Bread of the Month: Frying puffy beignets

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Say what you will — or say nothing at all to remain nutritionally chaste — but fried dough is a thing unmatched. Looking beyond any wickedness, how can one say that a hot doughnut, a hushpuppy, a fritter — all warm from the fryer — is anything but a good thing? If you refuse to let any of these creatures cross your lips, well, good for you. But for those of us who dip (albeit very occasionally)into the hot, oily waters of the River Fry, we are sinners of the plate, true, but we will die taking some beautiful greasy memories to our graves.

Approaching Fat Tuesday, and Mardis Gras time, I find my mind traveling — once again — to where my whole being would someday like to journey. New Orleans. And in celebration, and perhaps the wistful conjuring, of a dream place of mine, I decided to make a fried New Orleans landmark — beignets — from scratch.
benbox01Beignets are little French doughnuts, sans hole. Cafe du Monde, a New Orleans institution since 1862, put beignets on the map, serving these crispy fried square puffs of dough doused in powdered sugar, along with their famous coffee and chicory (the root of endive, added to coffee when coffee was scarce and a brew needed fleshing out). The closest I’ve come to the real deal was when an advertising rep at the travel guide company where I worked overnighted some beignets from the famous cafe to our office (they were cold, but good, and likelier chewier after hours of traveling); and when I made beignets from the mix offered by the world-famous coffee stand. The mix beignets were outstanding; the dough was soft and light, it rolled out as easy a smooth carpet and fried up into delicate delicious little pillows.

Both experiences were sometime back, so my beignet longing (my last beignet was in Nashville a few years ago…a little disappointing as I ordered banana beignets but was served plain ones. It took forever and the beignets were somewhat toothierr, it seemed, than necessary) had resumed. Once a craving enters the mind of AWS, it sticks in her craw, or, she will not rest until she can stick it in her craw.

bnbat01My beignet recipe comes from “The New Orleans Cookbook, “ by Rima and Richard Collin (1975) and touts its success due to the use of canned evaporated milk or what some New Orleanians call “pet cream.” The dough can be refrigerated for up to a week, so you can make it and fry a small batch of beignets at a time…thankfully so, since this recipe makes 5 dozen, and even I have my limits.

A batter is made first, incorporating yeast, water, sugar, salt, canned milk, some shortening and a little flour. More flour bncut01is added until it is a dough too stiff to stir; that is then refrigerated. Checking said dough in the morning, I was heartened to find it had life and lift, growing to the rim of the bowl.

The dough is rolled out very thin and cut into small rectangles (I used a pizza wheel for this). It was time to fry! Shocking to say this…I don’t own a deep fryer! I have never seen the need since whenever I do fry deeply, I find a sturdy pot filled with several inches of cooking oil sufficient. bnfryn01These little squares puff up and turn golden quickly, rising to the surface of the hot oil immediately. In a matter of moments I had a good pile that I kept warm in the oven. For the powdering, I turned to my latest kitchen acquisition — a Sugar Shaker I had tired of the mess, labor and waste involved in the process of tapping powdered sugar through a mesh sieve, so this little canister — complete with lid to keep the sugar fresh and protected — does the job, lightly, which I like. I don’t believe in the powdered sugar avalanche I’ve seen where the beignets are unidentifiable under drifts of the white stuff.bnshaker01

Biting into the sweet, warm golden crunch of my French doughnut, I pondered its hollowness (and considered briefly what could fill it). So light! No wonder they are consumed by the bucket (or at Cafe du Monde, in trios)! But, I needed to resist. Well, one or two more. They are small. Pillows upon which to dream of adventures to come.bnbite01

Beignets (French Market Doughnuts)
From “The New Orleans Cookbook” by Rima and Richard Collin (1975)
Makes about 5 dozen

1 1/2 cup warm water
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
1 cup undiluted canned evaporated milk
7 cups flour
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
Oil for deep frying
Confectioner’s sugar

Put warm water in a large bowl, then sprinkle in the dry yeast and stir until thoroughly dissolved. Add the sugar, salt, eggs and evaporated milk. Gradually stir in 4 cups of the flour and beat with a wooden spoon until smooth and thoroughly blended. Beat in the shortening, then add the remaining flour, about 1/3 cup at a time, beating it in with a sppon until it becomes too stiff to stir. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

Roll the dough out on a floured board or marble pastry surface to a thickness of 1/8 inch, then cut into rectangles 2 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches with a sharp knife. Preheat oil in a deep fryer to 360 degrees. Fry the beignets about 3 or 4 at a time until they are puffed out and golden brown on both sides (about 2 to 3 minutes per batch)). Turn them over in the oil with tongs once or twice to get them evenly brown, since they rise to the surface of the oil as soon as they begin to puff out. Drain each batch, place on a platter lined with several layers of paper towels, and put the platter in a 200-degree oven to keep warm.

Sprinkle the beignets heavily with confectioner’s sugar and serve hot.

Blogger’s Note: I cut this recipe in half with successful results. Please keep an eye on beignets as they fry — they get done very quickly.

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