Plenty of us have a perfectly understandable fear of frying. After all, it can be both messy and dangerous. But it doesn't have to be. And since eating fried food is one of life's great joys, it's well worth mastering.
Consider the doughnut. Everybody's favourite wheel-shaped goodie is made of fried sweetened dough that has leavened with yeast, baking powder or baking soda. The difference in leavening comes down to texture. Yeast doughnuts are light and airy, while doughnuts leavened with baking powder or baking soda are denser, more like cake.
These chai-spiced doughnuts are of the latter variety. They are easy to mix together (just don't overmix or they'll get tough) and flavoured with chai-style spices (the kinds that make Indian tea so lovable).
The equipment part of frying is easy. A fryer is nice, but if you don't have one, you can piece together one of your own. It requires nothing more than a large, deep pot and a frying thermometer.
The best kind of oil for this job is one that's flavourless and has a high "smoke point." The smoke point is the temperature at which a given oil starts to smoke; it can catch fire if it gets much hotter than that. Good candidates include vegetable, safflower, sunflower, soy, some kinds of canola, and some kinds of grape seed. Usually, the label will tell you if the oil's suitable for frying.
Don't fill the pot with more than about 2 inches of oil. When you add the doughnuts, the level of the oil will rise. Next, insert the thermometer deep enough into the oil to get a reading, but not so deep that it rests on the bottom of the pan. Now heat the oil to 375 F.
Once the right temperature is reached, it's important to fry the doughnuts in small batches. If you fry up too many at once, the oil temperature drops and the doughnuts absorb too much oil. You want to make sure the oil is always between 365 F and 380F. If it starts to edge up toward 400 F, add some cold oil to cool it down. If it dips below 350 F, remove the doughnuts temporarily, which will allow the oil to climb back up.
The perfect tool for removing doughnuts (or any fried food) from hot oil is called a spider. These are flat strainers that work like a scoop blended with a wooden spoon. But the scoop part usually is made of a web-like lattice of wire (hence the name).
As the doughnuts fry, let them rest for a few moments, then cut one open to make sure they are cooked through. The exteriors should be deep brown and the interiors should be cake-like and light.
Can you re-use the oil? Sure, as long as you didn't overheat it the first time (which lowers its smoke point) and you strain it with a fine strainer to lose any crumbs. But I wouldn't re-use it more than once.
Got it? Great. When it comes to frying, there's nothing to fear.
Start to finish: 1 hour
Makes 36 small doughnuts
For the spice mix:
2 teaspoons cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground dry ginger
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
For the doughnuts:
2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting the counter
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar, divided
2/3 cup buttermilk
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1 large egg, beaten lightly
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup finely chopped crystallized ginger
Vegetable oil, for frying
To make the spice mix, in a small bowl stir together the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, pepper and cloves. Set aside.
To make the doughnuts, in a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and 1 tablespoon of the spice mix until well combined.
In a shallow bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup of the sugar and 2 teaspoons of the spice mix. Set aside.
In another large bowl, combine the remaining sugar, the buttermilk, butter, egg, vanilla and candied ginger. Add to the flour mixture and stir just until the mixture forms a sticky dough. Scrape the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and knead it briefly until it just comes together.
Lightly flour a baking sheet.
On a lightly floured counter, pat out the door (which will be sticky) into a round about 1/3 inch thick. Use a 1 3/4-inch round biscuit or cookie cutter to cut rounds from the dough. Transfer the doughnuts to the prepared baking sheet, then reroll and cut the scraps of dough once.
In a wide, 5-quart heavy pot over medium-high, heat 2 inches of vegetable oil to 375 F.
Working in batches of 5 or 6, carefully add the doughnuts, 1 at a time, to the oil and fry, turning over frequently, until browned, about 2 1/2 minutes per batch. Transfer the fried doughnuts to paper towels to drain. Return the oil to 375 F between batches. Let the fried doughnuts cool slightly, then dredge them through the bowl of spiced sugar, turning to coat both sides.
Nutrition information per serving: 70 calories; 30 calories from fat (43 per cent of total calories); 3.5 g fat (0 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 5 mg cholesterol; 10 g carbohydrate; 0 g fiber; 5 g sugar; 1 g protein; 105 mg sodium.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sara Moulton was executive chef at Gourmet magazine for nearly 25 years, and spent a decade hosting several Food Network shows. She currently stars in public television's "Sara's Weeknight Meals" and has written three cookbooks, including "Sara Moulton's Everyday Family Dinners."