Monday, February 26, 2007

Bugnes - the recipe

As promised (but with a little delay... sorry about that), here is the recipe for bugnes, the Lyon region "mardi gras" beignets.

  • 250 g (14 fl. oz.) all purpose flour
  • 50 g (slightly less than 1/2 stick or 4 tbsp) unsalter butter
  • 50 g (2 fl. oz.) sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 tbsp orange blossom water (optional)
  • salt
  • about 1/2 liter (1/2 quart) sunflower oil to deep-fry the bugnes.
  • powdered sugar (a few tablespoons)
Prepare the dough at least 2 hours in advance:
  1. Sift the flour over a large bowl.
  2. Combine with the sugar, orange blossom water and a pinch of salt. Add the butter in very small parcels and mix a little.
  3. Dig a hole (in french we say "une fontaine" -a fountain) in the center of the flour mix. Beat the eggs and pour in the hole.
  4. With the hands, combine all the ingredients and knead for only a minute or two, until the dough gets homogenous. Make a ball out of it and let it rest for at least 2 hours at room temperature under a clean cotton cloth.
  1. Roll out the dough (on a flat, floured surface) as thinly as possible (about 2 mm) in a somewhat rectangular shape. This should be fairly easy as the dough should be elastic and moist.
  2. Cut out stripes about 1 1/2" to 2" wide. Divide the stripes into smaller rectangles, approximately 4" long. The bugnes on the pictures are small but feel free to make the stripes longer or wider if you prefer. Bugnes come in various sizes.
  3. Twist the rectangles as follows:
    • With a knife, make a 1 1/2" long slit in the center of each rectangle, lengthwise.
    • Take one of the rectangle's small sides through this hole and reshape, as shown on the pictures above.
    • If you go with longer stripes of dough, there might be enough length to make two knots.
  4. Heat the oil in a frying pan (oil should be about 1" or 1 1/2" deep) until boiling hot. Place a few knotted stripes of dough in it, making sure they don't touch eachother.
  5. Flip once, after only a few seconds, then wait a few seconds longer (this goes fast!).
  6. Take out as soon as the bugnes have a nice golden (but not too dark) color. Drain on paper towels placed in a plate.
  7. Once all the bugnes are cooked, sprinkle with powdered sugar (it's easier to sprinke evenly if you use a small strainer and shake it overn the bugnes).
You can start eating them as soon as they are ready. If there are any left, store them in a metal box (lined with paper towels). Eat them any time of the day as a snack, on their own.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007


I am sure if you don't speak French you must be puzzled by the title of this post.... How to pronounce "bugnes"? Let me try to explain. The last 4 letters "gnes" form only one sound, similar to the ñ in Spanish (like in "mañana"). B is the same b sound as in English (like in "book"). The u sound is unique to French, and impossible to explain... It's somewhere between an "ee" (like in "freeze") and a "oo" (like in "cook") but it's neither of those sounds. Close your lips as if you were going to say "oo" but take the sound to the front of your mouth by lifting your tong... I think this should work. Here (and here) are neat pages where you can hear each individual sound. In IPA "bugnes" would be spelled: [byɲ].

Bugnes are a specialty of Lyon, where I grew up. They are thin and crispy doughnuts (strips of dough, fried and sprinkled with powdered sugar) that are made for "mardi gras" ("fat Tuesday": today!). You can buy them at the "charcuterie" (deli meat shop), at the "boulangerie" (bakery) and people cook them at home too. My grand-mother did, every year. There are variants: some are crispy, others are a bit thicker and spongier. Some have an orange blossom flavor, others are plain. Some have a knot or two, others don't. Some are long and thin, others are much bigger and square. This gives plenty of good excuses to eat a whole bunch of them (science to the rescue: we need a good comparative study here). The only constant is that you can't eat them cleanly: you always end up with grease and sugar all over your fingers and lips.

If you read this blog regularly you must think that I am a very traditional person, only eating traditional French food, only when it is the tradition to eat it... To be honest I am puzzled by this tendency of mine to blindly obey these rules (bugnes for mardi gras, crêpes for chandeleur,etc...). This is so far from my usual aspirations (the constant pursuit of novelty). I guess this is old Pavlovian conditioning rooted in my childhood. Each traditional dish I eat brings back so many memories. Moving half way around the world hasn't helped forgetting them. To the contrary: it has made them more vivid and vital (a way of balancing all the new things I experience).

Anyway, this weekend I will tell you how you can make good bugnes, all year 'round!

Monday, February 12, 2007

A grain of salt

Boy! Does this blog look dusty, with old posts laying around and nothing new since last year...

Hope you all had a wonderful start of 2007. I've been very, very busy these past few months, to a point where I had to choose between cooking and blogging. The former was obviously more important, for survival reasons among others... And I guess the rush at work gave me a mild case of the writer's block... I seem to be on the way to recovery, though, as the hectic schedule is slowly coming to an end. Things should go back to a more human pace in the coming weeks.

Until then, let me introduce you to our new friend:

This adorable chick is an original creation of F. Personnaz, an artist living in Bessans (a remote little village at the end of Maurienne Valley in the French Alps). It is a wooden salt box that Pierre's parents gave us for Christmas. We keep coarse salt in it and use it by the handful in pasta water, soups and stews. I love how different the sculpture looks from the left and from the right.

Have you noticed how salt always seems to be kept in nicely decorated containers? I imagine, for the longest time salt was the main seasoning in France and all around Europe (along with garlic and aromatic herbs –which had to dry in the open air, and maybe a few spices –which were expensive and sparse, and kept in very small quantities). Salt had to be stored away from humidity, yet it had to be handy as it was used in most dishes. Hence the pretty box that could stay out of the cabinets at all times... Or so I see things. That would seem like a valid explanation, wouldn't it?

By the way here is a French food idiom: "mettre son grain de sel" (literally "to put one's gain of salt in"). This means to put one's 2 cents in, but in situations when it's not really appropriate or welcome to give one's opinion. Not what I did in the previous paragraph, I hope...