Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Yeast Dies (Elizabeth David)


Granulated yeast

          "A last word on the working of yeast in bread dough:  at a temperature of 130 degrees F., 54 degrees C., or thereabout, yeast cells die.  They are killed when that degree of the heat of the oven penetrates to the centre of the loaf.  Until then there should still be sufficient spring or aeration potential left in the dough for it to go on rising in the oven.  The small amount of alcohol produced by the yeast is driven off during baking."  

                      ---- From English Bread And Yeast Cookery

        From the time I first read (immersed myself really; it's that kind of monumental book) in Elizabeth David's English Bread And Yeast Cookery, I was singularly struck by this passage and its title, The Yeast Dies, as being emblematic of David's profound way of dealing with her two vast text and subtext subjects -- food and life.  

Yeast life cycle

        One tends to think of bread baking as the most benign of activities (bread, it is often said and I think it is also deeply felt, is the "staff of life") and most people, I think, mentally discard the potential violence that might be seen as inherent in the cultivation and sowing of wheat for milling in the same general way many people think that it is more humane to be a vegetarian than a non-vegetarian.  

        I fully understand this, but also came to realize a long time ago (when I chose to abandon full-time vegetarianism) that life, sadly, seems to be an irreducible competition among species for survival.  (Toward what end, I don't know, especially lately.)   

Yeast fermenting in beer

        I don't know of a writer other than Elizabeth David, however, who has focused on attention on the fact that in bread baking we bring dormant yeast to life for leavening purposes in order to kill it at the exact momemt when it has done its work.  

        This all came to mind yesterday when I removed David's book from the shelf in order to embark on a new project.  Years ago, long before Jane was born, I was a very active bread baker and became fairly accomplished at it, although my repertoire was, by personal choice, fairly limited.  The bread I liked to make best was David's basic wheaten loaf (about 1/3 whole wheat flour and 2/3 strong unbleached white flour), which I preferred to prepare in a round shape with a scored surface under a La Cloche baking bell, rather than in a Pullman or other form of loaf pan.  I developed a very good personal recipe for this combining David's directions with others taken from Judith and Evan Jones' excellent The Book of Bread.  Many people enjoyed the bread I made, which was gratifying, but the process of preparing the bread, which, as every bread baker knows, is simultaneously energetic and soothing (mentally and physically), is where the real reward lies.


La Cloche   

         This all occurred in pre-word processing, pre-internet days.  I always wrote down my recipes, but I misplaced this one years ago, and because I became busy with other things, I eventually stopped baking bread.  But I still have my books, my La Cloche, my memory and an oven, and now I have a daughter who I think will enjoy learning bread baking with me.  (She's already quite accomplished at some other forms of baking and cooking, which she pursues with her mother.)  

        So, that's the plan.


  1. I'm very glad you liked it. "The Yeast Dies" has been on my mind for years. I carried David's book (the handsome, large paperback edition) around in my briefcase for a long time and would read it in court, on buses and subways, etc. It treats the history of bread as the history of man and it's a very good lens through which to view our progress from breaking teeth on roughly milled grain to sliced white bread. I'm really anxious to get back into the restful rhythm of baking bread; it's really a natural anti-depressant, don't you think? Curtis