Life (As We Know It) May Never Be The Same

Olive Rosemary Focaccia

Olive Rosemary Focaccia

Okay, I’ll grant you that my headline is, perhaps, a bit overly dramatic. But for folks who like to cook, it can be fun to find a new product that promises to shake up the game a bit. I imagine fly-fishermen feel this way about new lures (you laugh, but a new lure can make a big difference when you’re standing mid-stream in your waders.)

(What is this: Field and Stream?)

A few months ago I wrote about how much comfort I get from having a stock of pizza dough waiting in my freezer. Go ahead, make fun of me. Chalk it up to some odd food-related neurosis.

A few days ago I went to the freezer and realized that not only was the pizza crust cupboard bare, but I had also run out of yeast. Later, at the supermarket I blindly reached for the yeast in its usual spot and my hand landed on a packet that just didn’t feel right. Upon closer inspection I realized that I had picked up a packet of Fleischmann’s Pizza Crust Yeast – a new product.

I use the term “new product” very loosely to describe any yeast. Even the freshest package of yeast purchased from any supermarket contains the progeny of yeast strains that could be hundreds of years old. (Fleischmann’s dates back to the mid-19th century.) It’s not tough to propagate yeast. It is a very robust single-celled organism.

A few years back a chum bequeathed to me a baggie full of goo. (“Michael, my cherished friend, I present you with this baggie full of goo.” Ahhh, friends!) The bag of goo was actually the “starter” of a yeast coffee cake that was going around like the baking equivalent of a chain letter. I remember that it came with very detailed instructions which required me to feed the starter every day by opening the bag of goo, throwing in some flour, sugar, and water, closing the bag, and then squeezing the bag of goo to mix in the flour, sugar, and water. I had to do this every day for at least a week – I’ve forgotten the actual length of time – and it used to make me think of throwing meat to the lions the Romans kept under the Coliseum that chased slaves for sport. I’m not sure why my mind went there.

Finally after following this exercise for the prescribed length of time I was allowed to bake the cake from the recipe that was also supplied. The cake was very good, but I’m afraid I broke the chain by not putting a small sample of the goo in a fresh baggie and passing it along to someone. By that point everyone I knew had been “yeasted.”

But what I was doing with the baggie was propagating the yeast. Commercial yeast is grown using basically the same technique. The difference is that when you buy the little packets of yeast in the supermarket they have cleaned away everything but the yeast.

Okay, back to me standing in the baking aisle of the supermarket, holding the Pizza Crust Yeast. “Hmmm,” thought I, “Does it make the pizza taste different?” Reading the package, I learned that taste isn’t the focus of this new product, rather, convenience – time – is the focus. The concept is that you can now make pizza dough from scratch without having to wait for the dough to rise. By adding some dough relaxers and conditioners to the yeast packet, Fleischmann’s promises that you will immediately be able to roll out a 12” pizza crust without fighting the “snap-back” which happens when the gluten in the crust doesn’t allow you to shape the crust without it snapping back.

I think this warrants a session in the Butter Flour Eggs Food Laboratory, don’t you?

As much as I love pizza, I thought for the purposes of testing that I needed to make the crust without sauce and cheese so that I could really compare the crusts – taste and texture – unadorned. But that sounded kind of dull, so as a compromise I decided to make a simple Olive and Rosemary Focaccia.

I started with the Pizza Crust Yeast. The recipe and instructions on the Pizza Crust Yeast are geared towards a strictly manual process, i.e., a wooden spoon and a bowl or two. My first experiment was to see how well it would do in a Kitchen Aid stand mixer. The answer? Fine, although using their recipe yields a sticky dough which makes cleaning the bowl of the mixer a bit of a task, but not bad enough to raise any flags. Yes, the dough was extremely compliant when being shaped into the pan, happily settling itself into the corners.

The resulting Focaccia was a bit sweet, had a very cakey texture, and the crust was missing the tooth-shattering crunch I like. This actually wasn’t a bad thing. The Focaccia reminded me a bit of King’s Hawaiian Bread. While it didn’t make a great Focaccia, it did get my imagination going on other things I could make using the same technique. A fast yeast coffee ring came to mind first, but then my mind went to other combinations, including Honey-Whole Wheat bread sticks, and Breakfast Pizza (bake the crust first, then top with eggs and sweet sausage, and return to the oven to bake.)

I’ll experiment further, and publish the results when I come up with something good. In the meantime, some folks may like the sweet, cakey Focaccia, so you’ll find that recipe here. It was certainly fast and easy, and I’ll be curious to see how the yeast performs in my pizza recipe which uses much less sugar and a bit more flour. By the way, bread is out of the question. Fleischmann’s advises that the product is not suited to bread baking.

The other Focaccia, based on my usual pizza crust recipe was, by nature, a lengthier project. I think I’ll stick with it for now. The aforementioned crunch of the crust, plus the slightly fermented, yeastier flavor that are the results of the longer rise are what I like about Pizza and Focaccia.

But I like this “new” yeast. Anything that gets folks into the kitchen baking with and for their family gets my vote.

Sorry. Life as we know it is still very much the same. But the thought of making a quick yeast coffee cake will keep me going.

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Click here for my recipes for Olive and Rosemary Focaccia.

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