Once relegated to state fairs and carnivals, deep-fried sweets are finding a place in white tablecloth restaurants from Poughkeepsie to Portland.
In an age when Cronuts©, fried Snickers Bars and tempura-ed frozen bananas are adding their fair share of calories to the American diet, perhaps it’s hard to imagine a time when frying foods, including desserts, was expensive – so much so, in fact, that it was limited to festivals (Feste di San Giuseppe or Little Italy’s (NYC) Feast of San Gennaro, to name two), celebrations and other special events. Nowadays we think of the country fair and the community carnival as places where eminently snackable and portable fried foods are de rigueur as one walks around from ride to ride and booth to booth. And with the advent of upscale donut shops offering all kinds of over-the-top flavor combinations, fried desserts on a plate almost seem out of place on a restaurant dessert menu. But thanks to a bit of childhood nostalgia, the popularity of fried ice cream coated in Frosted Flakes cereal and Italian bomboloni coated in graham crackers on restaurant menus is undisputed. Even delicate pains au chocolat are finding themselves getting a sunburn in hot oil and then being served directly from the fryer with a melting scoop of mascarpone ice cream to gild the lily.
Pastry chefs from Austin to Philadelphia and Miami to Washington D.C. are realizing the potential of boiling both delicate mixtures and a bit heftier items in oil. With an almost infinite number of permutations, the combination of dough, filling, ice creams, sauces, toppings and garnishes is leading pastry chefs to set up dedicated à la minute frying stations, filled with fresh oil which is changed frequently and kept at a steady temperature for predictably good results.
“Nothing beats serving a dessert directly from the fryer to the table” is the mantra of chefs putting pristine fried desserts on the menu. Ask Danielle Seipp, Pastry Chef for the Vetri family of restaurants, where ‘fried’ is a buzzword, who says, “People are into doughnut everything. When we offer bomboloni, an Italian doughnut analog, the reaction is unsurprising. Even after a decadent meal, guests are not thinking about watching their waistlines. They usually say, ‘Let’s get some of everything…for the table.’ ” Ditto for Maria Bermudez, Pastry Chef at the Four Seasons (Miami, FL) who puts freshly fried doughnut holes on the weekend brunch paired with a rotating palette of sauces — chocolate, dulce de leche orange, key lime, homemade Nutella, one on any given Sunday.
In the hands of a pastry chef used to plating multicomponent desserts à la minute, whether made from a yeasted dough (bomboloni) or pâte à choux (churros) or day-old cooked rice (Creole calas), what emerges from the pastry kitchen spells something both down-home and elevated with a perfect texture that can only happen when the dessert is just moments out of the fryer.
David Guas, a long-time pastry chef and now owner of the Bayou Bakery (Arlington, VA and Washington, D.C.) thinks of his locations as cultural centers where “we really celebrate what it means to be from Louisiana. With hospitality and cuisine, we are creating a space where Southerners, and others, can feel that they are in the right place. Our calas, rice fritters served with Steen’s cane syrup, a Louisiana staple, are at the center of that cultural comfort. Knowing the history of those fritters also enhances one’s appreciation of them. Guas recalls, “I remember being told that back in the 1930’s and 1940’s Creole women would vend these freshly fried mixtures of cooked rice, sugar, eggs, flour and spices on the streets of the French market section of the city.” With or without the sing-songy ring of “Calas, tout chaud!,” these fried treats strike a chord with Guas’s customers.
Austin, TX-based Taff Mayberry (Slake Café) takes his cues from the long tradition of fried ice cream at the Texas State Fair and says, “I don’t consider myself a pastry chef. I’m a cook who makes desserts that I grew up with and twist them a bit to make them my own. I let the ingredients do my work for me, using high butterfat cream, farm-fresh eggs and pure cane sugar to create non-pretentious simple food in a café/bakery setting.“ Relying on locally sourced honey and goat’s milk, Mayberry fashions the elements for a fried ice cream and then plates the dessert up with a house-made raspberry jam and white chocolate-pink peppercorn infused cream. Elevated from a state fair kind of sweet, his dessert has it all: it’s crunchy, with its Frosted Flakes coating, creamy with spicy undertones, reinforced by the flavorful heat of the peppercorns in the plating sauce.
In a luxury setting, Julie Jangali, Executive Pastry Chef at the Montage Hotel (Beverly Hills, CA) produces a raft of fried sweets, mainly for catered events. She recounts that one day a proofed pain au chocolat fell into the fryer and she hasn’t looked back since. From beignets with a palette of sauces – chocolate, caramel and seasonal fruit compote – and gossamer mini Spanish churros served in shot glasses with a spicy chocolate or slightly salted dulce de leche sauce to funnel cakes, Pennsylvania Dutch-style, Jangali explores the full range of oil-cooked possibilities. She sets up an action station for banquets scheduled to offer freshly fried goodies, upping the excitement and simply “giving the audience what it wants.” Come to think of it, that’s never a bad idea when it comes to hospitality in the true sense of the word.
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