The young waitress paraded the fried sugar egg puffs (misspelled on the menu as “suger egg puff” in the dessert section) around the small restaurant on a tray and we were instantly taken in. We didn’t want them with the savories, but as soon as we finished all the dumplings, Linda asked the waitress, “Can we get those things fresh and hot?” The waitress obliged and Linda nearly burnt her tongue as she bit into the crisp, steamy hot puff.
Forget Beard Papa’s cream puffs. Sugar egg puffs reign supreme in my book. They are eggy and rich tasting on the inside, and have cavernous pockets like popovers.
After eating them for lunch, I couldn't get them out of my mind. I wondered if they were simply a fried dumpling made from French-style pate a choux cream puff pastry. The insides tasted like the warm puffs that I used to bake and fill. How else would you get that texture and flavor?
When I went home, I checked my Chinese cookbooks and found a couple recipes from overseas that indeed, pointed to batter that’s similar to a classic pate a choux! (I looked the French pastry up in Julia Child's marvelous The Way to Cook and she mentioned that the French name literally means “pastry for forming little cabbage shapes.") The Chinese, particularly those from Shanghai where there was a French expat community (called the French Concession), may have picked up on the Franco pastry. I venture that without butter, Chinese cooks substituted lard, using less as they deep fried the batter instead of baking it, as the French would. There are few ovens in Chinese kitchens.
If you know the back story on these puffs, do fill me and the rest of us in. Also, What is the common name for these in Mandarin and/or Cantonese?
Makes 16 puffs
1 tablespoon butter, lard, or shortening
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 cup water
5 ounces (1 cup) all-purpose bleached flour
3 large eggs, beaten
Canola oil, for deep frying
3 to 4 tablespoons sugar, coarser kind preferred
1. Put the butter, salt, sugar, and water in a 2-quart saucepan. Have the flour nearby in a bowl, as well as the eggs. Also keep a large clean bowl nearby.
2. Pour oil into a 5-quart Dutch oven or wok to a depth of 1 1/4 inches deep. Heat the oil over medium-high heat to a moderately-low temperature between 325 and 340F on a deep-fry thermometer. (If the oil is ready before the batter, lower the heat to medium-low to keep the oil hot.)
3. Meanwhile, heat the butter, water and seasonings until the butter has melted and the water begins to bubble at the edge of the pot. Remove from the heat. Immediately pour in the flour. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until well blended. Replace the pot on the burner (don’t turn on the heat, just use the residual heat from the stove and pot) and stir vigorously until a ball of dough comes together, cleans the walls of the pan, and a thin film forms on the bottom of the pan.
4. Transfer the dough to the new clean bowl; if the dough is still hot, stir it for15 to 30 seconds to cool it. Pour in 1/4 of the eggs, then stir vigorously (it will seem like things aren’t coming together well at first) until all the egg has been incorporated. Repeat until all the egg has been worked into the dough, and the dough has been transformed into a thick, smooth batter. The batter should just hold its shape when you spoon it up on the spoon. Expect to give your forearm a workout.
If you want extra fluffy batter, use a whisk to hand-whip more air into the batter. Just whisk for about 30 to 45 seconds. You should have about 2 cups.
5. When the oil is ready, fry the puffs in 2 batches. Use two tablespoons to scoop up about 2 tablespoons of batter and scoot it into the oil. Use one spoon to push the batter off the other. You should have 8 puffs frying for each batch.
Fry for 8 to10 minutes, turning frequently, until the puffs have expanded to about 3 times their original size and turned crisp and golden brown. Moderating the heat as needed as you fry. Drain the puffs on paper towel. Return the oil to temperature before frying the second batch.6. Let the puffs cool for 3 to 4 minutes, then dredge them in the sugar to lightly coat. Serve hot or warm. The puffs stay tasty for about 30 minutes after frying.
Note: I tried reheating non-sugar coated puffs in a preheated 350F toaster oven for about 3 minutes, until hot, but the puffs shrank, got a bit greasy a heavy and didn’t taste as good as fresh. Ethereal perfection only lasts for so long!
Update: Bee Yinn Low of Rasa Malaysia below says that these are called 沙 翁. I did some investigation and that's a shortcut name for these. The full name is:
白糖沙 翁 = bái táng shā wēng (Mandarin) = bok tong sa yung (Cantonese)
This literally translates into white granulated sugar elderly person. But I noticed that there were references to it as being called "Shakespeare" and Sa bak yung -- like sabayon which the pastry is not related to. My friend Monique Truong, the acclaimed novelist, told me that the French version of this kind of fried cream puff treat is called pets de nonne, or nuns farts. Celebrated author Michael Ruhlman informed me that he has a recipe for pets de nonne in his latest book, Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking.