Thursday, July 20, 2006

Cooking School: Beignets

As a general rule, I don't deep fry things very often. In fact, I rarely eat anything that is deep fried. I do enjoy frying because I think it's fascinating to be able to watch the food cook and dough, in particular, puff up and take on a lovely golden color. So, I am willing to make fried foods when I have a special request.
My brother requested doughnuts, and I made beignets. Close enough.
Earlier this year, I made cake doughnuts, which use no yeast. I prefer them to yeasted doughnuts because they seem more substantial, but beignets have something special about them.
Beignets are a traditional pastry in New Orleans that are made with a yeasted dough. The dough is rolled out into squares and deep fried. The unique thing about them is that they have pockets in the center, making them incredibly light. Unfortunately, the one I cut in half for the photo had only a small, off-center pocket, but the rest really did have them! More often than not, they are sweet, but savory versions of beignets do exist and are very popular in some places.
I like this recipe, which I got from eGullet because it allows for an overnight rise in the fridge. This means that aside from heating up the oil, there is minimal work to be done in the morning. Since beignets are part of a tasty - if not exactly balanced - breakfast, this is a particularly good feature of the recipe. The beignets are usually served with a dusting of powdered sugar, though anything from jam to syrup can be eaten with them. A cup of coffee or hot chocolate is, in my opinion, a vital part of the dish.
Mine were very light and fluffy in the center and slightly sweet. The outside is pleasingly crisp fry the frying and, thanks to some thorough draining, they didn't seem greasy at all. I will say that they were a bit thicker than some of the commercially made beignets that I have had, but with this sort of pastry, practice will produce a more perfect product.

(recipe from eGullet)
3/4 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
1 tsp active dry yeast
1/4 cup sugar
3 3/4 — 4 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup evaporated milk*
1 large egg
2 tbsp butter, very soft
canola (or safflower) oil for frying
confectioners sugar, to serve

In a large bowl (the bowl of an electric mixer), dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Mix in sugar, salt, egg, and evaporated milk. Add 2 cups of the flour and beat (by hand or with the paddle attachment) until smooth. Stir in the butter and 1 3/4 cups flour, switching to the dough hook towards the end of mixing if you are using an electric mixer. Add in remaining flour one tablespoon at a time until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl into a soft ball. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest in the refrigerator overnight.
In the morning, heat one quart of oil in a medium sauce pan (or more oil in a bigger pan if you want to cook a lot at a time), measuring it with a thermometer until it reaches 370F.
Scrap dough, which will have doubled in size, out of the bowl and onto a very lightly floured surface. Deflate and shape into a rectangle. Roll out the rectangle until it is 1/8-1/4 inch thick. Cut the dough into 25 squares using a pizza cutter.
Lower squares into hot oil and cook, turning once, until golden brown. Monitor the temperature to make sure it does not drop too low or get too high. Do not overcrowd the pan.
Drain on paper towels and dust generously with confectioners sugar before serving.
Makes 25 beignets
*Note: If you do not have evaporated milk, do not use sweetened condensed milk. In a pinch, you can substitute cream or light cream (which I had done) for evaporated milk and still get good results.