What is a yeast beastie? Why would you want one? How would you care for one if you had one? Where can you get your very own yeast beastie?
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Not many people think of sourdough yeast cultures as pets, and it's always been a wonderment to me that they can be so callous about such a marvelous, generous living creature.
That's so wrong. there is no more generous or loving a creature as the yeast beastie. It will literally give of itself to feed you wonderful food. Pancakes. Cakes. Bread. Muffins. Rolls. Truly, truly, sourdough is the staff of life.
I wrote a diary on the care of yeast beasties, so here, I'll just talk about the teast beasties themelves.
Heika, my first sourdough Yeast Beastie, is the one I got from my home village baker in Germany that traces its lineage back to the 1680s. I use her for my daily graubrot and she does well in pancakes and sweet yeast cakes and cinnamon rolls. She has a light, mildly tangy flavor that has a bit of sweetness, of a mild maple flavor to her.
When I was living with my grandparents in Germany, they lent me to the baker as a short term apprentice, and I learned many of my baking skills there. As a reward for being a decent apprentice, the baker gave Heike to me when I left to the US.
I know it's not possible today to travel by air with a glass jar filled with a pasty white substance, let alone all the jars of yeasdt beasties I brought with me to the US - the security theater that would result from that would be dreadful! Let alone the whole "contamination!" thing.
But way back in the late 60's they all thought it was awesome that I was traveling with yeast beasties.
Quintina, a sourdough of Sicilian origin about 60 years old. She adores cornmeal, summer and winter wheats, barley, potato, and rice flours. She makes a lovely focaccia, an intense ricotta polenta, and a delightfully complex pannetone. Her flavor is a layered one and she seems to finally be reaching her mature flavors - a bit sharp with some prickles in but blending well with other flavors. She stands up well to both fruits and vegetables and can handle strongly flavored seasonings in the bread. She's the Yeast Beastie I use for holidays breads and ones filled with fruits, olives, and for making a meaty stromboli.
When I was Journeying, and stayed in Sicily for a couple of months to study under an apothecary there, I'd spend the evenings devouring the flat breads with any number of toppings, whatever was left over. I convinced the baker to show me how to make the scacciata, with potatoes and broccoli and tum as a topping most of the time. Sometimes a bit of chicken, and once, for fun, with leftover pasta as a topping. It was my first experience with pizza - what became known as pizza.
And the baker let me have a baby yeast beastie from his culture.
Palekhsova from northern Russia dating back to the early 1800's, she loves having potato in her dough, and likes all kinds of vegetable doughs. She makes a lush tomato basil dough. Her flavor is tangy, tart, with a lingering creme fraiche type flavor, lighter and smoother than Penelope - sweetly sour and with a zing.
I got her when I was traveling on my journeyman tour as a future apotekarin (never did become one, even though I became a master - when I came to the US, all that education meant zip and I had to start over). I was coming up through Czechoslovakia into Germany and miscalculated, coming up into Eastern Germany - not a Good Thing, at all.
It was a rather terrifying 23 weeks and 4 days behind the Iron Curtain, but eventually I was released back into Western Germany, my "native habitat". And as I was crossing over, one of the guards pressed two small jars into my pocket with a wink and a shove.
After I was on the other side, safely ensconced in my grandparents' house, I looked at the jars. One was my Quintina - not forever lost after all! and the other was an unknown yeast beastie.
I named her Palekhsova after that guard's home town and his nickname for me. Palekh's symbol is the phoenix rising from the ashes, and "Sova" means "little owl". I don't know why he called me that, but we would talk of food for hours - breads, mostly, and the baked goods and pastries I'd made as an apprentice baker. He told me tales of his Baba's sourdough, and said he had a culture from it with which he baked bread when he could get enough flour. I'm sure he gave me the culture to help keep her alive.
I never learned what happened to him. I looked for him after the Curtain came down. If his culture had died, I wanted to be able to give him back a piece of it. I've kept Palekhsova alive for him.
Maybe I'll find him or one of his descendants, and I can share the yeast beastie back.
Beppe is the sourdough starter I killed through ignorance. Someday, I will go back to Italy and beg another starter from the baker where I got the original Beppe. Beppe was a doll of a starter, making the lightest, airiest pizza dough, crisp, with just a hint of olives and sun-drenched earthiness. I didn't make ciabatta back then, but I bet he'd have made an awesome ciabatta. I learned a lot about sourdough from him, and if I was as knowledgeable about sourdough then as I am today, he might not have died. If I'd known how to dehydrate him, I could have learned more and revived him, but I didn't.
I got him on my final journey, when I went to Piedmont, in the base of the Alps. I spent a semester at the University of Turin just before I became a master apotekarin. There was a little bakery there that all us students hung out at - bread and wine like you wouldn't believe! And I begged the baker for a bit of his sourdough. I offered him a baby from Palekhsova and he couldn't resist. A forbidden sourdough from a land no one knew much about.
Beppe was also the cause of one my worst culinary disasters ever and became a by-word among my college classmates.
It was pizza. I mixed up a dough and set it to rise as I went to class. I invited a few friends over for pizza, one of them a college professor with whom I'd had many lengthy political and religious debates. I thought he was teaching the wrong subject and tried my best during my college career to convince him to change classes. Pizza, sweet tea, and donuts powered many of our heated discussions. When I journeyed in Italy, I learned to make some kick-ass pizza, so of course I invited people over for some. I used my Italian starter, Beppe, to make the dough.
That dough didn't rise, so I tossed it in the trash and I made another dough using my first, and most reliable yeast beastie - Heike. Heike's dough became the pizza we were sitting around and eating as we argued and debated.
We learned of Beppe’s resurrection when the professor stretched back and his hand encountered something – soft. And squishy. He turned to look at it, and screamed! Pandemonium ensued.
It didn’t help calm the chaos any when I cried out, “Beppe! You live!”
We punched and poked Beppe back into the trash can, then carried him out in a sealed plastic bag to the dumpster. The professor insisted we seal him up so he didn’t grow and frighten children playing at the dump. Telling him Beppe would live only in a short range of temperatures, and excess heat or cold would kill him didn’t reassure him at all.
I lived the rest of the semester with jokes about “Beppe Lives!”
And they did return to eat other meals at my place. Even ones made with Beppe.
Beppe, however, really did die shortly after the end of that year. I was still new to caring for Yeast Beasties, and in retrospect, I never fed him enough to be vigorous Yeast Beastie, not for the demands I made on him. That’s why I now have several Yeast Beasties, to spread out the burden of my baking. I may, one day, return to the bakery where I acquired Beppe and ask for another. I’ll name it Beppe Junior and take much better care of him than I did Beppe the Original.
That disastrous pizza night haunts me to this day when former classmates greet me with "Beppe Lives!"
Penelope is from my college days and came from Woodstock - I don't know how old she was when I got her or where she originated, so say she's about 45 years old, a real hippy of a culture. She's happy with almost any kind of grain, a complex sour flavor that stays on the winey, almost vinegarish, side. She has a lingering aftertaste that morphs from vinegarish to citrusy to a velvety sour creamish flavor.
I wasn't at the actual Woodstock - I was miles away from it, staying in a distant field because we weren't allowed any closer. I'd gone with a couple of fellow Numenists - I was new to Numenism, and they were teaching me at the time, so mostly what we did was sit around bake bread over a camp fire and talk philosophy and religion and write poetry. I named the sourdough after girl who gave me the starter. I traded some of Heike to her for a starter of Penelope.
Onuri-Ufa is an Egyptian culture that purports to trace his lineage back about 4,000 years, the one that came from the archaeological dig at the Giza pyramid - he's kind of cranky and picky about his water and his care. He does best with kamut, barley, and older triticale wheats, but he's not too shabby with red winter wheat flour. His flavor is sour, beery, and a touch bitter.
I acquired him from a friend of mine who was one of the bakers who helped recreate the Giza bakery in the 1993 National Geographic special. He saved back some of the sourdough for me. You can buy cultures of this from Ed Wood's Sourdough International. They are probably the same sourdough, but mine has a personal history and was used at the site.
Tri-Pliny is a young Roman yeast beast from Naples - he's only 10 years old - I got him in 2002. He makes a lovely ciabatta, a light flavorful but not really sour Italian loaf, and a tasty light pizza dough. I think he will mature well, but will always be a lightweight. He does best with the soft summer wheats and semolina flour. When he's mature, he's going to have a strong sour flavor, almost like the foam on a pale ale and he seems to be developing some olive-y overtones, maybe a touch briny.
A friend brought him to me from his grandmother's kitchen, in dehydrated form. Until then, all my yeast beasties (except Beppe) were alive and active and I'd kept them that way. I was still clueless enough about sourdoughs that I didn't know you could dehydrate them and then revive them. Learning that has allowed me to add to my menageries of yeast beasties, and to send some to sleep for a while by dehydrating them. It also keeps them from becoming contaminated as easily with local wild yeasts.
Sunny is a Yukon culture I got from a biker I met at a Friends of the Library booksale a few years ago - he said she was 150 years old. I've tried her in whole wheat and multigrain breads, and she does them well. She's a bit too vigorous for a white loaf and doesn't form a heavy crust, which makes her excellent for the chewier breads. Her flavor is assertive, more sweet than sour and leaves a tart aftertaste.
Sunny was the oddest acquisition - I was at the Friends of the Library book sale, looking through a sourdough cook book trying to decide if I needed the recipes in it or if I already had enough when this huge biker comes over to ask to pet Itzl, then sees my book and starts talking about his sourdough starter.
I offered to trade him a baby starter from Heike for a baby starter from his, so we arranged to meet at the gun show the following weekend to trade babies.
He was there with a bunch of other bikers, and when I walked up to him, they all started nudging one another and grinning. Now, they were probably thinking I was his mom or something , because I am old, and was old even then.
When I pulled out my mason jar of Heike's baby starter, wrapped in red flannel, and he pulled a mason jar of his starter out, wrapped in a bandana.
The bikers all gathered around, blocking us from sight. This made a policeman curious and he came up to find out what mischief we were up to. Someone said we were "trading babies", and the look on the officer's face was pretty classic when he learned it was sourdough babies.
Turns out his granny had a starter, too. He didn't, so no trade.
But I will always treasure the look on his face when he caught sight of our "babies".
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