About six years ago, I had to create a dessert for a contest. I wanted to make something warm and chocolatey that wasn’t just another warm chocolate cake. So I began by experimenting with different techniques for cooking chocolate, eventually getting hooked on the idea of frying it, like fried ice cream. I rolled it in different kinds of coatings, like nuts, to protect it, but it would always explode or melt.
Then I came up with the idea of using a dough as the coating—making, in essence, a filled fritter or beignet (pronounced ben-YAY). The dough would offer lots of protection to the chocolate while still remaining light and crisp. And the flavor of the dough is fairly neutral, so it lets the warm chocolate be the star. It worked. I didn’t win the contest (I think a warm chocolate cake won, actually), but I was really pleased with my new creation, and so were the customers at Brasserie Perrier, where I’m the pastry chef.
The outside’s a simple yeast dough
My early experiments were with different kinds of batters and doughs—first a tempura batter, but that was too crunchy. Next, I folded in whipped egg whites, but the result was too spongy and greasy. I ended up liking the results I got with what is essentially a brioche dough, a yeast dough enriched with eggs and butter.
The dough is pretty easy to make—I do it all in a stand mixer—as long as you pay attention to the critical points. Like the temperature of your milk; it should be warm, but not too hot or it will kill the yeast. Once you’ve added all the ingredients to the mixer, the dough looks lumpy, but don’t worry. As it continues mixing, it becomes smooth and elastic as the gluten develops. In fact, it’s almost impossible to overmix this dough—and it’s crucial not to undermix it, which would produce a very wet dough that would rip when you tried to shape it. You can tell that the dough is ready by stretching it: grease your hands, pick up the mass of dough, and stretch it gently. It should be elastic enough to extend several inches without tearing or breaking.
Once the dough is the right consistency, it needs to rest and chill so you can work with it without going nuts. As it rests, it will proof (or rise) a bit, which isn’t ideal since I find that an airy dough makes very spongy beignets. If the dough looks like it has risen a lot, just gently push it down in the bowl.
The center’s nothing but a truffle—yum
The filling is basically a ganache—which is what’s at the center of a truffle—and it’s quite easy to make: just pour hot cream over chopped chocolate and whisk until melted and smooth. You may end up with a few unmelted lumps, which you can take care of by popping the bowl of ganache over a water bath for a few seconds. Just be careful not to use too much heat or you’ll scorch the chocolate or cause the mixture to separate.
To this basic ganache, I add some unsalted butter that I’ve softened so it’s very, very soft but not melted or greasy. The French term for this is en pommade (pronounced ahn poh-MAHD), meaning it’s like cold cream, as in Pond’s cold cream. The butter gives the ganache great flavor and a satiny-smooth body, but it is a bit tricky to incorporate it. You must be sure the ganache is still liquid—so that the butter is easy to blend in with a whisk or an immersion blender—yet completely cool, or you’ll melt the butter, which will separate and leave a greasy texture and flavor.
Aim for smooth centers, tightly wrapped
You want to make truffle-size balls of ganache that are completely smooth and are all the same size. You can roll the ganache with your hands, use a tiny ice-cream scoop, or do what I do, which is to fill a pastry bag and pipe out the balls. This is easiest if you let the ganache harden slightly by leaving it at cool room temperature, but pay attention so that it stays pliable and doesn’t become too hard to pipe or scoop. After you’re finished piping, you can tap down any points that may have formed so that they won’t rip the pastry wrapping. The final step is to freeze the ganache balls to give them a bit of protection from the hot oil so they don’t melt too fast during cooking.
There are two tricks to wrapping the truffle centers, aside from working very fast so the dough doesn’t begin to proof and the ganache doesn’t start to melt. First, cover the center completely. If there are any holes or weak seams, the chocolate will leak out during frying and make a mess. Second, once you’ve wrapped the center with dough, pinch off any excess to make a very thin coating, which will translate into a light layer of fried dough.
Use hot, fresh oil. And no crowding, please
The first ingredient to put on your list when you make this dessert is a fresh bottle of oil. You don’t want to use oil you’ve used for anything else, and even a hint of rancidity from an old bottle will ruin the effect of the crunchy but delicate coating. I recommend peanut, canola, or safflower oil
I fry the beignets at a fairly hot temperature (350°F), which browns the outside nicely and seals in the chocolate. If you’re using a regular saucepan, you’ll need to fry only a few at a time to keep the oil temperature steady; if you add too many cold dough balls, the temperature will drop and your beignets will start soaking up too much oil. Also, if the oil is too cool, the dough will turn grayish and the chocolate will leak out. The beignets tend to float like corks, too, so push them under the oil now and then to get even browning.
A do-ahead strategy makes beignets great for parties. You can shape and wrap the beignets and freeze them (for up to two days) on a baking sheet covered with plastic. (Don’t let them touch one another or the dough wrapping may stick and rip later.) Take them from the freezer no more than 30 minutes before cooking; you just want the dough to thaw but not to get too soft or start rising. If the beignets look a little puffy or uneven, flour your hands and roll them around again. Now just fry them following the directions above.
I like to serve the truffle beignets really hot, with just a dusting of confectioners’ sugar for looks, and with a cool sauce such as crème anglaise or a fresh fruit coulis. You need to remember that these little gems contain a very hot liquid chocolate center. You’ll be tempted to pick one up and pop it in your mouth, but please, use a fork!