Over the course of the past several years I've spent countless late nights prepping obscure dishes, some wondrous, some wretched. Just the other night, Rachel walked in on me, took one look at my goo-covered hands and gave me that "Oh, you're doing something crazy again" look she gets when I go off half-cocked well past my bedtime. She then performed a quick about-face and marched off to slumberland. She's the sensible one.
Me, I prefer to plumb the depths of my rich inner life over prep work, pondering questions that few people ever entertain. The other night it was sperm.
The story begins with the humble glazed donut, an endlessly ridiculed fried delicacy that most epicures dismiss with nary a thought, but I adore. I'm not alone, however, as artisans like Mark Israel of New York's Doughnut Plant elevate everyday rings of dough to gourmet status, while chefs like Thomas Keller and Homaro Cantu take things one step further, plying donuts into service in the name of fine dining. One of Keller's most famous dishes is his playful rendition of coffee and doughnuts in which he serves a fresh cinnamon sugar donut with a cup of cappuccino semifreddo. Cantu's contribution is even more extraordinary: donut soup, a velvety concoction that distills the essence of donut into a demitasse cup of creamy goodness.
Unfortunately, after making Cantu's donut soup at home, I've become a little obsessed. And it wasn't just over how to conceive new donut creations, it was also about how to improve on the one thing about homemade donut soup that still troubled me: texture. As delicious as donut soup is -- and it is fantastic -- most straining devices fail to filter out the little grains of donut sediment that make it a flavour superstar and textural disappointment. That's how I found myself milking away on a Superbag of donut purée long past midnight, trying to distract myself by ruminating about all creatures small and really small.
Superbags are marvels of kitchen technology that render sieves, chinoises, and cheesecloth obsolete. These bags are made of flexible, non-reactive, heat-resistant, dishwasher-safe material. Those characteristics make it home cook friendly, but what makes it extraordinary is how incredibly fine a filter it is. I own two of them. One is a 400 µm (that's a micrometre, or micron if you're old school) bag that puts any sieve to shame. The other is only 100 µm. How small is 100 µm? Good question, because it's exactly what I was pondering late the other night. The answer: it's only slightly greater than the width of a human hair and less than twice the length of guess what? That's right, one human sperm.
I finally put Superbags to the test this week in an attempt to exorcise the donut demons that have dogged me. Many months ago I attempted a macaron for the ages: a coffee-flavoured meringue biscuit filled with donut-flavoured pastry cream. My experiment failed because both my cookies and my pastry cream bombed. Macarons are notoriously finicky cookies, so I don't intend to dwell on that, but the donut pastry cream is another story entirely. I hoped to use donut soup as a base to create a pastry cream. A good idea, I thought, until I tried the pastry cream, which had an unappetizing texture on a scale somewhere between custard and mashed potatoes. In the end, I had to abandon the coffee and donut macaron dream.
But visions of donuts still kept dancing through my head.
So I decided to try something new. Precisely what, I wasn't sure. After cooking and steeping eight small glazed donuts from my local grocery store in a mixture of milk and cream and then processing them into a purée with a hand blender, I filtered the resulting delectable gunk through the 400 µm Superbag. Unlike my previous donut soup, this version didn't have any grittiness on the tongue whatsoever, but it did have a heaviness to it that I thought I could improve by using the 100 µm bag. The difference stunned both me and Rachel. The resulting purée still had body and impeccable glazed donut flavour, but this time it felt like an elegant cream soup on the tongue; the only drawback, of course, is that it took twenty minutes of constantly milking each Superbag in the middle of the night to extract the purée in the first place.
My first experiment with the new and improved purée was ice cream. I'd done something similar with sticky toffee pudding and enjoyed the result. The only drawback to that preparation was also texture. The finished ice cream had some fine particles of cake in it that distracted from the flavour. Donut ice cream is still a work in progress, unfortunately. When frozen, the custard takes on too firm a texture; it's ice, for sure, but the cream part is a little iffy. My hunch is that the starch in the donuts muddies the texture of my preparations, especially this and the pastry cream. I just needed to find a way to overcome it or, better yet, make it work to my advantage.
So, back to the drawing board. After making so much ice cream I have a freezer full of egg whites begging to be used, so I thought I would try soufflés. My original plan was to drizzle them with a coffee glaze, but one taste of a preliminary powdered sugar and brewed coffee concoction turned me off of that idea quickly. I opted for a sprinkle of ground espresso beans instead, a moderately flavoured accompaniment that complements the main attraction. Much to my surprise, the donut flavour shines through nicely. The recipe, which I've included below, still needs some work, however, so use it at your own risk. The flavour may be good, but I'm having a hard time finding the right temperature at which to bake. At 400F, the soufflé rises and gets a nice golden brown top, but the downside is that eggy flavours tend to develop. At 350F, eggy flavours aren't a problem, but I can't get a delicious golden crust. No matter what the temperature, these soufflés fall almost immediately after coming out of the oven.
I suppose I should look upon my experiments a little more positively now. Thanks to the Superbag, I've almost figured out how to make a delightful donut soufflé, and I suppose I can give donut pastry cream one more chance. What's more, I've jammed my head full of even more useless but entertaining knowledge for that next inevitable venture into late night cooking. Did you know, for example, that one micrometre is but a mere one one-thousandth of a millimetre and that 100 µm (also known as a myriometre) is equivalent to the thickness of a layer of paint or the length of a dust particle? Welcome to my world.
This recipe is still very much a work in progress, so use it at your own risk and experiment with it, please, then let me know how to improve it. Maybe the issue is temperature, maybe it's the lack of egg yolks. I don't know right now.
I used a variation of this donut soup recipe, opting for cream instead of water, and then loosening it with more cream as necessary. Straining it through both a 400 µm then a 100 µm Superbag makes for a huge improvement in texture, but I'm not sure it's necessary when making this dish.
135 g (4 large) egg whites
1/8 tsp cream of tartar
120 g (5 Tbsp) granulated sugar, plus more to prepare ramekins
200 g (200mL) donut soup
Espresso beans, ground
Preheat oven to 400F.
Rub inside of ramekins (or small coffee cups) with just enough butter to coat. Add approximately one teaspoon of granulated sugar and swirl to coat ramekin. Tap out any excess sugar and set aside.
Combine egg whites and cream of tartar in stand mixer and whisk with whisk attachment until soft peaks form. Add sugar and continue whisking until stiff peaks form.
Place donut soup in another large mixing bowl. Add one third of the egg whites and stir into donut soup. Add another third of the egg whites and fold in gently. Repeat folding process with the remaining third of the egg whites.
Add mixture to ramekins, but do not fill to the top. Leave 1 cm of clearance between the mixture and the rim of the baking dish.
Depending on the size of the baking dish, bake for 8-10 minutes, until the soufflés have risen and a light, brown crust has developed on top.
Serve immediately sprinkled with a little ground espresso bean.