My Experiments with Yeast

This Easter, Theresa Varghese writes about a different kind of rising. 

I first heard the word yeast when my mother, a long time resident of Bombay, grumbled that she could no longer find good toddy in the city. Lest you believe she was getting drunk on the brew, let me clarify here that she was just being a good Malayali. If you’ve been acquainted with our lot, you will know that, wherever in the world we are, Malayalis eat rice in its many avatars. And when it comes to appam, one of our most favoured incarnations, the preferred medium of fermentation is toddy.

As Bombay expanded and trees were pushed to the fringes, people managed to get toddy through relatives and friends who lived on the outskirts. But soon, even in those far off places, supply was falling short. This was the early 1970s when places like Mankhurd, a suburb in east Bombay, were considered the back of beyond. A statement that the ‘Vashi Fast’ crowd would now laugh at.

As mummy lamented over how she was going to make appams, my father, who was reading the newspaper, said casually, “Why don’t you try yeast?”

The reply was immediate. “Aiyyo!” Translated, this read: What a calamity that we have to turn to an unknown beast like yeast!

But since there was no toddy coming, and Easter was round the corner, she had no choice in the matter. Let me elucidate. As in most matters related to food, there is no clear explanation as to why it is mandatory to have appam for Easter. But the fact remains that no Malayali celebrating Easter will be happy unless she has palappam and chicken stew for breakfast. Wherever in the world she may be, the good Syrian Christian breaks her 40-day non-vegetarian fast with this traditional combination. And so it was that yeast entered my mother’s kitchen.

But my curiousity was piqued. Why did my mother dislike yeast? As she ground the rice and coconut in the mixer, dropping in little granules of yeast, she muttered under her breath that she hoped it would behave. At night, I heard muffled traces of conversation from my parents’ bedroom, until my father, evidently tired of the subject, announced emphatically, “Go to sleep now. It will rise.”

I was alarmed. Subject to years of convent school education and Sunday mass, my nine-year-old self likened it to Jesus rising from the dead.  Images of the batter rising up, only to be trapped by the ceiling, clouded my sleep.

Despite these nightmares, all was well in the morning. When I awoke, it was to the fragrant smell of appams, and the sight of my mother beaming happily.

 Image credit: Joe Cyriac

Image credit: Joe Cyriac

I suppose that particular scenario found a recess in the vast caverns of my mind. When I began baking earnestly during my 20s, I was adventurous enough to try any recipe – except those that involved yeast. And with marriage, motherhood, and a home of my own, it wasn’t long before I embarked on that most sacred of Malayali traditions. While the Lenten fast wasn’t on our family’s agenda, appam certainly was.

The first time I employed the little grains of magic, the result was zilch: the batter remained motionless, and husband and children ended up eating heavy, flat pancakes for breakfast. Dejected, I called my mother long-distance. Like all mothers, she was patient and tried to explain the process, ending with an ominous, “You never know, though. The thing can be quite unreliable.”

Even more wary, a year would pass before I tried making appams again. This time, as the batter rested for the night in the humidity of coastal Vishakapatnam, I called an ally to compare notes. My sister-in-law in Poona, who was going through her own fermentation struggle. As Christians across the country went to sleep with dreams of a meaty breakfast, I was sure there were more than two women creeping to their kitchens at night, nervously checking on a slumbering giant. 

It would have been great to say this ended on a good note. But one cannot lie. We didn’t eat hard discs like the year before, but we didn't feast on lacy appams either. The yeast had meandered between being active and going to sleep. So my appams came out undecided.

Over the years I continued to flirt with yeast and somewhere along the way, our relationship changed. It became a friend of sorts. Nervous around it, I still treated it deferentially but there was now a mutual respect born out of the fact that I had stopped putting it to sleep with premature salting, but mostly because it was no longer being killed with water that was too warm. With more knowledge via the Internet, as well as improved yeast quality available in the Indian market, my appams turned out better. And then there was the ace up my sleeve: a watertight recipe endorsed by both mother and mother-in-law. Two decades after a shaky introduction, I was dishing out fluffy appams and fiery fish curry at my dinner parties with so much elan, no one suspected the thorny history behind this staple in my home. 

By now, I was also baking a lot. Word-of-mouth fame came my way and I began taking orders. A small business bloomed, my cachet being ‘writer and baker’. A second title I felt that I had truly earned when I made my first three-tier wedding cake. But even then, filled with so much pride and joy, there was a voice in my head that kept up a steady thrum: What kind of a baker was I if I did not make bread?

I had deliberately kept bread off the menu. I had managed to befriend yeast for my appams, but bread? Would my once-upon-a-time nemesis still be kind if I shaped a new kind of dough?

I threw myself into research, having come to the conclusion that I could not in all seriousness call myself a baker if I did not make the most fundamental of all foods. The first book I got on bread making – presented by a well-meaning cousin from the US – made me want to retreat into a foxhole. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart, renowned baking instructor and author of several books, threw me for a loop. The rambling tables and calculations did nothing but make my eyes glaze over.

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I am not fond of math, but I am appreciative of the fact that baking is a science that calls for exact measures. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s The Cake Bible, which is precise yet simple, therefore really is my baking bible. This was the book that I’d followed to a T for my wedding cakes. If she could impart so much technique on cakes, perhaps she could teach me about bread? Soon The Bread Bible was in my hands.

I started with Rose’s Basic Hearth Bread, a simple combination of flour, yeast, honey, water and salt. The result was a wonderfully chewy bread, full of flavour, and altogether delightful. My temperamental friend of many years had behaved impeccably.

It gave me the confidence to proceed to Soft White Sandwich Loaf, Butter Dipped Dinner Rolls, Pullman Loaf; each received with exclamations of happiness from the family. I was on a roll. When I successfully progressed to Pita, Pizza and Focaccia, I felt I had truly earned my baker’s toque.

It has been a complicated, interesting voyage. When I inhale the aroma of freshly baked bread in my kitchen, I think of that one ingredient that has accompanied me all along. The volatile fungus which taught me that, with enough understanding, even strangers can become friends.

Theresa Varghese is passionate about history and culture, likes observing people and writing about food. Her socio historical food book Cuisine Kerala is available on amazon.in.

Banner image credit: Joe Cyriac

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