Beignets at home (born of exasperation...)
Preamble: It slowly dawned on me (see here: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/378614) that driving to various Los Angeles restaurants for beignets (fritters) was 1) dumb, 2) expensive, and 3) a losing proposition. Besides, it's just fried dough, right? So, out comes Chef John Folse's book (Encyclopedia of Cajun and Creole Cooking) and off came the rust from my baking skills, which I haven't exercised in over a decade. One thing that should be noted is that I had never deep fried anything in my life. So, we figured out pretty much all of this on the fly, mostly by following Folse's guidelines, taking temperatures, and seeing what happened.
Folse's recipe is easy to follow (or just buy a package of the Cafe du Monde mix). I went to Bristol Farms, which is the top of my price range, and they didn't have Cafe du Monde mix, so I made my own dough and rolled it out to about 3/8" thick, 3" squares, per Folse's suggestion.
Next up was finding some oil that smokes hot enough to fry the beignets (CdM and Folse both suggest 350-375 degrees for optimum puffiness). Cafe du Tourist suggests cottonseed oil, Folse suggests vegetable oil. Folse wins -- I had canola oil in the cabinet. Inquiring minds might want to know -- will Trader Joe's canola oil get up to 350 degrees, or will it burst into flames? (Couldn't I have find this stuff on the Interwebs? Well, yeah: http://www.cookingforengineers.com/article.php?id=50&printer -- but then, how do you figure out which refined-ness of oil you have in your cabinet? Thermapen to the rescue, once again.) As you can see in photo #1, it is the former that happens to be the case. Hooray for Trader Joe's.
Now for the fun part -- will frying process result in fluffy beignets, or a trip to the emergency room? Just to keep things interesting (and because I don't own a fryer), I did all of the frying in the same vessel in which I tested the smoke point of the oil, a 1.5qt mousseline pan. It is nice and tippy, for added excitement. Dough was lowered into the oil with a slotted spoon (see figure #2) and flipped over once it had become golden brown (about 90-120 seconds per side).
In order to keep the beignets from getting soggy and greasy with oil, I put paper towels over a cooling rack and sprinkled the powdered sugar onto them while they were draining. This struck me as terribly clever, although it's probably the way everyone does it anyhow. (See photo #3)
The result was nice and fluffy and brown, and (I assume) incredibly bad for me. We each had two, with coffee and a bit of summer raspberry syrup from Georgia that I found in the fridge. (Depicted, more or less, in Photo #4)
And what, pray tell, do folks in New Orleans do? I'd hate to ruin the fun, so here's a final link: http://neworleans.metblogs.com/archiv... (Yes, my family tree is rooted in Louisiana soil; and no, I don't recall ever having to make beignets by hand in NoLa.)
So, if you are looking for a fun way to spend a Sunday morning and/or suffer 3rd degree burns (ask my sister, a trauma resident, about the close relationship between ER doctors and turkey fryer enthusiasts sometime), you could do a lot worse. Hope this helps you (...decide not to).
The dough was pretty simple -- Folse specifies 3.6 cups of flour (3 1/2 plus 2 tbsp), a packet of yeast blossomed in 1/4 cup warm water, 1tsp salt, 1/4 cup sugar, 1 1/4 cups milk, 3 beaten eggs, and 1/4 cup melted butter. The dry ingredients are mixed first, then the wet ingredients added, and the dough rises for about an hour.
The part that I wish I'd realized (and which my father, who went to medical school at Tulane, pointed out) is that, once the dough is risen, kneaded, and rolled out flat, you can refrigerate or freeze the dough and arrest it.
So, there's no need to make the dough on the morning-of unless you're prone to experimentation (that would be me). My folks will be stopping by to evaluate the results later in the week, so I'll have more data points at that time. For example: I think it may be possible to get away with 1/4" thick, for even fluffier, puffier results, but I'll have to test this theory out myself. Also, I have a nasty habit of pushing the dough under the oil as I flip the beignet mid-fry. I think this makes the product more oily and less light, so I'm going to avoid that in the future, too.
Basically, the ideal beignet in my conception would be an even-lighter version of the CdM standard, which is what they serve at Bardia's New Orleans Cafe (in the Adams Morgan district of Washington, DC -- excellent Sunday brunch if you ever find yourself nearby). It bothers me a little to hate on CdM, because they are the reason I like beignets, but I like to think that there's always a little room for improvement (or at least personal taste).
Bottom line: even if you make the dough yourself, you don't have to get up early -- make the dough the night before, rise it in the fridge, and start heating up the fry oil at the same time as you put the water on for coffee. Roll it out, cut the squares, and fry them while the milk scalds (for the cafe au lait, duh) and I think it's possible to make these as a 'lazy Sunday' brunch on a par with lox & bagels.
Folse's scratch recipe does turn out fluffier beignets than the CduM mix. Next time, put a spoon of fig preserves on a rolled-out beignet, fold over, and press a little to seal. You can also fill 'em with a small square of bitter chocolate. Throw out that canola...I think it has a yucky smell/funny taste...and get some pure peanut or corn oil for frying instead (or soybean, if you must). My grandma lived to 95 eating fried dough; beignets won't kill you. Have you tried making croquignolles? More like a traditional yeast doughnut than a flat beignet; I'll try to dredge up the recipe from my disorganized files.
These look great! I have used the Cafe du Monde mix, and while it does fry up easily, the results are very, very bland. I like your big fluffy-looking ones much better! However, one great use of the mix is as fritter batter--I mixed up a batch of the mix using extra water (so it was very goopy), added a tablespoon of sugar and a little cinnamon, then dipped fresh apple slices in it to coat. Fried up and rolled in cinnamon sugar--heaven!
I must confess....I bought the Cafe du Monde beignet mix from the King Arthur Flour catalog, and the beignets were fabulous!!! Incredibly easy to make and my family (who had recently been to N.O and to Cafe du Monde) were thrilled! I just found out you can order the beignet mix as well as the special chicory-coffee directly from the Cafe du Monde...and for cheaper than the KA catalog.
I'm right there with you, big fan of the Cafe du Monde mix. At some point, hot and fresh and loaded with powdered sugar makes up for a lot and beignets while still basically asleep in the mornings...nothing bad about that.
Of course, now I'm going to have to try the recipe above, thanks!
Apparently Chowhound has stopped accepting attached photos (or else some dork fell asleep at the pager and the RAID for their photo-attachments filled up... oopsie). Here is a link to my public PicasaWeb album with the pictures mentioned above (more or less, you can figure them out)
On the off chance Chowhound starts working with attachments again, I will post them inline.