Mardi Gras Sweet Tooth: Beignets! Beignets! Beignets!!!

Monday, March 7, 2011

No Mardi Gras celebration could be complete without Beignets. Pronounced "ben-yays," it's a French import into Creole Louisianna. It means "fried dough" and out of the various fried doughs out there is my most favorite (sorry zeppole). They're surprisingly light for their density, wonderfully yeasty, and not overly sweet which is a wonderful departure from the American doughnut and all it's various sugar-driven toppings (although I like me a good doughnut too!). They are easy to prepare, requiring only water, yeast, all-purpose flour, a pinch of salt, a handful of sugar, good vanilla, and evaporated milk. A good standing mixer does the work for you, and then all you need to do is roll out your dough, cut, and fry. The dough can be made a full day in advance so all you need to do for your celebration is roll, cut, and fry. They are best served most hot directly out of the fryer and dusted immediately with an obscene amount of powdered sugar -- this is where they get most of their sweentess from actually -- and can be served plain as is or with a fruit dipping sauce on the side. I love them in the morning with a hot cup of coffee. Cannot....beat...that.

Beignets can be both sweet or savory, with the overwhelming percentage of them out there being sweet. You can also fill your beignets with fruit jams or jellies, but in my opinion you're then entering the German Spritzkuchen territory, another yeasty fried dough confection with jam preserves injected in the middle. Like with all great foods, keep it simple with beignets and relish in its uncomplicated perfection.

The art of a good beignet comes not from ingredients, but more so in the technique. First, make sure your yeast is active and not expired or else you'll compromise the fluffy yeasty goodness. In fact, I used instant yeast for this recipe which is based on Ann Burrell's with resounding success. I think instant yeast is the best invention after nutella, and is Idiot Proof for challenged pastry chefs and bakers like myself. If you can't find it, you can certainly go the traditional yeast route with the warm water + active dry yeast + tsp sugar = activated goodness. Then use the proper oil for frying: peanut oil is the best as it's smoking point is the highest of all the oils (meaning, it takes a higher temperature until the oil burns and thus won't burn the stuff you're cooking; vegetable, canola, or safflower oil are also acceptable neutral oils for this; leave out the flavored oils like olive or grapeseed oil on this one!

That's it for the ingredient tips!

As for technique, you could theoretically make the dough by hand but that is stupid. If you haven't invested in a standing mixer yet, please stop reading this now and go out and buy one. It will save your life and open a whole new door of possibilities. I suppose a bread machine would work for this too but a standing mixer does the job fine. A standing mixer will mix your dough in literally 5 minutes.

You need to let the dough then rise properly. When they say warm place, they mean WARM place. More on that later...

Roll quickly and decidedly -- show the dough who's boss and don't let it boss you around. Yeasty doughs can have a mind of their own and almost fight you back. Take control and make it submit to your will without pulverizing it in the process. Coax it, love it, talk to it and make it empty promises you know you won't come through on...whatever it takes to make it love you back for the brief moment you need it to.

When I say to roll it out 1/4" thick, I mean 1/4" thick; not 1/2" thick, not 1/28" thick. I mean, 1/4" thick.

And now...the recipe...

Mardi Gras Beignets
3/4 cup lukewarm water
1 packet instant yeast*
1/2 cup
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt
2 egg yolks
1/2 cup evaporated milk
3 tablespoons melted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 to 6 cups peanut or other neutrally-flavored oil, for frying
powdered sugar

In the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the instant yeast, flour, sugar, salt. This is your "dry" mixture.
In a separate bowl, combine the egg yolks, evaporated milk, melted butter, and vanilla. This is your "wet" mixture.

Add the wet mixture to the dry mixture and change your paddle attachment to the dough hook. Mix on low speed until combined, helping by scraping down the sides of the bowl with a spatula. Once the mixture is combined, knead the dough for 5 minutes on low speed. Remove the hook and turn out the dough into another bowl (metal or glass or porcelain works best), then cover the bowl with a kitchen towel. No need to oil the bowl -- the butter in the dough will prevent it from sticking. Place bowl in a warm place (on top of a dryer working on medium-high heat works miracles for this) for 2 hours, or until dough has doubled in size.

Once the dough has doubled, turn it out on a floured working surface. Lightly knead the dough with your hands and then roll it out to 1/4" thick. Then using a pizza slicer (the rolling one!), cut 2" thick strips, then cut again from the other side making 2" thick squares or rectangles. Don't worry if they're not all perfect.

In a wide, deep pot, heat the oil to 350 degrees F.

Set out a baking sheet sprinkled with a generous amount of powdered sugar. This will "receive" the beignets when they come out of the oil. Fry the dough in batches, careful not to overcrowd the pot, until golden brown and puffed up. Transfer to the baking sheet and immediately dust very generously with powdered sugar. It helps if two people are doing this -- one person fries, the other dusts. Conversely, you can place a 2 cups of powdered sugar in a large brown bag and throw the fried beignets directly in and shake the bag around to coat them well.

Serve hot!

*If you can't find instant yeast and need to make the yeast the old fashioned way:
In a measuring cup combine the 3/4 cup water, 1 envelope dry active yeast, and 1 teaspoon sugar. Let sit until the yeast gets frothy and smells yeasty. Then add this yeast mixture to "wet" ingredients.

**Yes you still add the 3/4 cup water regardless if you are using instant yeast or the other.

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