Beignets are classified as choux pastries
When I first moved to New England, decades ago, I was surprised to see stands advertising Fried Dough – that is, just big blobs of dough, deep fried, and sprinkled with cinnamon and confectioner’s sugar. It seemed like such an unlikely and literal description of the treat that I wondered why nobody had come up with another name for it.
Deep-fried dough treats are, of course, a popular item all over the world. The French have their Pets de Nonne, made with choux pastry, while the Spanish favor Buelos. Here, of course, we have Doughnuts and Crullers, which are an essential part of an early morning treat with coffee.
In New Orleans, however, it’s the Beignet that reigns supreme. The name comes from an early Celtic word “bigne,” meaning “to rise.” They’re essentially just fried, raised pieces of yeast dough, usually two inches in size, generally sprinkled with sugar.
Beignets have been associated with Mardi Gras in France since about the 16th Century, and arrived on these shores a couple of centuries later. There is a belief that the Ursuline Nuns, who came to New Orleans, brought the recipe with them when they arrived in 1727, establishing a girls’ academy in what was then New France.
Beignets are classified as choux pastries; this means that they are made with a high-moisture dough that creates steam during the cooking process. The steam is what brings a rise to the finished pastry, rather than a rising agent such as yeast. Although yeast is included in the recipe, it’s really the moisture in the dough that causes them to rise, creating a light, fluffy product.
Traditionally, Beignets are most often served with cafe au lait, a beverage using strong dark-roast coffee and chicory. The chicory was originally added to stretch out the dwindling coffee supplies, but it was eventually found that it resulted in a much smoother drink. The addition of hot milk created one of the oldest coffee traditions in the world.
In New Orleans itself, the Mecca for these treat is the Cafe Du Monde, which has been operating out of the New Orleans Frenhch Market since 1862. The cafe, now considered a New Orleans landmark, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At this establishment, they are literally the only thing on the menu. The store is still called a coffee stand, but there are dozens of tables outside, where hungry diners gorge themselves on pastries and coffee. The cafe serves Beignets in orders of three, with the obligatory cafe au lait.
In 1986, Beignets were declared the Louisiana State Doughnut. So, if you want a real taste of the Old French Quarter, cook a few of these up. Just don’t skimp on the coffee.
1 package (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast
1/4 cup warm water (110° to 115°)
1 cup evaporated milk
1/2 cup canola oil
1/4 cup sugar
1 large egg
4-1/2 cups self-rising flour
Oil for deep-fat frying
In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add milk, oil, sugar, egg and 2 cups flour. Beat until smooth. Stir in enough remaining flour to form a soft dough (dough will be sticky). Do not knead. Cover and refrigerate overnight.
Punch dough down. Turn onto a floured surface; roll into a 16×12-in. rectangle. Cut into 2-in. squares.
In an electric skillet or deep-fat fryer, heat oil to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Fry squares, a few at a time, until golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Roll warm beignets in confectioners’ sugar. Makes 48 Beignets.
(Recipe adapted from Taste of Home.)