The choice of cooking something exotic or something special should never emanate from need. But the unseen face of an infectious virus has done just that. People are forced to dig into their cultural and culinary roots to cook something exceptional. In the end, we might end up liking the effort – but that’s another point to ponder.
For me, the new world order of ‘stay-home-stay-safe’ pushed my cooking skills to the limit. With teenage boys in the house, without any earth shattering work for them to do, they expected the pantry to be brimming with goodies.
When the first lockdown was announced at the end of March, getting essentials like bread and biscuits was tough. Assuming that the nation was in crisis, I dug my heels to make the goodies at home. Biscuits, cookies and cakes were not a problem. I filled boxes with different shaped baked goods.
For bread, there was only one problem – the basic ingredient ‘yeast’ was unavailable.
At this junction, I realised that the situation we found ourselves in was not going to change any time soon. For the love of trying something new and to keep the hungry teenagers at bay, I decided to try making yeast at home. “It shouldn’t be too difficult,” I told myself – after all, even professional bakers would have made their starter yeast at some point of time.
Thus, with the advent of Baisakhi and Tamil New Year, I started my project of making yeast at home. I browsed various websites that claimed to help you make yeast on your own.
Initially, I tried the sourdough method. I tried to cultivate yeast by soaking atta (wheat flour) in water and then feeding one-spoon wheat flour every day for the next five days. No luck. Then I tried the same technique with maida (white flour) and water. All I got was some rotting wet flour paste and an awful smell that forced everyone to try and stop breathing.
The next round, I tried atta, then subsequently maida, with warm water and honey. I still didn’t get yeast, but ants of all sizes did emerge from somewhere.
Then I read somewhere that a combination of curd, sugar, honey and flour yielded a nice frothy yeast that is used to make soft pav buns. When I tried, it gather a little culture two-three days. But when I used this concoction to make buns, they were as hard as ping pong balls. The result was inedible food that even the crows refused to peck.
While browsing and understanding the curd yeast recipe, I also came across a method of making yeast using unprocessed dates/sundried raisins/apple slices. So that evening, it was apple slices with tea and biscuits. One of the slices took a dive into a glass bottle, half full of lukewarm sugar water. Then the wait for the wild yeast to come alive.
For two days, there was no change in the slice – it floated, diving to the bottom when the bottle was given a shake. The water, meanwhile became murkier. The apple slice changed its colour in four days, with possible signs of bubbles. By sixth day, tiny bubbles emerged and there was a distinct sweet smell of yeast emanating from the bottle when opened.
It was time to use this effervescent water as yeast. I tried to roll up some buns. The buns had a nice brown colour, but all things good ended there. Although the buns were not as hard as they they were the first time around, they were not the mouth-watering variety we get in the market.
Besides, the buns were sour, more so than four-day-old curd. I had to eat all nine buns myself as my family members considered eating the buns a bio hazard.
This whole project was turning out to be a total failure. Dejected, I threw the yeast water.
After a few days of wallowing in pity, I decided to get back to the drawing board. How could I make buns that taste buttery? How do I make them softer?
Not losing hope and determined to get this right, I searched the uses of yeast water. After a few hours of reading articles and watching videos in the internet, I found that the effervescent water is added to a small portion of the flour to make a starter yeast. Just like sourdough starters, so I added the bubbly water to atta to make a paste.
This time, I used raisin yeast, which I got after soaking good quality raisins in lukewarm sugar water for ten days. The next day, I added one more spoon of atta and a measure of water to make the slurry. The morning of the third day, I could see the bubbles of homemade yeast.
Excited to see the result, I used three-fourth of the yeast to make buns. The remaining one-fourth, I refrigerated, along with raisin yeast water and apple yeast water. The result was edible and fruity flavoured buns.
It took me three months to get decent looking and edible buns with home-made yeast. The buns I made are not as soft and tasty as the pav or burger buns we get in stores. It’s more rustic. The taste more robust, sour and goes well with salty cheese spreads or gravy.
Now I try to bake new types of bread once every two weeks. One week, I make ciabatta bread or cinnamon rolls, the other it’s pita bread or bagels.
The aim is to be self-sufficient, and to be able to provide for my teenage kids, who are always hungry! There’s always something new to learn and bake.
The whole project was an enlightening experience. It gave me a reason to wake up every morning. It gave my confidence a boost to take up new challenges, to learn and to make it work. So unchartered territories, here I come!
Sreeyantha is a person who sees the world in all the colours of the rainbow. A creative homemaker who wishes to capture the universe’s beauty in poems, paintings and short essays. You can read a collection of her poems here.
All images provided by author.