My Long-Term, Committed Relationship with a 1-Pound Bag of Yeast
“Will you call me ‘whirligig buns’?,” I asked a college boyfriend years ago. I looked up at him as I was reading through a cookbook by Luisa Weiss, having spotted a recipe delightfully named chocolate-almond whirligig buns. The recipe in question required no fewer than three packets of yeast. A hungry recipe, one could say — an unapologetically demanding one.
At the time, I could not relate to this recipe. I settled on a simpler, one-packet-only recipe for cinnamon buns.
“Sure,” he eventually said, convincing no one with his tone.
Yeast and love both behave in a similar bell curve. Later, when mixing up the aforementioned buns, I learned that yeasty dough can’t get too hot, and lukewarm won’t fare well either. There are valleys of not quite yet and red-hot yes, nows! that I’ve still yet to master in romantic love, but that unknowable wilderness is half the appeal of the relationship I keep with myself. The boy and I would make it through two drafty winters together before it was just me and the yeast packets out on our own to find that Goldilocks-approved temperature.
During the early pandemic, amidst our collective panicked bread baking, I clinged once more to my makeshift lifeboat, this time a much bigger commitment: A whole one-pound bag of instant yeast. I hadn’t baked with active yeast since my college days of balancing a tray of proofing orange cinnamon rolls on my ancient kitchen’s radiator. But I knew there was something tempestuous and unknowable about yeast I had still to figure out — some alchemical gold that could always be struck. And I knew this phase wouldn’t be satisfied by just a few packets of yeast.
Yeast is truly and literally wild; living yet not, fragile yet hardy. Kind of like a new crush, the bag of yeast yielded a challenge that felt uncharted and exciting and also scary. Should I have committed to just a few packets? Was I being greedy and just simply asking for too much?
The yeast landed in my lap during a pandemic-induced shortage, after all. I did give my original first bag to a weary-eyed customer baking bread to cope with career furlough, but I didn’t budge on that second, lucky bag; I brought it home from my job at a grocery store one night as if it was fine art being smuggled.
As it turns out, baking with yeast is pretty theatrical, not unlike when you find yourself inevitably falling for someone (or yourself). The performance starts with a hopeful rise to the climactic bake, and ends days later with the inevitable French toast dredge. Will it rise? Was the water too hot? Did I over-knead? You don’t know what the yield of your wishful thinking looks like until the timer goes off. But the attempt is half the fun.
As I made my way through the bag, I found myself extending my neck out further in my own life, demanding and crafting what I need out of disparate parts. Turning lumps of sticky challah dough into golden-brown milkmaid braids was not only a practice in abundance, but also a much-needed suspension of disbelief, like being willingly swept away by a movie or performance.
Making eye contact with the bag’s Linguini-from-Ratatouille-adjacent cartoon chef on the bag filled me with the need to suspend all logic until the oven timer inevitably went off. And suspend I did. Of course, there were focaccia bread loaves that resembled crackers, and donut recipes that should have been left to the pros, but the not-knowing-what’s-going-to-happen brand of excitement generated was always the point.
Not knowing what would happen next was itself baked into me. When I was growing up, my mom and I were very nomadic. After my parents’ divorce, my mom and I jumped to and from empty snowbird houses upwards of a dozen times in order to stay in my school district. Our kitchens could be sparse from all the moves, but they were always a place of experimentation, tinkering, and very little cooking (but a lot of baking). A waitress herself, my mom would often take me out most nights for dinner, or I’d fill up on kneecaps of the 4 p.m. loaves of Albertsons’ french bread, still warm in my lap like a cat.
Any home I now make for myself, whether it be literal or the one I’ve built within myself, always includes me plunging my hands through spongey, just-warm focaccia and layering half-moon slices of plums atop a pflaumenkuchen.
Working my way through this very needy bag of yeast has become one of my most rewarding and demystifying long-term commitments. Nights of solo-babysitting loaves of rising challah are amongst my favorite, most sepia-toned romantic memories I’ve gifted myself. While baking, my body becomes a tool, a conduit that literally and figuratively breaks bread. I’ve even flown cross-country with my bag of yeast, an experience that immediately resulted in a confused security worker scanning my contraband for danger.
After all, fermentation itself signifies two important things: Nothing is ever wasted, and environment is everything. Yeast, like any other living thing, builds on the scraps of fermentation, sort of like needing every old, foolish love that came before the big one. I know that I’m only a summation of what I repeatedly do, and you can craft a very good loaf of bread that’s not unlike a good life. But it always must be remade. To be fully hungry in my life requires me to endlessly tinker with how I care for myself, and acknowledge all that got me here. Knowing that love is always in the air around me, I glom on to it like wild yeast.
Get the Kitchn Daily in your inbox.