Monday, December 28, 2015

Making Exceptional Yeast Cakes, Week 3

Last time, on yeast cake adventures, we flipped the yeast cakes.

Today, we're going to gather them.  Excitement!
After another seven days, gather the cakes, again mud the door, allowing no wind to enter.

I double checked to see if there was more meaning to that word (bolded in the original and in the translation), and there really isn't:
聚 jù Middle Chinese dzjuX
  1. collect(ion), assemble, gather together, group(ing); (a)mass, accumulate.
  2. assembly of 3 or more celestial bodies in the same lunar lodging.
  3. community, populace; settlement.
So I guess I'll make a pile of them.
The wetter cakes

The dryer cakes - they're still quite damp
This time, the cakes smelled much more interesting.  I got strong caramel notes - I'm reminded of some kind of cookie my grandmother used to make but I can't put my finger on it.  I also get some floral notes.  It's interesting how much the aroma changed from last week.  I wonder if the caramel notes are due to saccharification byproducts.
I have an 8x lens for my phone, which let me take a close-up of the cakes (one of the wetter ones).  You can see the hyphae!  The cakes are holding together fairly well, which I think is because of the hyphae more than because they're slightly dryer.

It's unclear to me what purpose the gathering has, but it's easy enough to stack the cakes.  I have to wonder if having a much larger pile (30 liters vs perhaps 3) would have a different effect.

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Monday, December 21, 2015

Making Exceptional Yeast Cakes, Week 2

Last week, I started making yeast cakes, which I will hopefully use as a starter culture for future wines.

The recipe takes a month, and here we are on day 7, where Jia Sixie tells us,
At dawn on the seventh day, at the appropriate time flip them over, and once again seal the door.
I didn't remember to flip the cakes at sunrise, but I did flip them this evening.

These are how I've been storing the cakes, in my closet at about room temperature.  It's no thatched-roof hut, but it will have to do.

The cakes are surprisingly damp.  Like, dripping with water damp.  There's condensation on every surface.  I think I might have actually trapped too much of the water inside, although it's hard to say at this point.  There's a little fungal growth visible as small white spots (this appeared a few days in), but not much.

They smell sweetly of alcohol, nail polish and flowers, so I think there's fungal shenanigans going on.  The odor has some of the same notes I associate with rice wines, so I think we're on the right path.

The cakes under the bell jar were made with a little more water than the others, and aren't holding together as well.  It's particularly noticeable how much darker these cakes are than when they went in.

Proceeding with flipping, the cakes hold together much better than they did when I made them.  I wonder if this is just that the wheat is better hydrated, or if it's fungal hyphae holding them together.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Making Exceptional Yeast Cakes

I said I'd make these after Christmas, but schedules be damned, I'm going to do it early.

Earlier I posted the close translation of the first of the exceptional yeast cake recipes.  I'll redact it below, but since this is before making it I might need to come back with some changes and some refinements.

Before we start, though, I want to post a warning:

Most alcohol production is pretty safe.  There are very few microbes that can grow in the acidic, alcoholic, nutrient-poor environment that is fermented wine, beer or what have you, and also cause you ill.  Yeast does a really good job at turning unfermented liquid into fermented liquid, so the window for spoilage that could cause illness is very small.  Pretty much nobody worries about food safety when it comes to fermenting wine or beer at home. (1)

However.  This recipe is a deliberate infection of grain with molds without the presence of alcohol.  It is entirely possible that molds which produce toxins may grow on the grain.  I'm taking that risk on myself, and I will be the first one to drink the wine I produce.  If you follow my recipe on your own, be aware of that risk.  I would in particular avoid drinking wine produced with home-grown starters if you're immunocompromised.

Here's a paper describing the organisms found in some yeast starters.  Part of my adjustment of this recipe is to add a small amount of commercial yeast starter so that you don't need to rely on whatever fungi you have in your house.  But even the commercial yeast starters may have Aspergillus flavus which can make toxins.  Proceed with care.

Exceptional Yeast Cakes

Makes 3 pounds of yeast cakes, scale as appropriate.  Original recipe is for 30L


  1. 2 pounds of wheat berries, separated into two equal halves
  2. 1 pound of whole wheat flour, ideally from the same kind of wheat as your berries.
  3. Neutral oil for stir-frying
  4. Water
  5. Optionally, existing yeast starter balls or cakes, such as these


  1. A quern (substitute a spice grinder, or a mortar and pestle and a lot of patience - food processors do not make flour well)
  2. A steamer
  3. A wok, or a large frying pan (at least 12", larger is better)
  4. A thatched-roof hut with doors and windows that may be sealed, and a clean floor (substitute a nearly air-tight container with a lot of air space in it)
  5. A weng capable of holding all the cakes (substitute a large glass jar, or tupperware with a lid)


  1. Steam one half of the wheat until soft, about an hour.  Check the water level after 30 minutes.  Steaming the grain inside a cheesecloth helps to retrieve it, and helps make it moister while steaming.
  2. Simultaneously, stir-fry one half of the wheat until the grains turn yellow, but not burnt.  Don't let the pan get too hot before adding the wheat in, since the grains will start popping and jumping.  Constantly stir the grain, and stop when it starts to smell nutty and rich, about 10-15 minutes.  If it smokes, you've gone too far.
  3. Grind each half of the grain into flour, as finely as you can.  You may be able to use a food processor on the steamed grain.  Then mix the steamed flour, the toasted flour and the raw flour together.  If using, powder and mix in the yeast starter.
  4. Add water to the mixture until it just holds together, about 2 cups.
  5. Form the dough into flat round cakes 6 cm (2.4 inches) across, and 2.2 cm (0.85 inches) high. (2)
  6. Spread the cakes on the floor shoulder to shoulder, leaving enough space for you to walk through and flip them later.
  7. Appease your gods as you may.
  8. Seal up whatever space you're using to age them, so that wind does not enter.  Keep the fermenting space at between 70°F and 85°F (3)
  9. Wait a week.  Flip all the cakes and re-seal the space.
  10. Wait a week.  Gather the cakes into a pile in the middle of the room and re-seal the space.
  11. Wait a week.  Put the cakes into a weng and seal that weng.
  12. Wait a week.  Bore a hole in the center of each cake and thread them on a piece of clean string.  Air them in the sun to dry, and then store them inside.

And here's me getting started:

From the Union Square Greenmarket 

Three portions, because I didn't learn that ground up whole wheat is the same thing as whole wheat flour until afterwards.

Wrapping the grain in cheesecloth, and using foil on top, helps the grain to moisten better.

Never stop stirring

Food processors do not make flour well.

Spice grinders do!

I could have just bought this though.

Attempting to grind the toasted wheat - it's a little better...

But there are some big grains in it.

Spice grinder to the rescue!

Steamed wheat.  Tastes pretty normal.

The final cakes are a little large but they'll do.
Leftovers.  I don't have more space to make cakes though.
 In about a month these should be ready... just in time to make some wine for King's and Queen's Arts and Sciences in February.

  1. Brewers and vintners do worry about infections with spoilage organisms, but that's a quality and shelf-stability problem, not a health problem.
  2. Using the same source for unit conversions as I used for volume in this article, one "thumb joint" (寸) is 2.42 cm.
  3. This recipe is meant to be made in ~August, and based on the area where the author of this book, Jia Sixie, grew up in China, the modern average low in August is 70, and the average high is 85.  The hut would moderate the temperature somewhat, but it would probably be in line with that.  Temperature matters because it affects which molds grow best.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

New Recipes: Exceptional Yeast Cakes

I enjoy going back to my old alma mater for a number of reasons.  I went up in October to interview some undergrads for work, and also to celebrate homecoming, but I had enough time to sneak into the library and snag some books.

I was hoping to find some of the source texts that I couldn't find online, and I did, but what I found just looking around the library at random near the books I had identified turned out to be extremely valuable as well:


That book is "The Annotated Qimin Yaoshu," and I bought a copy from to have for myself.  Sort of like how you might have read annotated editions of Shakespeare in high school, it has a ton of footnotes explaining character issues, typos, and more importantly, interpreting and explaining hard to understand passages: 手熟揉為佳 does not mean, "roll the cooked grain using your feet and hands until done," it means "roll more grain into the cakes using your hands until they are done."

While this book is in modern Chinese, not English, it's pretty readable.  With it, I've been able to make progress on the passages that tripped me up earlier, so I'm re-doing my old translations and going straight through the chapter, rather than jumping around like I have been.  I'm not going to update the old posts, but I will link to the revised translations from them.

Overall, my interpretations have been pretty good (which is good because eventually I'll finish this book and move to books without guides to them), but there were a few spots where I was off in ways that mattered - reading "twenty seven" days instead of "the second seven days," or thinking that it was the urn's cap you bored a hole in, not the cakes for example.

A lot of the trouble in these cases comes from Classical Chinese's ability to omit subjects, objects and plurals entirely, so the boring a hole case is a sentence that just says "bore hole (穿孔)."

I've also reformatted the translations to hopefully make them more readable.

This is the first yeast cake recipe in the book.  The yeast cakes are what you use to start your fermentation, and Jia Sixie divides them into "exceptional" (神) and "common" (笨).  I had previously translated "common" as "lumpy."  The exceptional yeast cakes have more fermentative power, so you can use less of them for the same amount of grain.

One last note:  This recipe calls for mai, which is either wheat (lesser mai), or barley (greater mai).  The annotated edition thinks that it's specifically wheat, but does not offer a justification.  It's interesting that the starters mostly use wheat or barley, but the wines use rice or millet.

造神麴餅酒第六十四 Chapter 64: Making Wine using Exceptional Yeast Cakes

〈安麴在卷九藏瓜卷中 〉 Settled yeast cakes are in scroll nine, in the middle of the scroll on storing gourds.

凡作三斛麥麴法:To make three hu of wheat yeast cakes:

Steam, stir-fry, and leave fresh one hu of wheat each.  For the stir-fried grain: yellow it, let none burn.  For the fresh grain: pick over it and select the best.  Grind each third in their own mortar.  Grind them, striving for fineness.  After grinding, bring them all together.
On the thirteenth day of the seventh month (August 15, 2016), have a servant boy wearing dark clothes, before the sun rises, face west, and draw 20 hu of water.  Do not let anyone spill the water.  If there is excess water, you may drain it away, but do not allow anyone to use it.
As for when you join the water with the yeast cakes, face west and only add a little water (“make it ‘decidedly strong’”).  As for the people who will roll the yeast cakes, they should all be serving boys or children, and should each face west, and don’t allow the dirty or ill to take part.  Do not allow anyone who’s not involved to be nearby.
團麴,當日使訖,不得隔宿。屋用草屋,勿使瓦屋。 地須淨掃,不得穢惡;勿令濕。畫地為阡陌,周成四巷。作「麴人」,各置巷中,假置「麴王」,王者五人。 麴餅隨阡陌比肩相布。
As for rolling the yeast cakes, finish them the same day, don’t do half one day and half the next.  The roof should be thatched, not tiled. The floor should be cleanly swept, and not filthy and horrid; neither should it be damp.  Mark out the ground in a north-south and east-west cross, leaving four alleys around the outside.  Make yeast cake people [statues out of the wheat paste] and place each of them in the middle of the alleys.  Make five of them yeast cake kings. Spread the yeast cakes out shoulder-to-shoulder between the north-south and east-west crossing paths.
When they have all been spread, make one person from the master’s family the master of ceremonies - do not allow a slave or a servant to be the MC.  Give alcohol and dried fruit/meat to the “yeast cake king” thusly: wet the “yeast cake king”, make a bowl out of its hands, and into the bowl ladle alcohol, dried fruit, and cooked noodles.  The MC reads scripture [scripture given in the source, but omitted here] three times, and each time bows.
Be sure to board over the door, and tightly seal it with mud, not allowing wind to enter.  At dawn on the seventh day, at the appropriate time flip them over, and once again seal the door.  After another seven days, gather the cakes, again mud the door, allowing no wind to enter.  After another seven days, bring them out, pack them into a weng, and seal the head [with clay].  After another seven days, bore a small hole in each cake, thread a rope through them, air the whole string in the sun, really make sure it’s dry, and then place the cakes inside.  As for the yeast cake cakes, round them in the hand to be two thumb-joints and a half long, and nine-tenths of a thumb joint thick.
I'm going to try to make these once Christmas is over and I'm not traveling.  I've got a bag of soft wheat berries ready to go, although now I'm wondering if hard winter wheat would have been a better choice.  Research for another day!

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Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Recipe: White Cloudy Wine

A while ago I translated this recipe, and now that I've made it a few times, it's time to give you a readable recipe.


  • Two parts dry glutinous (sticky) rice, divided into two equal parts.
  • 0.1 parts yeast cakes (ideally white cloudy wine yeast cakes, as of yet untranslated)
  1. Thoroughly rinse half the rice, strain it, and put it, uncooked, in your fermenter.
  2. Bring 1-2 parts water to a boil, and pour it over the rice until the rice is covered.
  3. Cover the fermenter with a clean cloth.
  4. The next day, strain out the rice, retaining the liquid.
  5. Steam the rice, and spread it to cool.
  6. While you steam the rice, take 0.2 parts of the liquid retained from the rice, and boil it down to 0.05 parts.  Cool it, beat it with a whisk until frothy, and put it in your fermenter.
  7. Put the cooled rice, and 0.06 parts water in the fermenter.
  8. Powder the yeast cakes and put them in the fermenter, and mix.
  9. Cover the fermenter with a clean cloth.
  10. The next day, strain out the liquid from the mash.  Discard the mash, and return the liquid to the fermenter.
  11. Steam the second half of the rice, and add it, hot, to the fermenter.
  12. Cover the fermenter with a clean cloth.
  13. After 1-4 days, the wine should be finished.
One "part" here is 30L in the original recipe, and it also says to not scale beyond that in a single fermenter.

This recipe produces a somewhat thick, sweet, opaque white wine.  It's actually quite nice!

The process is actually somewhat similar to sake making: the liquid you drain off from the first batch of rice is full of amylase and sugar, which will help to ferment the second batch.

Steeping the rice in boiling water

Steamed, boiled rice.

Into the fermenter!

After fermenting.  It's very moldy, but this happens every time so I suppose it's intentional

Straining out the sugar + amylase

Steaming more rice.  My rice steaming game needs work.

Adding back the liquor

I was worried the high temperature would damage the yeast and the amylase...

But actually it worked out to 108 degrees, which is just about perfect for yeast growth.

I don't have pictures of the finished product.  The first time I made this (for the Feast of John Barleycorn), it came out with a very thick texture, but I think that must have been a one-off problem because the second batch was only slightly thick, and much sweeter.  That suggests to me that the amylase didn't do its job the first time.

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"Boiled" Millet Wine

I brought one new wine to King and Queens Arts and Sciences : a "boiled" millet wine.  This is the first wine for the second "...