Friday, February 8, 2013

Valentine's Day Doughnuts

Back in September I picked up Luisa Weiss' culinary memoir, My Berlin Kitchen: A Love Story (with Recipes). It is an easy book to love. Luisa writes with tenderness and beauty about her struggle to find home. And when she writes about food, all the push and pull and contentment of that search comes through too.

I bought the book when I was in San Francisco, on that one trip, just hours before she gave a reading in a little bookstore on the waterfront. I never mentioned the reading or the book, because although I love Luisa and her blog, and though her reading was great, and though I could imagine inviting her over for tea if we lived in the same city, the meeting itself didn't go so well, and I was a little mortified by the experience.

After she read and answered questions, which was, again, delightful (she is remarkably adept at public speaking and trekking about the country with a newborn!), we all stood in line for her to sign our books. But by the time I got to the front, I was shaky and woozy and not in a good state for verbal interaction.

It didn't help that I needed dinner. It didn't help that she was sitting down at a table and I was standing up and that she is petite and I am a giant. I walked up to the table and my vision blurred. When I looked down at her, she looked miles away--and I felt miles away--and any last bit of brain I did have floated into oblivion. I blumbered and mumbled and forgot to say simple things like, "hey, thanks for the reading," or "I've loved reading your blog all these years," or "thanks for being here--it was fun." Even such benign statements would have been better than whatever did spill out of my mouth.

Luisa brushed over my oddities with serious grace and generosity. She smiled, thanked me for coming, and she signed my book. But when I left I wanted to forget the whole thing happened at all. The day had been so lovely until I stood in that line. Her reading was so lovely, until I stood in that line. It was all so very anticlimactic. And I was so ridiculously in need of carbohydrates. I sat on a bench by the water and stared at the boats and the bridge and called Kevin. I cried about needing food and whined about the meeting and gave in a little too much to my most pathetic self. Kevin was gracious with me and made me promise to find some food immediately and to enjoy myself.

Somehow I managed to get up off the bench, but instead of getting food right away I walked straight to my car. Or, I walked in the general direction of my car, couldn't find the right parkade, ended up sobbing down the street in the dark, and finally found some sympathetic gate-keepers who led me around the lots. Should have gotten the food. I got myself together, drove out of the city, and found a burger joint on my way home.

When home, fed and weary but still alternating between scenes from the day and scenes from the signing and beyond, I hid the book away for a while and made a point to forget the traumatic part. Again, the day was so delightful; I didn't want to ruin the memory of it. So I didn't mention Ms. Luisa Weiss, or her reading, or her book, until now.


A few weeks ago I was eating toast with plum butter and remembered Luisa's recipe for plum butter doughnuts. I had read her book (good! recommended!) after the initial mortification of the signing wore off. I had dog-eared nearly every recipe, but her doughnut recipe never really struck my fancy.

Jelly doughnuts in America are very different, apparently, than jam doughnuts in Berlin. I have a very clear memory of eating my first (and only) jelly doughnut. I ate it as I walked from the concession stand at the swimming pool to the bleachers. I was with my dad, and he probably had an apple fritter; and though my usual was a cinnamon twist, the jelly doughnut looked so delightful and extravagant that I went for the sparkling monstrosity instead. But it was all show. I liked the puffy, sugared dough, but the "jelly" tasted of red dye and cornstarch. There was also way too much of it, and it oozed out and filled my mouth in a bad way.

But when I ate that toast with the plum butter I finally got it. Plum butter belongs in a doughnut. It belongs on my toast too, but I could imagine, finally, the glorious union of plum butter, sugared crust, and a soft puff of dough. The dream of it changed my previous doughnut-loathing mind. Luisa's Pfannkuchen, as it is called in Berlin, is another genre of doughnut altogether--one that has not been touched by that other food faux pas. I emailed Luisa right away, and the next day I bought my first square of fresh yeast.

I have made these twice so far, and everything Luisa says about them is spot-on. They are easy to make and easy to eat. They go stale "remarkably" fast, and though they are best slightly warm, they are still amazing once cooled. Calibrating the oil, and, I might add, piping the filling, are the most difficult tasks here. I'm apparently not very good at either. The little red line on my thermometer shot up and down the whole time and rarely stayed where I told it to, and the plum butter dripped all over everything, including my clogs. But despite these setbacks, the doughnuts worked. They were not too greasy and not too burned, and I was much cleaner with the plum butter by the second batch.

According to Luisa, Pfannkuchen are traditionally made and served on New Year's Eve and brought to parties on big platters. One of the doughnuts, however, is filled with mustard instead of jam--the short straw in the midst of goodness.  What follows is a sort of culturally-rehearsed skit: the lucky recipient cries out in "surprise and disappointment," and, in turn, the children "fall over themselves with delight and laughter: Then general merriment ensues. Hopefully."

I brought these plum doughnuts to a Super Bowl party, and as we are not German, I left the mustard out of it. But Super Bowl is over (it was an odd match anyway), and New Year's is too, and though I think these doughnuts would be nice any day of the year, I think making them specifically for Valentine's Day is worth considering. I loved them with my mother-in-law's plum butter (barely spiced with cinnamon, barely cooked too, and so very bright and tart) and with my own plum jam when I ran out (again, bright, but less tart); but it is important to consider that Luisa's plum butter is made with Italian prune plums, cinnamon, and cloves. It is also cooked longer and so becomes more jammy and grape-y and spicy, instead of light and bright like my mother-in-law's butter made with blood plums. Also, not everyone has plum butter in their cupboard, and not everyone can find it in the stores. But raspberry? *sigh* Or red currant? *sigh* Or black currant!? *deep sigh* I didn't ask what other jams she might recommend, but these options keep with the sense and ilk of the Pfannkuchen I experienced and Luisa offered, while being a little easier to locate in stores than plum products.

Maybe if I had one of these jam doughnuts as I stood in line to meet her I would have been a bit more stable and could have said then what I want to say now: It was nice to meet you, Luisa. Good job, and good luck, and I hope we meet again (when I've had something to eat).

Pfannkuchen (Jam Doughnuts) 

 Printed with permission from Luisa Weiss

A note on fresh yeast: Luisa calls for 1 ounce fresh yeast, but I could only find fresh yeast sold in .6 ounce cakes. I was too lazy to cut and weigh, so I just used two cakes, or a total of 1.2 ounces. They turned out just fine.

1 cup whole milk
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading
1 ounce fresh yeast
3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
3 large egg yolks, room temperature
7 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 1/2 teaspoon salt
4 1/2 cups neutral-tasting vegetable oil
1 to 1 1/2 cups Pflaumenmus (adapted recipe here, or see Luisa's book, page 237!)
Sugar or cinnamon sugar, for coating

1. Pour the milk into a small pot and heat it on the stove for just a minute, until it is lukewarm. Don't let it get hot.

2. Pour the flour into a mixing bowl and make a well in the middle. Crumble the fresh yeast into the well. Sprinkle a tablespoon of the sugar over the yeast and pour in the milk, mixing and dissolving the yeast and incorporating a bit of the flour from the sides of the well. Then cover the bowl with a dishtowel and let it sit for 15 minutes, until foamy.

3. Mix together the foamy yeast with the remaining flour, sugar, egg yolks, melted butter, and salt. Then knead the dough on lightly floured surface until it is smooth and satiny, about 5-7 minutes. Put the ball of dough in a clean bowl that's been rubbed with a drip of the vegetable oil, and cover with the dishtowel. Set aside for 1 hour, or until the dough has doubled in volume.

4. Gently knock down the risen dough once or twice, and then gently roll it out on a floured work surface to about 1/2-inch thickness. Cut out 2 1/2-inch rounds from the dough using a biscuit cutter or a drinking glass (or a wide-mouthed funnel). Transfer the rounds of dough to a parchment-lined baking sheet. The remaining dough can be cut into pieces and twisted, sort of like free-form cruller. (I did this on my first batch, but on my second I re-worked the dough to make as many round doughnuts as possible. They were lumpy and much less pretty, but it still worked well.) Add them to the baking sheet and then cover the doughnuts with a dishtowel. Let them rest for 30 minutes.

5. Pour the oil into a heavy pot and heat over medium-high heat to 330 degrees. You must use a thermometer. It is essential to keep the oil at this temperature throughout the frying process. If you notice the temperature rising over 340 degrees at any point, take the pot off the stove until the oil cools a little.

6. When the oil is the right temperature, gently slip a few doughnuts at a time into the hot oil, puffy side down. Fry until golden brown on one side, about 3 minutes, and then, using a slotted spoon with care, flip the doughnuts to fry on the other side for another 2 to 3 minutes. When they are nutty brown all around, remove to a cooling rack set over a sheet pan. Repeat with the remaining doughnuts.

7. Fill a pastry bag fitted with a small metal tip with the Plaumenmus (or other tart jam/butter). Stick the metal tip into the side of a doughnut and gently squeeze some jam into the doughnut. When you feel the doughnut start to swell in your hand, you've filled it enough. Roll the filled doughnut in the sugar or cinnamon sugar, and put it on a serving plate. Repeat with the remaining doughnuts. (Enjoy!)


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