Baking woes? Fresh yeast lets you rise above them

July 28, 2004|By Rob Kasper

LIFE DOESN'T GIVE you many opportunities for redemption, but baking does. When baking, my mantra is if at first you don't succeed, get fresh yeast and give it another shot.

That is what I did recently. Sure enough, the second time around, a batch of Sheboygan Hard Rolls emerged from the oven, crisp on the outside, fluffy on the inside, a perfect companion for bratwurst.

The bratwurst made me do it: drove me to spend several hours mixing the dough, punching it down, forming it into rounds, and then baking the ovals in a steamy 450-degree oven and spritzing them with water as they cooled.

This undertaking began a couple of weeks ago, while researching a column on bratwurst, the sausage that natives of Wisconsin regard as their soul food. I kept coming across glowing references to Sheboygan Hard Rolls, the sandwich soul mate for brats named after the sausage-crazed town in Wisconsin.

After tracking down a recipe, then tracking down its elusive ingredient, malt extract, I made a batch. It flopped. The first-time rolls were as dense as stones. If I had tossed them across the Chesapeake Bay, these brown lumps were so tough they would have skipped all the way to Tilghman Island.

Mistakes are part of cooking. Baking is chemistry; the precise measurement and order of ingredients are crucial to the process. This makes it is harder to rectify a misstep. When cooking, I find I can often cover up a mistake. It is called adding fresh herbs. When baking, however, I learn to live with the error, or try to.

But my first batch of rolls, called Sheboygan I, was too sorry to salvage. After throwing them out, I took a hard look at where my hard rolls had gone wrong. The first suspect was the flour. The recipe called for bread flour; I had used whole wheat. Using brown flour would explain why the rolls were brown, but not why they were leaden.

The reason they lacked lift became clear when I read the back of the yeast envelope packet. I had glanced at the expiration date on the back of the envelope of yeast when I poured it in the dough mix. I thought it said best used before "August 2007." But when I went back and looked at one of the two remaining envelopes in the three-part packet, I saw the best-used-by date was actually "August 2002."

Yeast is a living thing, even when it is sealed in foil. The 2002 yeast I used might not have been totally dead, but it did not have much life left in it. Later, when I called the customer-service number listed on the back of the Fleischmann's Yeast package, a recording told me that yeast "loses some of its potency" with age, resulting in "longer rising times" for the dough.

That depressed me. The recording also described a procedure to test the potency of geezer yeast. It called for putting an envelope of yeast in a mixture of 1/2 teaspoon of sugar and 1/4 cup of 100-degree to 110-degree water, and letting it sit for 10 minutes. If the solution doubles in volume, to about 1/2 cup, the yeast is good to go.

Instead of using that procedure, I went to the store and bought a packet of active dry yeast with a best-used-by date of August 2005. I also bought some bread flour.

It is amazing how much better baking works when you follow the directions. The dough for Sheboygan II was much softer and had much more volume than its predecessor. After I let it rest for an hour, the Sheboygan II dough more than doubled in volume, overflowing the large bowl I had placed it in, a bowl that easily contained Sheboygan I.

Moreover, when I punched it down, it fought back. It had more air in it, thanks to the work of the young, vibrant yeast.

The most significant difference appeared when they emerged from the oven. These rolls had grown while they were baking, gaining height, looking like something you could split open with a knife, not a power saw.

As for the taste, one of my sausage-eating sons wolfed one down and pronounced it "real good." A couple of displaced Badgers tasted a few and said they could pass for the authentic items.

I thought they had good texture, but primarily these rolls stroked my ego. One of the great things about baking is that you can mess up one day, but rebound the next.

Sheboygan Hard Rolls

Makes 12 rolls

4 1/2 cups bread flour (approximate)

1 package dry yeast

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups hot water (120 degrees to 130 degrees)

1 teaspoon malt extract

1 egg

1 egg white

1 tablespoon shortening

rye flour for dusting

Measure 3 1/2 cups of flour into a mixing or mixer bowl and add the yeast, sugar and salt. Stir to blend well. Pour in the water and malt extract. Mix for 1 minute with a wooden spoon or mixer flat beater until a smooth but heavy batter forms.

Add the egg, egg white and shortening. Beat together until the mixture is smooth. If with the electric mixer, remove the flat beater and continue with a dough hook. Add remaining flour -- 1/4 cup at a time -- until the dough is a solid but soft mass that can be lifted from the bowl or left under the dough hook.

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