Paper-Thin Fritters with Spiced Syrup
Buñuelos are very special and I think they’re fun to make—worth at least the once-a-year Christmas endeavor. For a dressier presentation at Frontera Grill, we make buñuelos the size of a small tortillas and sandwich them with a scoops of ice cream: a little buñuelo-ice cream tower.
The recipe that follows relies on Velázquez de León’s dough from her book Cocina oaxaqueña, forming and frying instructions from the Coyoacán vendors and a glazing a la Dulcería de Celaya. To make the dunked variety, double the sauce but simmer it only 20 minutes. Split sugar cane and little tejocotes (Mexican hawthorn) or guavas are popular flavoring additions to the light syrup. Just before serving, break a buñuelo into 2 or 3 large pieces, lay in a deep plate and douse with a generous amount of warm syrup (and fruit, if you’ve used it).
A Note about the mold for stretching buñuelos: In Mexico, buñuelos are stretched over a cloth-covered olla, a round-bottom earthenware pot used frequently for cooking beans. Lacking a bean pot, use a deep up-turned bowl.
Working Ahead: Once the dough is rolled into balls, it can be refrigerated for up to two days. Fry the buñuelos as they’re rolled and stretched, then serve them within a few hours.
For the buñuelos:
½ cup warm (110-degree) water
1 package active dry yeast—instant is okay
1 teaspoon sugar
1 pound (about 3 ¼ cups) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, slightly softened
4 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon salt
Oil to a depth of 1 inch in a wide skillet, for frying
For the syrup:
¾ pound piloncillo (cone sizes very widely; note weight on package), roughly chopped
OR 1 ½ cups packed dark brown sugar plus ¼ cup molasses
¼ teaspoon anise seeds, coarsely crushed (optional)
1-inch cinnamon stick, preferably Mexican canela
A 2-inch strip orange zest (colored part only), removed with a vegetable peeler
1. Prepare the “sponge.” In a small bowl, stir together the warm water, yeast and sugar; let stand 10 minutes. If the mixture isn’t foamy, the yeast isn’t active: throw it out and start again with new yeast. Measure the flour into a large bowl. Scoop out ½ cup of the flour and stir it into the yeast mixture. Cover and set in a warm place for an hour—the longer, the fuller the flavor. In fact, I typically let the sponge rest for an hour, then refrigerate it until the next day for maximum flavor development.
2. Make and portion the dough. Make a well in the center of the flour that’s still in the large bowl, pour in the sponge and add the butter or shortening. Beat the eggs with the salt and pour them into the well, too. With a large spoon, thoroughly mix the mixture in the well, then stir in a wider circle to slowly incorporate the surrounding flour. When the mixture becomes too thick to stir, turn it out onto your work surface, along with all the unincorporated flour.
Knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes, adding as much of the flour as necessary to produce a medium-soft consistency dough (but not sticky). Lay the dough in a very lightly greased bowl, flip over, cover with plastic wrap or a towel, and let the dough rise to double in bulk, about 1 ½ hours.
Scoop out the dough onto a lightly-floured work surface, lightly flour the top and press it into a rectangle. Cut into 18 pieces. Pat into disks and place on a baking sheet lined with a floured towel. Cover with a second floured towel. (Laying another damp towel over the top will prevent the dough from getting crusty.)
3. Stretch and fry the dough. Cover a round-topped mold (see note above) with a kitchen towel, making large, even pleats. Secure it at the bottom with a string or rubber band and rub flour thoroughly into the surface.
Roll a ball of dough into a 7-inch circle. Lay over the mold and stretch into a nearly paper-thin 9-to 10-inch circle: Slip your fingers under the dough, thumbs still on the outside, and gently stretch the dough downward between thumb and fingers, letting it slip slowly through your grasp. Rotate the mold and gently stretch the dough again, continuing the process until you have a round that’s about 9 inches across, thin enough to read a newspaper through. The edge will be thicker, so make a pass around the dough, stretching short sections with both hands, to gently thin the edge. (When finished it will hang in ruffle around the mold.) Make ¼-inch cuts through the dough at 6 places, to allow steam to escape during frying.
In a very large (10- to 12-inch), heavy, deep skillet, heat the oil to 375˚; use a deep-fry thermometer and regulate the heat to keep the oil temperature as constant as possible. Carefully lay the stretched dough across the surface of the hot oil. Continually press it down with a pair of tongs, to expel the air and encourage hot oil to flow over the edges. After 30 seconds, flip it and fry for 30 to 45 seconds longer, until thoroughly browned and crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels, preferably standing on edge to allow all the oil to drain off. Stretch and fry the remaining balls of dough in the same fashion.
4. Prepare the syrup and finish the buñuelos. In a medium (3-quart) saucepan, combine 3 cups of water and the rest of the syrup ingredients. Boil over medium-high heat, stirring from time to time, until reduced to 1½ cups, about 30 minutes. (The syrup should be as thick as honey at this point—thick enough to cool to a glossy-looking, not-at-all sticky, coating. Brush some on a plate, let it cool and touch it to make sure it’s not sticky.) Brush the hot syrup in a thin coating over each buñuelo. Let dry in a single layer until no longer very sticky, then stack the fritters on a tray–they are ready to serve.