never substituted dried yeast for fresh, but at some point or another, I tried.  The dough rose fine, but that fragrance was just missing from the house and the essence of what makes this particular dough special was not there.

Since Dad didn't use a kitchen scale, I am not really sure how he measured it other than by cutting it into eighths to approximate 2 -ounce blocks, which is what I did before getting my own scale. In earlier years, Dad just bought the little foil-wrapped Fleischmann's yeast.  The little squares weighed .6 oz. and the bigger blocks of yeast were 2 oz.  Grandma's notes in her recipe for the Sweet Bread (using 18 cups of flour!) were a bit vague, as she said, "you can always use more yeast" when baking this.  Kind of going by a rule of thumb of "one small cake of yeast for each three cups of flour", her original instructions likely called for two large (2 oz.) cakes of yeast.  Meaning, she probably used more than that.

For years, Dad doubled the recipe, baking with 10# of flour at a time.  At some point, he figured out a way to buy cake yeast in larger quantities, thus, coming home with the one pound block that looked like a pound of butter.  

After I had been baking Sweet Bread on my own for a while, I began to have trouble finding the cake yeast.  Not all supermarkets carried the little fresh yeast cakes, and when I could find them, they often looked questionably past their freshness date.  At some point, Dad shared his secret: go to a doughnut shop or old-fashioned bakery and ask to buy a pound of yeast.  He never told me which bakery he went to in Erie.

Since buying the small cakes from the grocery store could cost up to $4.00 per large batch of bread and rolls, I was compelled to look for the one-pound size.  The small companies are more likely to sell it to you than the franchises.  Our little neighborhood bakery keeps such a tight inventory that I couldn't always count on being able to buy some from them, although they were willing if they had enough on hand.  I finally found a commercial Italian bakery in Columbus, Auddino's, that will sell me a pound of yeast for about $2.00, so I am now buying it there.  

Which finally gets me to the point of this post!  I bought one pound of fresh yeast on December 19 for my Christmas baking.  I have been giving pans of rolls- see the banner photo to this blog- as gifts for many years now, so I bake a few batches before Christmas Eve as well as one on the day.  Since I seldom need even half a pound of yeast for all my holiday baking, I am left with enough cake yeast to fuel many more loaves of bread.  Some years, I would cut it up into small chunks and freeze it. However, the sweet yeasty fragrance seems to be missing when handled this way, even though it is still usually potent.  Left in a lidded container, forgotten in the back of the fridge, the unused cake yeast usually molds over and is- ahem- very stinky and difficult to dispose of properly. (I have read that it's a friend to compost piles, so I have put it out on our pile in the backyard.)
Since late December, in between baking with Pete's Starter,  I have leavened some breads using my leftover pound of yeast in order to see how long it will be viable.  So far, as of February 5, the yeast still lives!  Coming up in the next few days will be the results of Sunday's baking, and my posts for January 8th, January 22nd, January 23rd, January 29th, and January 31st all document success using the cake yeast. 
It has been helpful to bake weekly with the fresh yeast.  I now know that, once mashed into some tepid water and left to sit for a few minutes, the yeast slurry can just be whisked into the rest of of the wet ingredients without any other fuss. However, as the yeast is now over seven weeks old, I am less sure of its viability, so for the last few bakings I add a 1/4 tsp. or so of sugar to the yeast and water mix just to check for viability.  So far, so good.  The diminishing chunks and crumbles of the cake of yeast are in a little plastic tub, tightly lidded.  As the yeast ages, it is losing its sweetish smell, but it is not yet offensive.  The texture is still nice, and there is no mold. 
So, I am planning one more test while I still can with this batch of yeast.  I want to mix up a one-loaf recipe of basic Italian bread (flour, water, yeast, salt) with the cake yeast, and one loaf with dried yeast and bake them side-by-side.  I want to compare rising times and loaf sizes along with taste. At last, maybe my curiosity will be satisfied:  what's "better", fresh or dried yeast? 
Still confused?  For an excellent description of the different types of yeast, read here.

* I'll write more about this later when I bake for Easter. 

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