Fritters: A Short Endorsement

Pan-frying corn frittersA simple definition.  Fritters are made from a simple batter that is garnished with meat or vegetables or fruit and then fried, either in a pan or deep-fryer.  They can be sweet or savoury.

Why you should care about fritters.  Fritters are an important preparation to master for the following reasons: you almost always have the ingredients needed to make them; they fry up quickly; and they are a fantastic way to use leftovers, whether it’s meat like ground beef or ham, or sautéed vegetables, or cheese.

The fritter continuum.  The degree to which the batter or the interior garnishes dominate varies widely.  Let’s explore the two ends of the Fritter Continuum using corn fritters.

You can make a corn fritter by taking the kernels from one ear of corn and stirring in an egg, a tablespoon each of flour and cornmeal, and a pinch of salt.  This will make a fritter that is mostly comprised of fresh corn, barely held together by egg and starch.  This fritter is relatively dense, and gives the eater the satisfaction of popping several kernels of corn in one bite.  This style of fritter is typically pan-fried or griddled.  It is pictured above.

Corn fritters and saladOn the other hand, you could make a batter by stirring together a cup of flour, two tablespoons of baking powder, a cup of milk, a couple eggs, then fold some corn kernels into the batter.  This would make a light, doughy fritter studded with yellow kernels of corn.  This style of fritter is usually deep-fried.  At right.

The next time you are craving bar food, if you have eggs in your fridge and flour in your pantry, consider fritters.

Choux Pastry

Choux pastries ready to be stuffed with whipped creamBefore the exciting conclusion of Custard Week, I want to take you on a quick detour to show you some applications for the custards we’ve been making.  Let’s talk about choux pastry.

Choux pastry is a bit weird.  First of all it’s weird because it’s not clear whether it’s a dough or a batter.  Next it’s weird because it’s cooked twice, once on the stove, and once in the oven.  Then it’s weird because when you cook it the second time it puffs itself up so that it’s entirely hollow.  And finally it’s weird because its name is French for “cabbage pastry”.  To my knowledge it is never eaten with cabbage, so I’m thinking that the name refers to the bubbly sphere a dollop of choux pastry forms when baked for the second time.  I guess to French eyes this sphere looks like a cabbage.  To me it looks like a baseball.  That’s what’s funny about Europe: the little differences.

While the process for making choux pastry is bizarre, it is really easy.  First you heat water and butter on the stove until the butter has melted.  Then you whisk in some flour to make a paste.  Stir this mixture over medium heat for a few minutes to cook out the starch.

Beating the eggs into choux pastryThen you remove the paste from the heat and let it cool down a bit.  You do this because you’re about to add eggs, and you don’t want to cook the eggs quite yet: you just want to mix them into the batter, or dough, or whatever.  Once the batter has cooled enough that you can comfortably stick your finger in it for more than a few seconds, you add the eggs, one at a time, while beating the hell out of the paste.  At first it will seem that the batter won’t accept your eggs, but it will – just keep beating.

Once all your eggs are incorporated, the batter is done.  You can pipe it immediately, or store it in the fridge.

There are several classic preparations made from choux pastry.  As you can imagine, it lends itself well to being filled, as with profiteroles and éclairs.

In other applications it is left hollow: gougères, for instance, which are small, cheese-flavoured pastries, or gnocchis à la parisienne, which is deep-fried choux pastry.

For most applications choux pastry is baked in the oven.  This is usually done in two stages: a high-temp baking around 425°F that rapidly vaporizes the water content so that the pastry can puff up before the starch sets, and a 350°F stage that sets the starch.  Once the pastries are pulled from the oven and cooled, you can bore a hole in them and get stuffing.

For profiteroles (cream puffs…) simply load up a piping bag with whipped cream or pastry cream and squeeze a small amount into the pastry.

Cream puffs, some dipped in chocolate

 

Choux Pastry

Ingredients

  • 8 oz water
  • 4 oz unsalted butter
  • 4 oz all-purpose flour
  • 8 oz whole egg (4 whole eggs…)
  • pinch of kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Combine the water, butter, and salt in a heavy pot.  Heat until the butter has melted.
  2. Add the flour.  Stir until a paste forms, then cook over medium heat for a few minutes, stirring periodically.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat and let stand to cool slightly, at least five minutes.  You should be able to touch the paste without burning yourself…
  4. Beat in the eggs one at a time.  Don’t add the next egg until the previous one is completely incorporated.
  5. At this point the batter can be piped and baked immediately, or refrigerated for later use.

Biscuits

Square biscuitsWhen I was little we called these savoury pastries “scones,” our pronunciation rhyming with the word “owns”, but they are much more like American biscuits than British scones (the pronunciation of which rhymes with “lawns”).

For the sake of clarity I’ve taken to calling them biscuits.  Whatever you call them, they are flaky quick breads made with butter, milk, and flour.  A little salt and a little baking powder.  That’s it.

My mom used to make a ham and cheese biscuit.  She made her dough with milk soured with vinegar (buttermilk would have been used when she was growing up, but we never had this in our fridge).  The dough was rolled into a sheet, covered with slices of ham and grated cheddar cheese, then rolled into a log.  This was baked, then sliced into rounds to reveal the spiral cross-section.  Make a salad, and that was dinner.

Anyways.

The Dough.  My preferred method is to sift together flour, baking powder, and salt, then grate very cold butter into those dry ingredients and mix to combine.  Make a well in the centre, add buttermilk, and stir together until a dough forms.

To get a very flaky biscuit you can use a rolling method similar to that used for puff pastry. Roll the dough into a rectangular sheet, then fold one third of the rectangle into the centre, then the opposite third towards the centre.  By re-rolling and repeating this procedure you create several distinct layers within the biscuit.  If you roll and fold more than twice, you should let the dough rest thoroughly before continuing.  This makes the entire biscuit-making process a lot longer, but it gives the biscuits a very distinctive, rustic layering.  Once baked they’ll pull apart effortlessly for easy butter application.

On Shaping.  Biscuit dough is traditionally rolled out and punched into rounds with a ring mold.  This leaves behind a lot of trim, which has to be reformed and punched again.  The biscuits from the second shaping never rise as high or as evenly as the first rounders.  My question is, why do we cut biscuits into rounds?  Why not roll out the dough, then cut it in a grid pattern to make square biscuits, lessen trim and get a more consistent batch?  Something to consider.

On Baking and the Even Rise.  Chefs use several techniques to ensure that biscuits rise evenly in the oven and don’t slump to one side or the other.  I don’t know how effective they are, but I do them all, just in case.  I suppose I’m superstitious.

The most common tip is to roll out the dough in all directions.  Don’t just roll the dough away from you; roll it away from you, towards you, to each side, and on the diagonals.  This way the gluten is evenly stretched and will not favour a certain direction when the dough rises.

My pastry instructor at culinary school insisted that the biscuits be lined up close together on the baking sheet.  Close, but not too close.  Maybe an inch apart.  I don’t have a clear idea of how this helps.  Maybe the biscuits don’t want to touch each other, so they’ll rise straight up to avoid leaning over and brushing against their neighbour.  Again, I don’t know why it helps, but I’ve never tried not doing it for fear of what might happen.

Usually it’s nice to have pastries with a deep golden-brown surface, but if brought to this point biscuits will be too crusty.  They should be very lightly browned, and have a delicate, crisp exterior.

With the theory out of the way, here is a formal recipe.

Biscuits

Master Ratio – 3:1:2 flour, butter, buttermilk

Ingredients

  • 12 oz all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp baking powder
  • 4 oz unsalted butter, very cold
  • 8 oz full fat buttermilk

Procedure

  1. Sift together the flour, salt, and baking powder.  Using the large holes of a box grater, grate the cold butter into the flour and mix so that it is evenly distributed.
  2. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture.  Add the buttermilk.  Stir so that flour is slowly incorporated into the buttermilk.  Continue until the dough forms.  Knead very briefly until the dough is somewhat smooth.  Wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate for at least 15 minutes.
  3. Roll the dough out into a rectangle about 1″ thick.  Fold in thirds as described above.  Repeat the roll and fold, then wrap the dough tightly in plastic and refrigerate about 1 hour.
  4. Repeat step three two more times.
  5. Roll the dough to 1″ thickness, then cut to desired shapes.  Line the biscuits on a bake sheet so that they are about 1″ apart.  Bake in a 375°F oven until cooked through and lightly browned.

Biscuits with butter and crabapple jelly

Crêpes

Crêpes are very thin, unleavened pancakes.

The batter is very runny.  I mix the ingredients with a stick blender to make sure there are no clumps of flour and the batter is very smooth.

Being so thin, crêpes take on the flavour of their cooking fat readily.  For instance, to flavour your crêpes with butter, you need only quickly rub the surface of the hot pan with a stick of butter so there is a very thin, uniform layer.  Lard is a good cooking fat for savoury applications.

Crêpes look and taste best when they are golden brown.  This means cooking over medium-high heat.  The side of the crêpe that cooked first will have a uniform, golden brown surface, while the other will generally be spotted brown.

Basic Crêpes

Master Ratio – 2:2:1 milk, egg, flour

Ingredients

  • 4 oz whole milk
  • 4 oz eggs (about 2 large eggs)
  • 2 oz all-purpose flour
  • a pinch of salt
  • butter for frying

Procedure

  1. Combine the milk, eggs, flour, and salt in a measuring cup and blend together with a stick blender.
  2. Heat the butter in a heavy, non-stick pan over medium high heat.  Pour about 1/2 cup of the batter into the pan.  It should sizzle aggressively at first.  Tilt and rotate the pan so that the batter covers its surface in a thin, uniform layer.
  3. There are several ways to tell when the crêpe is ready to be flipped.  First and foremost, the bottom will be a uniform, golden brown.  The edges will start to curl and separate from the pan.  Also, the top of the batter will start to lose its lustre and turn opaque.  Flip the crêpe and cook briefly on the other side, until some brown spots form.

This basic recipe is equally good for both sweet and savoury applications.  Below is a crêpe folded around ice cream, served with fresh raspberries from the backyard.  It could just as easily be wrapped around leftover braised beef, and topped with mushroom cream reduction.

Ice cream crêpes with raspberries

A simple variation:

Wild Rice Crêpes

Ingredients

  • 4 oz whole milk
  • 4 oz egg (about 2 large eggs)
  • 1.5 oz all-purpose flour
  • 0.5 oz wild rice flour (see note below)
  • a pinch of salt
  • 1 tbsp cooked wild rice
  • butter for frying

Procedure

  1. Blend together the milk, egg, flours, and salt.  Stir in the cooked wild rice.
  2. Fry in butter as described above.

Notes: Wild rice flour can be made easily at home by blitzing the rice in a blender.  Powerful models like the Vitamix will easily convert wild rice to flour.  Less powerful blenders may have difficulty reducing all of the wild rice to powder, in which case I simply sieve the mixture to remove any remaining larger bits.  Wild rice flour will give the crêpes a distinctive dun cast.  I particularly like wild rice crêpes with duck and cured freshwater fish.

Smoked Pickerel, wild rice and green pea crepes, celery root slaw, grainy mustard dressing

 

Pancake Soup

Even in the absence of any leftover with which to wrap, crêpes can still be served.  In Austria there is a traditional soup called Frittatensuppe, usually translated as pancake soup, which is simply thinly sliced crêpes served in beef broth.

Pancake soup

Pancakes

Frying pancakes in bacon fatLast night was Pancake Tuesday, the appropriately subdued Canadian version of Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.

I want to tell you about my pancakes.

 

The Recipe

Pancake styles occupy one point on a continuum between slack batters and stiff batters.  Slack, or high-liquid, batters make thin, soft, limp pancakes the size of dinner plates.  Stiff, or low-liquid, batters, yield thicker, cakey pancakes the size of tea saucers or smaller.  For home-cooking I favour the stiff variety, making a batter that is barely, barely pourable.  The resulting cakes are more dense, but still soft and moist.  They develop a delicate, crisp exterior during frying, something that the slack batters can’t do because of their high liquid content.

In the name of flavour, I make two substitutions to standard pancake recipes.  First, I convert half of the milk called for in the recipe to buttermilk.  I’ve experimented with all kinds of ratios, from no buttermilk, to all buttermilk.  The purpose of the buttermilk isn’t to make the pancakes sour, but to add a mild acidity that wakes up the palate.  Half buttermilk and half whole milk seems to be the right balance.

Second, I convert one quarter of the all-purpose flour called for in the recipe to whole wheat flour, which adds a bit of flavour, texture, and colour to the batter.

My full recipe is typed below.

 

The Cooking Procedure

The griddle is the supreme cooking vessel for pancakes, as the temperature is easy to control (375°F is the ideal setting) and the heat is uniformly distributed by the dense metal surface.  My griddle also has a trough around its perimeter that catches fat.  This is important.

Once my gridle is hot I fry an entire evening’s worth of bacon and sausage.  Fat renders from the meat and accumulates in the troughs.  I remove the meat to a tray and hold it in a 250°F oven.  Before cooking each batch of pancakes, I spoon some of the bacon fat from the trough over the surface of the griddle.  After the buttermilk and flour, this is the main source of flavour, and I think the key to superlative cakes.

Thanks to Andy and Vanessa for hosting dinner last night.  Sorry about the smoke.

The details:

 

Pancakes for Shrovetide
(buttermilk pancakes in bacon grease)

Ingredients

  • 1 pound quality bacon or sausage
  • 6 oz whole milk
  • 6 oz buttermilk
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 oz unsalted butter, melted
  • 6 oz all-purpose flour
  • 2 oz whole wheat flour
  • 2 tbsp granulated sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp kosher salt

Procedure

  1. Fry the meat on a 375°F griddle until browned and rendered.  Remove to a tray and hold in a 250°F oven.
  2. Combine the milks, eggs, and melted butter in a large mixing bowl.  In a separate bowl, combine the flours, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet until just combined.  Do not overmix.  The batter will still be a bit lumpy with unincorporated flour.
  3. Distribute the bacon fat evenly over the griddle.  Spoon the batter onto the griddle  in 2 oz rounds.  Fry until the bottoms are amber-gold, the edges of the pancake have set, and there are bubbles of air appearing on top.  Flip.  Again, once the bottom is amber-gold, the pancake is done.
  4. Enjoy with the bacon or sausage, and maple syrup.

Frying pancakes in the bacon fat