Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Original Creole Beignet


Cafe du Monde, late 1960's
The beignet (pronounced BEN-yay) is one of those Creole delicacies that has been so radically altered thanks to commercialism that the original is long lost except by the most devoted of Creole gourmands.  The beignet we know today is a 20th century pastry and actually is not even a true beignet at all.  New Orleanians went to the Cafe du Monde and other such places for what they simply called "doughnuts."  In fact, the Cafe du Monde, themselves, referred to them as "doughnuts" until the 1980's.




 
A 1975 tourist pamphlet (showing a photo from the 1950's)
identifies beignets as "hot crullers and doughnuts."

So, what happened that "doughnuts" became "beignets?"  The 1984 World's Fair radically altered New Orleans culture.  In an effort to make New Orleans even more unique than it already is, "Creole" became Cajun", the Pete Fountains and Al Hirts of New Orleans Jazz were pushed aside by the Dr. Johns and Beausoleils, civilized cocktails and tasteful sipping turned into high potency guzzling and doughnuts became beignets.  But a true beignet is actually a fried batter, not a dough.

Tour guides all over the city find many ways to define the word "beignet" - often claiming it's from the French for "pillow." (French for pillow is oreiller.)  Beignet actually means "fritter" and that's exactly what it was; a fried batter, kind of like a funnel cake is a fried batter.  It was spooned onto the hot grease and served hot.  But what made the beignet special was the addition of whipped egg whites folded into the batter.  They came out very light and airy.  It's a shame that no one makes them today, but the process of making them is too involved.  (See recipe, below.)  Fried breads (doughnuts) have been served in coffee stands since the mid-1800's and they were identified as breads or doughnuts.  But with the 1984 World's Fair and the push to make New Orleans more unique, Cafe du Monde menus which used to read "doughnuts" now read "beignets - French doughnuts."  As for the original and true beignet, a vintage recipe gives us a light and airy treat.  This recipe is from the 1901 Picayune Creole Cookbook.

Beignets de Pâte
(Plain Fritters)

1 pint of flour (2 cups)
1 pint of milk
1 teaspoon of baking powder
4 eggs
The zest of 1/2 a lemon
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon of salt
Flavoring to taste

Beat the yolks of the eggs and the whites seperate.  Sift the baking powder into the flour, and add the yolks of the eggs, well beaten.  Beat well, and add the milk, and flavoring of orange, vanilla or brandy to taste.  (May be omitted altogether.)  Add the lemon zest, grated very fine, and salt in quantity given above.  Lastly, add the whites, beaten to a stiff froth, and have the batter so it will drop from the spoon.  Drop in it boiling lard (oil) by large kitchen spoonfuls and let it fry to a golden yellow.  Lift out with a skimmer, and drain and place on a heated dish, and sprinkle with powdered white sugar, and serve hot.

In arranging them in the dish, make the fritters rise into a pretty pyramid and sprinkle with the sugar.  Never pierce fritters with a fork, as that will cause steam to evaporate and make the fritters heavy.  A fritter that is well made should be light and puffy.

Here is another recipe from the Le Courrier Français, August 22, 1862.  Note that this is four months after the Union has captured New Orleans and food is kind of scarce - interesting that it should mention the need for frugality:

Beignets à la Créole

1 tasse de farine
2 oeufs, séparés
1 soupçon de sel
1 soupçon de cognac
1 noix de beurre,  fondu
eau froide

Battre les jaunes d'oeufs et ajouter la farine un peu à la fois, en battant bien jusqu'à ce que tout bien mélangé. Ajouter le brandy et le beurre fondu et suffisant d'eau froide pour faire une pâte ferme. Battre les blancs d'œufs en une mousse rigide et fold, doucement, dans la pâte.  Déposer la pâte par cuillerées à soupe de saindoux en ébullition et faire frire jusqu'à coloration dorée.

Égoutter sur du papier et servir chaud, saupoudré de sucre en poudre. Ces pâtisseries sont la solution idéale quand il faut être économe.

Translation:

Creole Beignets

1 cup flour
2 eggs, separated
1 dash of salt
1 dash of cognac
butter size of a walnut, melted
cold water

Beat egg yolks and add the flour a little at a time, beating well until all blended. Add brandy and melted butter and enough cold water to make a stiff dough. Beat the egg whites in a rigid foam and fold gently in the dough. Drop dough by spoonfuls into boiling lard and fry until golden brown.
  
Drain on paper and serve hot, sprinkled with powdered sugar. These pastries are the perfect solution when you need to be frugal.

3 comments:

  1. Did you see the recent Nola.com article about the history of the beignet? Apparently it was in the 50s that they started calling them beignets. I know that we called them that as far back as I can remember, which was a long time before the 84 World's Fair. But thanks for initiating this fascinating discussion.

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  2. http://www.nola.com/dining/index.ssf/2016/10/a_short_history_of_the_beignet.html#incart_2box_nola_river_orleans_news

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  3. Yes, I did. I was going to write about that article here in response to your comment, Mark, but it got too long - I'll write a new blog post about it and post it soon.

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