In pre-nineteenth-century cookbooks, these little fritters are called pets de putain. I have been unable to pinpoint the moment—certainly early—during the nineteenth century at which, with a somewhat irreverent insouciance, they were distinguished by the more respectable title of pets de nonne, the largest of the lot being attributed, traditionally, to the Mother Superior.
The mixture is an ordinary pâte à choux, the same that, baked in various forms, is transformed into éclairs, profiterolles, gateau St.-Honoré, etc. One of its more attractive forms is that of the Burgundian gougère (3 ounces Gruyère cut into tiny cubes replacing the sugar and grated peel of this recipe; dabs arranged in a circle with a spoon or pastry bag, the crown sprinkled with more Gruyère cubes, and the batter baked at 400° for about 40 minutes, pierced regularly with a knife tip after ½ hour to permit the interior to dry out).
Both the drying of the paste over the fire and the incorporation of the eggs is tiring arm work. If, after the mixture begins to achieve a certain consistency, the handle of the wooden spoon, standing vertically, is grasped in one’s fist, forearm held horizontally in relation to the spoon handle, the movement coming from one’s shoulder as one stirs firmly, rhythmically in a circle, the forearm will suffer less from fatigue.
Combine the water, butter, sugar, salt, and lemon rind in a saucepan, bring slowly to a boil, and, as soon as the butter is completely melted, remove from the heat. Add the flour all at once, stirring, first carefully, then, as the mixture pulls itself together, vigorously. Return to the heat and continue to stir, roughly and rhythmically, for 3 or 4 minutes or until the mass clings persistently together, leaving the bottom and sides of the saucepan clean, and its surface assumes a sweaty, shiny aspect. Remove from the heat and, forming each time a well in the center, add the eggs, one at a time, stirring each time until the mixture begins to unify and then beating vigorously.
A skillet or a large omelet pan, filled two thirds full with oil, is deep enough for frying. If using a deep fryer, don’t use the basket; a large, round, flat, wire skimming spoon (araignée) is the most practical for removing the fritters from the fat; lacking that, use a slotted skimming spoon. The oil should sizzle when a bit of batter is dropped in, but it should not be too hot—the fritters need to cook long enough so that exterior coloration coincides with their interior drying out. Don’t overcrowd the pan—fritters swell to about four times the size of the raw dab of dough. Drop in teaspoonsful, dipping the spoon into the hot fat each time before spooning up the dough. Roll them over in the oil with a nudge of the teaspoon tip to encourage even coloring. Drain on absorbent paper and sprinkle with sugar or with confectioners’ sugar.
Copyright © 1974 by Richard Olney. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.