New Orleans is known for its food. There’s gumbo, jambalaya, po’boys, red beans and rice, crawfish etouffee. There’s king cake and bread pudding for dessert. But there’s nothing quite like beignets. No trip to the Crescent City is complete without a visit to Café du Monde. There’s something wonderful about those flaky doughnuts doused in powdered sugar. If you walk out without any powdered sugar on you, you’ve done beignets wrong. In honor of this quintessential New Orleans dessert, breakfast food, snack, and all-around delicious foodstuff, let’s take a look at the history of the noble beignet.
|Cafe du Monde beignets|
Unsurprisingly, beignets are French in origin. The word beignet means bump. Beignets are pastries made from a deep fried choux pastry. A choux pastry is a light pastry dough made from butter, water, flour, and eggs. Unlike other doughs, it does not have a raising agent like yeast. Instead choux pastry relies on large amounts of moisture (from the water and butter) to create steam that causes the pastry to rise during baking. Choux pastry doughs are used to make a variety of pastries including churros, profiteroles, eclairs, and French crullers.
According to Harold McGee, author of On Cooking, choux pastry dough emerged during the Middle Ages in France. Although the history of frying dough stretches back much farther than that. Historical records from Ancient Greece note that Ancient Greeks were frying foods in olive oil in the 5thcentury B.C. Beignets arrived in New Orleans in the 18thcentury with the arrival of the French colonists. The Acadians, exiled from Nova Scotia in the 1760s, also brought the tradition of beignets with them. They became an important part of Creole cuisine and began to incorporate local ingredients like bananas and plantains. Today across the city you can find beignets on dessert menus with a variety of fillings. The State of Louisiana declared the beignet the official state doughnut in 1986.
Café du Monde is the most popular spot for beignets in New Orleans. The famed location in the French Quarter sits on Decatur Street right near Jackson Square. It is open 24 hours a day and only serves beignets—three per order—and a number of drink options. The most popular pairing with beignets is café au lait—coffee with milk. The difference is New Orleans café au lait has hot milk added as opposed to white coffee, which has cold milk. New Orleans café au lait also includes chicory—added during the Civil War as a result of a coffee shortage. The chicory adds a chocolate-like flavor. In recent times, Café du Monde only closed as a result of Hurricane Katrina. On August 27, 2005, the restaurant closed and did not reopen until October 19, 2005 after taking the opportunity to refurbish the famed spot’s interior.
If you can’t make it to New Orleans to try beignets yourself, the good news is that Café du Monde sells its beignet mix online. Just add water to the mix and heat up some oil for frying and you can enjoy this New Orleans staple anywhere in the world.