The Nation's Pulse

Daily Bread

Nothing beats the smell of fresh beignets in the morning.

By 10.26.05

Send to Kindle

On Sunday, I woke up at 3:30 in the morning and thought, "Perfect! I can make beignets." The Old N'Awlins powdered-sugar doughnut squares (or triangles) are a family brunch favorite. Gotta eat 'em hot, too, right from the pan.

Breads require advance notice in order to rise twice, thus do bakers rise early. I had to shop. The recipe for beignets calls for:

Flour, 2 and a half cups

Milk, 1 cup, heated but not hot

Oil, one quarter cup

Sugar, one quarter cup

Yeast, 2 T.

Cream of Tartar, 1 T.

Egg, 1

Nutmeg, 1 t.

Salt, pinch

FOR PUFFIER BEIGNETS, the usual recipe includes baking soda and/or powder; I can't eat them on a dialysis diet, so I leave them out. Use a tablespoon of soda and/or a teaspoon of powder if you like. I recently used up the last of my fresh nutmegs, which have to be ground or grated. Grate till it smells right; grated fresh nutmeg is much stronger than packaged powder, so you'll need less than a teaspoon. It really adds a zing and is absolutely worth the trouble.

I knew we were out of eggs, for one; that the boys needed milk, for two; and that we appeared to have a backup bag of flour. So out I dashed for two stops at all-night merchants: Dunkin' Donuts (for a fresh cinnamon doughnut) and Shop n Shop (hey, their orthography). I bought, besides some extra groceries, the needed milk and eggs, returned home, and started to put together the beignet dough...

And discovered at the very last that the backup bag of flour was whole wheat. If there had been no white flour at all, I would have had to go out again right away. An all-whole wheat dough would have been impossibly dense, downright unpalatable without jacking up the yeast, the soda, and the baking powder, which I could not do. In the mixer, all-wheat dough would just stick and stick and stick and stick. Fried in hot oil, the beignets would have burned before they cooked through.

As it was, I used all the available white (about two thirds of a cup) and just enough wheat to make the batter pull away from the mixer bowl.

THAT BEIGNET RECIPE FOLLOWS the standard ratio for dry vs. wet ingredients (i.e., flour vs. milk plus egg plus oil) in yeasted baked goods. "Regular" bread would be 2.8 to 1; the beignets, a bread but slightly wetter for frying, come in at 5 to 3. In a continuum, the ratios run from a low 1 to 1 for pancakes and waffles, to 2 to 1 for muffins and batter breads, up to 3 to 1 for Italian or French baguettes.

It also follows a mnemonic I invented for making sure all the ingredients go in, a necessity for a fast ad-lib cook like me. The mnemonic, SOY sweetwater, reminds me to put in Salt, Oil (or other shortening or butter), and Yeast (or other rising agent). "Sweetwater" means any sweetened liquid.

I came to these discoveries 30 years ago when I was on dialysis for the first time. I had moved in with my mother and her boyfriend, a jovial American Indian named Skip. We lived in a double-wide mobile home overlooking the Pacific, cheap housing in an expensive Southern California town. Social Security's SSI program paid me $250 a month. The program did not allow any on-the-books work.

So I got up at about 4, listened to Ken & Bob on WABC, and baked, in four shifts of the oven, 14 loaves of bread: Six of Swedish rye and eight of whole wheat (on a base of coffee, honey, and minced lemon peel). I tried hard to avoid noise, kept the banging to a minimum and the radio low, and mixed the batter by hand in a giant steel bowl with two carved wooden cooking sticks in a two-handed motion that made the bowl spin on the formica counter. Then I kneaded it by hand, which gave me an intimate knowledge of flours and dough and the characteristics of bread.

Mom and Skip always said they occasionally woke up and went back to sleep, but it was worth it to rise in a home filled with the smell of fresh bread. At about nine, I'd pack up all the loaves but one, if we needed one at home, and drove around West L.A. in my old Volkswagen until I had sold them all for two dollars apiece. Four times a week, make that about a hundred extra bucks, old Volkswagen with gas at 89 cents, a pack of Pall Malls, free rent, and I was happy.

I LIVED WITH LOVING GOOD SPORTS THEN, and I live with loving good sports today. As I told my wife yesterday, "You are married to an odd old duck." She agreed, and she loves me still. Thirty years on, please hold the moral pronouncements, Mom and Skip are still an unmarried item. They still recall that great bread.

To duplicate the Swedish rye today, for example, from a recipe I devised and adapted and never wrote down, I would have to buy some rye flour (it took all three kinds, white, rye, and whole wheat), and have buttermilk, beer, and dill always on hand. Then I would have to experiment with proportions, reducing my original recipe to a single loaf. The only thing I can remember is that I started with equal amounts of buttermilk and beer, and that that amount was dictated by the convenience of using a whole 12 ounce can of beer. So take 2.8 to 1 and multiply out starting from 24 ounces.

THOSE BEIGNETS? I took an experienced baker's precautions. When I mixed the initial batter, I started with half my 2/3 cup of white flour, then added whole wheat very sparingly. As I saw the dough in the mixer begin to pull and form the characteristic strings and tears that signal completion, I stopped adding the whole wheat. (You could, at this point, just put in more whole wheat endlessly; it's like that.)

Last step, add the remaining white flour till the dough truly pulls away from the bowl, and drip in a little oil to coat. The remaining finished dough was wetter than usual, and I did have to go out again to buy white flour to use for the second rise squash-down and rollout.

Then I heated oil in a pan to the verge of smoking, turned the flame way down, and cooked two beignets to experiment. At the point where they were on the verge of scorching, I took them out, drained them, and sprinkled them with powdered sugar. Before cooking any more, I tasted them to make sure they were cooked through. They were, so I cooked the rest at a lower temperature, to a glazed brown.

Verdict: Superb. Crunchy, rich, even tastier than usual. I'll probably use whole wheat flour in beignets again. Just not as much.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Lawrence Henry writes every week from North Andover, Massachusetts.