Every time I see my six-volume edition of Edward Gibbon’s “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” on my library shelf, I think of yeast dough. I think that for something to “decline and fall,” something must also “rise.” And indeed, a well-made yeast dough must rise, must be punched down, and hopefully must rise again. You might think this is a silly analogy, but yeast doughs have a very long history, dating way back to ancient Egypt, through biblical times, then into Roman times, when simple leavened breads were embellished and enhanced with dried fruits, nuts, and spices.
I learned from my mother’s mother the art of handling soft and tender yeast doughs, adding sugar, raisins, and almonds to create delicious babkas and hot cross buns. Our next-door neighbor Mr. Maus continued my education, sharing with me his secrets for buttery, feather-light buns and fruit-filled stollen. And then my lifelong search for the best of the best yeast-risen breads and cakes and rolls began; as I traveled in Europe, Asia, and South America, I tasted all the visually appealing candidates I happened upon.
It occurred to me that a well-flavored, beautifully textured, and light dough could be altered simply and elegantly by adding other ingredients, savory or sweet. What follows is one great yeast dough recipe, accompanied by five delicious variations. Who knows? You may even be thinking about a sixth or seventh.