BAKER’S TOPIC – the “Ferment”
This is a timely topic because the ferment is firmly recommended by real craft bakers when you are making rich breads, full of sugar, eggs, butter, spices, and so on, the very stuff of Christmas and festive baking in general.
A ferment is one of the large Sponge family, being a pre-ferment set up by the baker as a preliminary to dough-making. Sometimes in older bakers’ texts you will see it referred to as a “flying ferment” which pays tribute to the speed with which it gets on with the job. Its purpose is to give the yeast a flying start. The yeast is pampered in the ferment by being given warm milk, a nice little parcel of food and an overall environment in which it will go on a feeding frenzy. Thus it gallops along, building up a massive head of steam before it encounters the rich ingredients that are contained within the festive dough.
The rich ingredients are troublesome to yeast because this single cell fungus, our little hero, has a very delicate cell wall through which it sucks in its food and nutrients, and pumps out its waste products (including alcohol and carbon dioxide gas which we bakers need to leaven the dough). Imagine if you were a yeast cell looking for food and you had to nuzzle up to butter and egg yolk, such heavy and greasy substances that cannot pass through the cell wall. There is also the sugar problem: an over-abundance of sugar stresses yeast because sugar, being hygroscopic, draws water to itself, stripping away from our little hero an adequate level of moisture for it to easily allow things to flow in out through the cell wall. Christmas is bad news for yeast cells so we make up for this by employing a ferment to help the yeast along.
Here is the ferment I use to make 4 stollen at a PANARY class.
Ferment: 400 ml warm milk
40 gm fresh yeast (15-20 gm dried yeast)
15 gm sugar
110 gm bread flour
Whisk together milk, yeast, and sugar in a deep bowl, then whisk in the flour until there no lumps. Put it aside in a place where the room temperature is not cool. In less than an hour it will have gassed adequately, creating a handsome frothy pile with a shuddering and moving surface which are clear signs it is ready for use.
To make the 4 stollen you will need 800 gm flour, 10-15 salt, 2 eggs, 75 gm brown sugar. After kneading until it is gathered together you add the 175 gm butter, and at the end of kneading there is lemon zest and a generous measure of raisins soaked in rum to be gently added. After baking they are washed over with melted butter to help preserve them, and whenever served at table they are dusted afresh with icing sugar.
A classic ferment is the ancient one-pint ferment employed in bun dough:
Whisk together: 560 ml (one pint) warm milk; 15 gm (half-ounce) sugar; 55 gm (2 ounces) yeast; 110 gm (4 ounces) bread flour.
When the yeast is fresh the head on top of the one-pint ferment resembles the head atop a pint glass of Guinness – solid fine froth.