Thursday 21 November 2013

Foundations no.9 - Using Yeast

When you first saw my Butterkuchen post, did the yeast put you off?

I know several accomplished bakers who shy away from it and as it was also mentioned a few times in my survey, I thought I would write a post trying to demystify using yeast. I'm not an expert at bread making but I do like making enriched breads and, as you can see in my successive Hot Cross Bun posts, I've increased in confidence over the years.

There are several types of yeast you might come across: dried (often called active dry), instant, fresh (a.k.a. cake/compressed) and sourdough starters. For the sweet bread baking I do, I use instant or fresh.

Instant yeast is generally easy to find. You can get it in sachets (often 7g or around 2 teaspoons) or bigger packs. I prefer instant to active dried yeast as you can mix it straight into the ingredients (dried yeast needs activating, usually by mixing it with warm liquids and leaving it for a bit). Instant yeast is formed into lots of tiny rod shapes (as you can see in the photo above) to give a big surface area, which means the yeast starts working quickly once it comes into contact with liquid.

Sometimes the packets have other ingredients - emulsifiers are relatively common, as is the addition of ascorbic acid (a.k.a. vitamin C - some say it increases the rise and/or helps create consistent results, I imagine partly because the optimum pH for yeast fermentation is slightly acidic).

{The photo series below shows a batch of dough rising in my relatively cold kitchen a few days ago - the number in the corner refers to the number of minutes.}

In Switzerland you can buy fresh yeast in the chiller cabinet in supermarkets - even the small ones. It's harder to find in the UK. Bakeries will sometimes give or sell you a small amount but it can be a struggle to find somewhere that bakes on site (surprisingly, one of the best bets is the bakery in a big supermarket). You can also get it online from the Bertinet Kitchen Bakery (they also sell via amazon) - it's delivered in temperature-controlled packaging and I was really pleased with the batch I received last week. It's often sold in small blocks of 42g (you can see one on the right in the top photo). Generally I crumble it into the wet ingredients but it can also be added straight into the dough.

One of my favourite things about working with yeast is the way my hands smell after I've crumbled fresh yeast into the bowl.

To convert a recipe from instant yeast to fresh, triple the quantity (i.e. 7g instant = 21g fresh). Essentially, 10g fresh = 4g active dry = 3.3g instant.

Yeast is a single-celled fungus. There are many species of yeast - the one we use for brewing and baking is called Saccharomyces cerevisae.

Yeast metabolizes sugar in the dough to produce energy for itself. This anaerobic reaction creates carbon dioxide and alcohol:

The carbon dioxide gas is trapped by the dough and inflates it. When you put the dough in the oven the alcohol evaporates - becomes a gas - and therefore also expands, adding to the early rise called oven spring.

This occurs even in a dough where sugar is not added as an ingredient because enzymes in the dough (such as amylase, which we also have in our digestive system) work on the starch, breaking it down into glucose.

Generally, the idea is to use as little yeast as possible to get the rise - a slow rise gives better flavour, partly because of other flavour molecules that develop during fermentation. This is why many recipes call for the first rise to occur overnight in the fridge or use a pre-ferment. If the recipe doesn't tell you to rise the dough overnight and you decide to, you can reduce the amount of yeast (I'd go for half or a third).

Yeast will work fastest at around 38C/100F, but this won't necessarily give you the best result. If you want a quick rise then a temperature of around 26C/80F (a warm place/airing cupboard, perhaps) is convenient - otherwise go for room temperature (usually around 21C/70F) or the fridge.

I've also heard that you can freeze fresh yeast in small pieces to improve the length of time you can keep it. I froze some a few days ago but I haven't tried using it yet so I can't verify it personally. We've always kept fresh yeast in the fridge for 2-3 weeks and dried yeast in the cupboard.

As you can see in the photos, dough can take a bit of time to get going - be patient. It may take longer than the recipe states. The more enriched the dough, the slower the rise is likely to be. Spices (especially cinnamon) can also slow the fermentation - which is why cinnamon rolls usually have the spices in the buttery filling.

So, overall, the three things most likely to cause problems are:

Yeast is a living organism and so, at temperature extremes, it will die (like you or I). The main time this is a danger with enriched breads is if you're scalding milk, melting butter or heating something similar just before you add it to the dough - you need to make sure it cools down (transferring it to a metal bowl and putting it in the fridge will speed it up). I go for body temperature.

Too much salt or salt that gets directly into contact with the yeast will also cause problems. The key with most recipes is to stir the salt into the dry ingredients before you add the yeast so that the salt is distributed through the flour (so you don't spoon the yeast directly on top of the salt you've just tipped into the bowl). You can also add them to different sides of the bowl.

If your yeast is out of date, hasn't been used in time or hasn't been stored correctly, it probably won't work. Check the packet date and the amount of time you can use it after opening (for instance, a packet of instant I have states that the sachet must be used within 48 hours of opening). Fresh yeast should be a pale creamy colour, ever-so-slightly damp and smell nice.


This is the ninth post in my Foundations series, which explains techniques like making meringue (part one, part two) and brown butter.

Four recipes that use yeast:
Cinnamon Cardamon Kringel Bread
Blueberry Braided Bread

Thursday 14 November 2013

Pear & Caramel Pudding Cake

In the middle of making this cake for the first time, my mum's Kenwood Major died.

It was eighteen years old, bought when I was six. Mum taught me to bake with it. I can't begin to count the number of memories it features in.

It had been going slowly wrong for the past year or so, and finally gave up as I scraped down the sides of the bowl, declining to turn on again to finish creaming the butter and sugar. It went without a whimper or a bang, quietly, in great contrast to the racket it had started to make whenever you managed to twist and push the dial just so to make it turn on.

A few days before the mixer's demise, I came across this caramel apple cake. As I hadn't made anything with pears this autumn I decided to try making a upside down caramel pear cake. That recipe and most other similar cakes I've seen start with a brown sugar mixture on the bottom. I wanted to make one with proper caramel, lightly salted - a sort of tarte tatin/cake hybrid.

I adapted the cake mixture from my Pear and Chocolate Loaf as it's one of my favourites and I already knew it went well with pears. I tried three different types of pear: Bosc, Conference and Comice. Bosc was the best.

Despite the emotional loss of the mixer (and having to do the rest by hand), the first cake came out beautifully.

But then can you really go wrong with buttery salted caramel, tender pears, fluffy cake, caramelised edges and a spoonful or two of thick crème fraîche?

Finally, a quick little guide to fully lining a tin. I rarely think it's necessary to fully line (usually it's just the Christmas cake and similar things) but for this cake I wanted to make sure the caramel didn't leak out.

1.   Take your tin apart and roll out some baking parchment. Use a pencil to draw around the bottom circle of the tin. Cut it out.

2.   Align the side part of your tin with the edge of your roll of parchment paper. Roll the tin along the paper until you have a small overlap then mark the spot.

3.   Cut a strip of paper that's a bit wider than the height of your tin up to the mark - for this, mine was about 4"/10cm wide as my tin is 3"/7.5cm. On the edge that was the outside of the roll (as this is always straight) cut little slits into the paper that are about 0.5-0.75"/1.5-2cm deep all the way along.

4.   Flatten the paper and fold the tabs formed by the slits up on the side that was outwards on the roll (if the paper is put in the same way as it was rolled, it curls inwards). Curl it into the tin so that the tabs are flat on the bottom, then secure it with the circular middle.

Pear & Caramel Pudding Cake

For the top:
100g caster or granulated sugar
30g double cream
2 pinches fine sea salt
2 pears, just ripe, preferably Bosc

For the cake:
125g unsalted butter, room temperature
75g caster sugar
50g soft brown sugar
2 eggs
135g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch of fine sea salt
2 tbsp unsweetened plain yogurt (or milk)

Preheat the oven to 190C/375F. Fully line an 8"/20cm* tin (as above).

Sprinkle the sugar evenly over the bottom of a large, thick-bottomed pan. Turn the heat up to medium-high and watch carefully - after a few minutes, the sugar will start to liquify at the edges. Don't stir it - you can flick some of the crystals onto a liquid bit, but don't fiddle too much. Once it's nearly all melted and starts to caramelise, swirl it all together. Keep heating until you have a deep golden-bronze colour. Turn off the heat and stir in the cream and sea salt. Quickly scrape into the case and spread out carefully so that it covers as much of the base as possible. It will become hard once it has cooled.

Peel the pears, then chop in quarters and core. Slice each quarter into three. Arrange on top of the hard caramel in a fan shape.

Cream the butter and two sugars together until pale and fluffy, scraping down occasionally - this takes about 5 minutes. Beat the eggs together in a jug. Weigh the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. When fully creamed, start adding the eggs, bit by bit, beating all the time (I keep mine on 6 on my KA). About half way through adding the egg, add a tsp of flour, then again towards the end, scraping down each time. Sieve the flour bowl into the mixer bowl then mix together on a low speed. When it has come together, add the yogurt and mix until combined.

Dollop the cake mixture on top of the pears then spread out into an even layer - it won't seem like much mixture but it's fine. Bake for 20-26 minutes until deep golden brown and a toothpick or tester can be removed cleanly from the middle. Place on a wire rack to cool for 10 minutes then remove the side of the tin and the side paper. Flip onto a serving plate and remove the bottom part of the tin and the paper.

I think this cake is much better when warm or hot, so I recommend either eating it immediately or reheating it just before. Best on the day it's made, keeps two days overall. Serve with crème fraîche.

(Serves around 6-8)

Edit 24/10/15: I've changed the caramel to a cream caramel which solves the problems some were having in the comments below (which means the photo above is incorrect for the recipe, sorry). I've also changed the milk for yogurt in the cake.

*I've also started making this in a 9" tin - either is fine, though 9" tends to cook in more like 20 minutes.

Three more posts that involve making caramel:
Salted Caramel Brownies
Choco-Caramel Sundae Sauce
Cider Caramel, Sautéed Apples & Cinnamon Ice Cream

Thursday 7 November 2013


Butterkuchen means 'Butter Cake' in German. It's part of a family of sheet cakes (called Blechkuchen) that are often made with yeasted dough. This is one of the simplest.

More poignantly, Butterkuchen is also called Freud-und-Leid-Kuchen or 'Joy and Sorrow Cake' because it is often served at weddings and funerals in North Germany. I think the name shows beautifully how entwined food is with our celebrations, our emotions and our lives.

When I decided to make a Butterkuchen I wasn't sure where to start. If I'm looking at making a recipe where I either have no idea who to trust or there are so many authoritative recipes that I don't know where to begin, I turn to a method I developed a few years ago for choux pastry.

First, I found six recipes, three in English and three in German: One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six.

I then typed each ingredient into a spreadsheet, making conversions and translations as I went. From there I divided each ingredient weight by the flour weight in each recipe (i.e., for no.1 below, sugar was 30/250 = 0.12) so that I had a ratio (I sometimes use eggs as the starting point too). This means I can directly compare the proportions in each recipe.

Instead of working out the average proportion for each ingredient I tend to have a look and decide on a sensible value, taking into account my general preferences and outliers. For instance, with the sugar for the dough, I chose 0.1 after looking at 0.12, 0.28, 0.11, 0.12, 0.12 and 0.1, as I tend to err on the side of less sugar and 0.28 seemed out of line.

I then decided on a size for the recipe based on the ingredient I started with (i.e. flour). For this one I chose to make a small sheet, as it's much better when it's fresh and warm from the oven, so I went for 250g of flour. I then multiplied up the remaining ingredients (i.e, for the sugar, 0.1 x 250 = 25g).

Finally, I work out a method from comparing the recipes and my experience with similar recipes. I then adjust the ingredients and method if needed as I test. This one worked perfectly the first time, so I just tested it twice again to check it was consistent.

A few of the recipes I found included cinnamon in the topping but I decided to focus on the butter, almonds and vanilla. Vanilla is often included in the recipes as vanilla sugar sachets but I was in a luxurious mood and decided to rub the seeds from half a vanilla bean into the sugar for the topping. I think it's worth it - the flavour and smell is wonderful and the flecks look very pretty in the sugar crust.

This is a really enjoyable recipe to make. There's something incredibly satisfying about poking the holes in the soft dough and then filling all of the dents with the little chunks of butter. It's also absolutely delicious - buttery, crisp, crunchy, nutty and almost like a doughnut.

(created as explained above)

For the dough:
125ml whole milk
50g unsalted butter
250g plain flour
25g caster sugar
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
1 1/4 tsp fast action dried yeast
1 egg

For the topping:
60g white caster sugar
1/2 vanilla pod*
75g unsalted butter
60g flaked almonds

Put the milk and butter into a small pan and heat until the butter has melted and the milk is steaming. Pour into a bowl (preferably metal) and place in the fridge or freezer to cool. Once the milk has cooled to warm, whisk the flour, sugar and salt together in the bowl of a stand mixer. Sprinkle in the yeast and whisk in. Lightly beat the egg then add it and the milk to the bowl. Stir until the dough comes together. Attach the dough hook and knead for 4 minutes - by the end, the dough should be smooth and elastic. It's very sticky at this point but don't worry. Cover with cling film or a clean tea towel and leave to rise in a warm, draft-free place until the dough has doubled (about 45-60 minutes).

Dust a work surface with flour then tip the dough out onto it. Dust the top with flour then roll out to an even rectangle of about 28 x 20cm (11 x 8"). Transfer to a greased, rimmed baking sheet. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rise for about 20-30 minutes - it won't rise a huge amount, but when it's ready a poke should leave a clear indent.

Preheat the oven to 200C/390F. Weigh out the sugar into a small bowl. Split the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the bowl. Rub the seeds into the sugar until they're evenly distributed. Cut the butter up into tiny cubes. When the dough is ready use a finger to poke lots of dents in the dough (pushing down to the bottom but not making a hole - see picture above) - you may need to dip your finger in the sugar if it starts sticking to the dough. Place a small cube of butter in each of the dents. Sprinkle the dough evenly with the vanilla sugar, then the almonds.

Bake for about 17-20 minutes, turning at 10 minutes, until the dough has risen, bronzed and the almonds are golden-brown all over and caramelising. There might be butter in the tray - don't worry. Once it has cooled a little, you should be able to tap it and get a hollow sound. Leave to cool until warm, then slice up. Best eaten while still warm or very fresh. You can freeze it and reheat it but it's not quite the same.

(Makes one slab, about 12 slices)

*You could use vanilla sugar instead, though I love the way the seeds look and the amount of flavour they give. You can make a batch of vanilla sugar from the scraped pod when you make this and use it next time (or for something else, of course). If you don't have vanilla sugar or a pod, you could add 1 tsp of vanilla paste, or failing that, extract, to the dough, though it won't have the same effect.

(Updated 20/07/15)

Three more recipes for sweet yeasted breads:
2011: Super Chocolate Cinnamon Rolls
2012: Chelsea Buns
2013: Cinnamon Cardamon Kringel Bread