The History and Traditions of the Beignet - New Orleans’ Most Famous Sweet
Pillowy, hot, golden, and drenched in powdered sugar, that first doughy bite of a beignet is almost too much. But when you wash it down with a cup of good strong coffee, the sweetness steps back in line and you are left with a one-two punch that elegantly satisfies base cravings for something sweet and savory all at the same time.
Suffice it to say that, as with most good things that have been appropriated from one culture to another and then on to others, the culinary headwaters of the beignet are likely lost forever in the mists of time.
There is some thought that fried balls of choux paste (a basic pastry dough) may be the result of Islamic influences on Spanish cuisine. But it’s a pretty good bet that early French settlers in Louisiana brought their recipe for a square fried pastry with them. And references to fried balls of dough called “ called “pets de nonne” (nun’s sighs or nun’s farts) lend credence to the notion that a group of nun’s brought the recipe with them to the New World. How, or if, the dish made its way from Spain to France is still unclear, but, given the number of French and Spanish settlers who found their way to Gulf Coast it’s easily imagined.
According to the folks at Café Du Monde, beignets were brought to Louisiana by the Acadians (early settlers from the Canadian Maritime Provinces). Still others claim that the word beignet comes from the Celtic word “bigne”, meaning, “to rise”. Because we know that the French Acadians intermarried with Irish settlers (among others), it’s easy to see how French recipes may have taken on a Celtic name. Regardless, the French word for fritter is beignet, and, as this seems a most apt description for these fried squares of yeast dough heaped in sugar, and identified most closely with Café Du Monde in the French Quarter of New Orleans, we’ll go with that.
What’s In a Beignet
Neatly cut into pillow-like squares and delicately browned, beignets come off as the doughnut’s upscale cousin. The classic (Café Du Monde) version is simply fried dough and powdered sugar, but there are recipes for, and verified sightings of, fruit-filled beignets out there in the wild.
But I have to say that adding an expensive fruit compote to the mix runs counter to the simple working man’s decadence of frying dough scraps and drenching them in silky powdered sugar. To my way of thinking beignets speak to the notion that even the less well off among us deserve a treat.
Just as southern hush puppies were the result of savory leftover dough taken to the next level, it seems likely to me that some early settler had a bit of spare dough and sugar at day’s end. And, wastefulness being out of the question, she/he decided they’d all had a hard day and deserved something special.
If the neatly squared and decadently sugared New Orleans beignet is the doughnut’s prep school cousin, then the larger, stretched versions known a “home food” down on the bayous of Louisiana, is the brother who dropped out. But family is family, and these larger “out in the country” versions are not “wrong”, just different. It's like any one of the many differences between Cajun & Creole Cooking.
Some beignets are square, others are done in long strips, and some are just big flat (pulled) rounds. Some use yeast, and others use alternative rising agents. So recipes call for a short rise while others let the dough work its magic overnight and then stretch the dough.
Regardless of how (or where) they are made, beignets are a little bit of Gulf Coast fabulous that should be tried by everyone who visits.
Sources (and External Links)
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