Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Italian Old Fashioned Doughnuts - a winner at the Brooklyn Booze Experiment!

Who knew that turning a classic cocktail comprised of just a few simple ingredients into a little doughnut would be such a hit?  Apparently it was - my Italian Old Fashioned Doughnuts won 1st place from the judges as well as the Theo Prize for embodying the spirit of the competition (no pun intended) at Sunday's Brooklyn Booze Experiment.

When I saw the theme, the first thing I thought of was transforming a classic cocktail into a dessert.  I'm not sure why that immediately popped into my head, but, for whatever reason, it did, and I was determined to do so.  

My initial plan was to transform one of my favorite cocktails, the Clover Club - it's a pre-Prohibition drink that gave the Brooklyn bar its name and is made with gin, raspberry syrup, lemon, and egg white (I love egg white cocktails).  The plan was to make lemon shortbread cookies and make sandwiches out of them with a raspberry jam filling and a gin-infused uncooked meringue as the filling.  You know how sometimes things sound amazing on paper but don't work in practice?  This was one of those things. 

Gin is a subtle spirit and I needed a whole lot of it to make the meringue taste like it.  Unfortunately, all that alcohol destabilized the filling.  After some tinkering, I got the meringue to hold its shape and was finally able to make a sandwich cookie.  I took a bite.  It was delicious.  But it was delicate and subtle, and I know from having done five previous Experiments that subtle gets you nowhere.  Subtle is by no means a bad thing - it's actually wonderful - but it's better suited for a plated dish at a restaurant, not a cook-off where more than half the competitors have dishes laden with pork and fat.  So the Clover Club Cookie was scrapped.

All along, I had a backup plan of making a similar cookie but with the components of another of my favorite classic cocktails, the Old Fashioned, which, as I've mentioned, is made with rye whiskey, sugar, bitters, and a twist of orange peel and is then stirred along with a few chunks of ice.  Incredibly simple, but, when made well, it's much greater than the sum of its parts.  The plan was to make blood orange bitters shortbread cookies filled with a dark chocolate ganache infused with rye whiskey.  I did not like that plan.  It was a boring cookie.  I don't even like cookies all that much.  So I proceeded to have a minor meltdown because it was two days before the Experiment and I was really not happy with what I was making.  A frantic email to my husband ensued and he came to the rescue by suggesting I keep my flavor combination but turn it into a doughnut.  Yes, he is brilliant.
Old Fashioned cocktail - simple, but so good when done right
Last year I had made ricotta doughnuts and they were so good that he couldn't get them out of his head.  I hadn't made them since then, but I remembered the recipe (I had written it down but never actually got around to posting it on here!) and got to work making them.  Because the doughnuts are rolled in sugar, I decided to flavor the doughnut batter with blood orange zest and move the bitters to the sugar coating, as they would provide more of an aromatic sensation, which is evocative of the drink.  The filling of rye-infused ganache stayed the same.

As for the bitters, I didn't want to use liquid bitters - the sugar would get clumpy and the alcohol flavor would be a bit too much, especially given that the filling was pretty potent.  So I thought of the flavors I could discern when drinking bitters - particularly those of the Italian variety, such as Ramazzotti and Averna, and then did a bit of quick research to make sure I wasn't totally off-base.  I opened my spice cabinet to see what I had and pulled out everything I had that was a component of bitters.  I'm not really sure how I hit upon the combination I came up with - fennel, cardamom, coriander, clove, and black pepper - but luckily it worked well on the first try.
Ramazzotti - one of my favorite Italian Amari
To my pleasant surprise, the doughnuts came together really quickly - the only thing that took a while was waiting for the ganache to set to fill the doughnuts.   Matt and I both agreed that this was the way to go - and with that I committed myself to waking up at 5:30 on Sunday to fry 360 doughnuts.  I did all the prep on Saturday - grated zest for the batter, made the bitters sugar, and made the ganache - and just fried, coated, and filled on Sunday (the latter of which took longer than expected - I didn't account for the fact that my arm would start to hurt after filling about 200 doughnuts).

Once at the Experiment, I was disappointed but not at all surprised to see so many pork dishes.  There were 6 other desserts, the most creative of which was made by repeat competitor Jeffrey Olsen - he made a whiskey marshmallow injected with hot chocolate and an ice cream sandwich version of the Scottish dessert Cranachan, which gave us both a laugh because I had contemplated making a filled shortbread cookie version of the same obscure dessert.  Of all the competitors I've gotten to know since the Chocolate Experiment, I'm always impressed by Jeffrey's ambitious and experimental creations.

Me and my setup.  Take note of my ever-present mascot, Domo.

That aside, I had a blast at this Experiment, which is the last one in Brooklyn before Nick and Theo head out on the road to take their cook-offs to five cities that will culminate in an all-stars cook-off in Brooklyn in September.  A special thank you to the judges - Jordana Rothman, the food and drinks editor at Time Out New York; Tom Potter, founder of the nascent New York Distillery; and Noah Bernamoff of Mile End in Brooklyn, who was an able and apt last-minute substitute for the usual judge Andrew Knowlton - and Theo, who decided to bestow upon me another prize (and a home brewing kit that I've been meaning to buy for months!).

Before I get to the recipe, here are a few links of coverage of the event; I'll add more as I come across them.  And if you've written a recap, please send me the link!

The Brooklyn Booze Experiment (official site)

The Food Experiments blog
The Brooklyn Booze Experiment: photos on Flickr
Bites on the Today Show (please ignore the horrible photo of me)
Photo recap from Metromix
Off Manhattan

A few quick notes on the recipe - the doughnuts are actually incredibly easy to make.  Deep frying may seem scary, but it's not if you use a deep pot and keep a close eye on the temperature (yes, you need to use a thermometer) and make sure to keep it above 340 F so as to ensure a crispy exterior and prevent an oily mess.  The really critical component here is the spice blend for the bitters-scented sugar - it's what elevates these from chocolate-booze-orange doughnuts to a complex and faithful incarnation of a cocktail.  If you don't have the spices, see if you can wrangle some from a friend - you need a very small amount of each of them.  Freshly ground is always best, but if you have bottled, use a tiny bit more of each one, as the flavor of bottled is always weaker than freshly ground.

Italian Old Fashioned Doughnuts
makes approximately 30 1” round doughnuts

For the filling
2 ½ ounces 60% dark chocolate
2 ½ ounces (¼ cup + 1 tablespoon) heavy cream
1 tablespoon rye whiskey

For the bitters-scented sugar
¼ teaspoon freshly ground fennel seeds
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground cardamom
Large pinch freshly ground coriander
Dash of ground cloves
1 turn freshly ground black pepper (make sure to grind on the finest setting)
Scant ½ cup sugar

For the blood orange-ricotta doughnuts
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon fine sea salt
2 eggs
¾ teaspoon blood orange zest (1 orange should provide this amount)
½ teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup ricotta cheese
2-3 cups vegetable oil for frying


Make the filling
Finely chop the chocolate and transfer to a medium bowl. Heat the cream until it is just bubbling around the edges (you can do this in the microwave or on the stovetop – I used the former). Pour the hot cream over the chocolate and let it stand for 1 minute, then whisk until all the chocolate has melted. Pour in the whiskey and whisk well to combine. Let the ganache sit at room temperature until it is thick, about 2 hours. [You can refrigerate the ganache to set it more quickly, but make sure to stir it occasionally and not let it get hard.]

When the ganache is set, transfer it to a piping bag fitted with a small round tip (I used Ateco #8).

Make the bitters-scented sugar
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and set aside.

Make the doughnuts
Pour the oil into a small, heavy pan (I used a tall 2 quart pot) and fill it to a depth of 2” - you may not need 3 cups (I used a little more than 2 cups).  Turn heat to medium-high and bring the oil to 350 degrees F. Place a rack on a baking sheet and line it with two layers of paper towels.

Doughnut batter - it should be thick but scoopable.
While the oil is heating, make the batter. Put the flour, baking powder, and salt in a small bowl and whisk to combine. Put the eggs, sugar, and blood orange zest in a medium bowl and whisk well. Add the ricotta and whisk until the mixture is completely smooth. Add the flour and whisk gently to create a smooth batter.
Doughnuts getting a hot oil bath.  They start out looking like the ghosts from Pac-Man but they eventually get round.
When the oil has reached 350 degrees, use a small scoop (I used a 2 teaspoon scoop) to drop the batter into the oil, making sure not to overcrowd the pan – I fried in batches of 6. Cook until the doughnuts are golden brown, 3-4 minutes, making sure to flip them over halfway through (although most will flip themselves). Transfer the doughnuts to the rack to drain. Make sure the oil is at 350 F before frying each subsequent batch.
You'd think this was Dunkin' Donuts but it is in fact my dining table.
Roll the warm doughnuts in the sugar. To fill the doughnuts, insert the piping tip ¾ of the way into the donut and fill with ganache. Serve warm.
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