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Why Make Yeast a
Forbidden Pleasure?

by Nigella Lawson

I know that baking with yeast can set even the experienced everyday cook running to the hills. Even the word itself is unattractive. So you're going to need to trust me on this: baking yeasty things is one of the great kitchen pleasures.

The feel of a smooth, springy dough bouncing to life under your fingers is both exciting and relaxing at the same time. Like a poet, a loaf of bread is somehow born, not made, and your part in that genesis is both satisfyingly practical and almost mystically collaborative.

Moreover, the whole process is seductive, even addictive.

Perhaps you feel that baking with yeast has no part in your culinary repertory or, indeed, your life. I felt like that once, too. Don't worry, don't agonize, don't prejudge; just make life easier for yourself, and bake. The barriers may be largely psychological, but the way to lower them is practical: use instant yeast, sometimes labeled rapid-rise or bread-machine yeast.

Even if the step of frothing up dried yeast in a separate bowl before you mix it into your flour is a small one, an extra procedure can still be off-putting. Dispense with it. With instant yeast, you just open the little envelope, and mix it straight in with the flour. Tell yourself you're using baking powder, and any residual fear of alien strangeness will disappear for good. Why should one rising agent be any more frightening than another?

That's the how. Now for the why.

For most of us, cooking is a necessary, often pleasurable, sometimes fraught activity; it is nearly always rushed. But baking with yeast has its own momentum. It requires time, but its demands are lyrical, peaceable. It may not be an everyday activity, but we all need sometimes to be lifted out of character, out of the everyday.

Getting supper on the table quickly makes you feel efficient. Baking a batch of soft dinner rolls makes you feel cozily competent. This may be an unfashionable virtue, but it is also a deeply satisfying one. At the risk of sounding loopily new age, I must say that baking with yeast is an almost amusingly grounding experience.

Perhaps it even introduces an inner note of smugness. The English food writer Margaret Costa once wrote that baking makes the baker "see herself in an almost biblical light as a valiant woman whose children shall rise up and call her blessed." Still, don't knock it. Right now we need those safe-making, peace-inducing virtues of the hearth.

And did I forget to mention how ludicrously easy baking with yeast is? There are big, big returns for such little effort.

Yes, it helps to have a free-standing mixer with a dough hook to do the heavy kneading work, but it's certainly not necessary, and even when I use my KitchenAid to do the bulk of the kneading, I always, always finish off with a little bit of kneading by hand myself. Therein lies the deep sensual satisfaction of the whole exercise.

And it is much easier to do than to explain. Basically, kneading is just a way of getting the dough activated. Whether you bash toughly or press out languorously is largely a matter of temperament; this I also like about baking. My way is to press the heel of my hand down into the dough, push it away and then bring it back down against the work surface. You can do it with one hand or two. (I've noticed that some like to follow this up by just throwing the dough, with force and from about chest or shoulder height, down onto the work surface. Hey, whatever works for you.)

Similarly, you must allow yourself to let the dough rise in a way that fits in with your disposition. You're not there to accommodate the yeast. That is, although the traditional way of letting a yeast dough rise is to leave it, covered, in a warm place for about an hour, I more often leave it in the refrigerator to rise very slowly overnight.

You can, in other words, make a silky ball of kuchen dough in the evening, stash it in the refrigerator and then take it out the next morning, let it come to room temperature and proceed to make a drop-dead gorgeous fruited coffeecake for a late weekend breakfast.

It's hard to do this without feeling fabulous about yourself and the world. And what have you done, really? No more than a little mixing and pressing and waiting. Would that the rest of life were this easy.

I've concentrated here on soft, easy-squeezing white doughs; I am not including any worthy "you can taste how it's doing you good" breads. No, indeed. The heady rewards this week are chocolate and pistachio whirligig buns, soft dinner rolls and rich blueberry kuchen.

Because the truth is, once you've started baking, you will want to continue. Once you feel at one with the dough, you will see how it can be accommodated into your life. You can make the dough for the dinner rolls in the daytime, refrigerate it and then, when your friends come for supper on Saturday night, get them to help roll it into little Ping-Pong balls to puff up on the baking sheet in the oven. And yes, I know it may sound as if I'm turning a weekend dinner party into a group therapy session, but if it makes everyone happy, what's the problem?

The kuchen can be changed whichever way you like: grate apples and scatter almonds in place of the blueberries. As for the whirligig buns, you might fill them with marmalade, or with honey and chopped walnuts. As is true of all important sorts of cooking, it is not the recipe that matters, but the process.

Recipe: Blueberry Kuchen
Recipe: Chocolate and Pistachio Whiligig Buns
Recipe: Soft White Dinner Rolls

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