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Feature Thu Feb 19 2009
I love beignets. This may not seem strange on the face of things. Beignets are delicious. They are tiny bits (scraps, lumps, balls... pick a shape, it'll work) of fried dough, most traditionally sweet and dusted with a heavy mantle of powdered sugar -- though occasionally, exotically savory and flavored with meat or fish. A French-inflected fried pastry particularly popular in New Orleans, the beignet is as much an American doughnut as a Krispy Kreme or Dunkin variety. Or the paczki.
And as much a part of cajun and creole cooking as étouffée or gumbo. And really, is there anything that says Mardi Gras, celebratory feast of overindulgence, more than some fried sweet carbs? I didn't think so.
Who doesn't like fried dough? Well, me, for starters. I do not like doughnuts. I do not like cake. I don't like waffles or French toast, I do not like them -- that's no boast. I am the unnamed counterpoint to the "Sam I Am" of sweet, cakey confections -- which is to say, most normal human beings. And no, this did not make life any easier for my poor mother when my birthday rolled around every year. Birthday candles appeared in pies, ice cream cakes, and on one very special occasion, baked Alaskas. All I have to say is that it's certainly made living above a bakery very manageable.
Beignets are basically my single exception to the fried dough rule. Possibly because I started eating them from about the time I was born and maybe didn't realize what they were until it was too late. Even now, beignets are my family's Christmas Day breakfast mainstay. Once the presents are unwrapped and Star Wars or some other appropriate movie series is switched on, the smell of heating oil permeates the house. We eat our beignets as my parents learned at the Cafe du Monde, the mothership of fried dough in the United States of America since 1862 -- buried under powdered sugar, with abundant coffee on the side (not cafes au lait, though we do love our cream).
Here's how we do it...
Paul Prudhomme's beignet recipe:
1/2 cup warm water
1 package dry yeast
1/2 cup evaporated milk [I don't know that my family has ever used evaporated milk -- probably just half and half instead. Half and half is a major staple of my family pantry. My brother has been known to pour it on cereal, and we're pretty sure he's lactose intolerant... so I'm not entirely sure what that means.]
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 tablespoons oil
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups flour
Oil for deep-frying
In a large mixing bowl, dissolve yeast in water. Add milk, egg, vanilla, oil, sugar and salt. Add flour, beating vigorously. Dough will be very sticky. [Another interjection: after making these for, oh, 21 years, my mother and I discovered an interesting twist on the recipe, which comes into play at this point. By letting the dough sit, at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap for an hour or two, the yeast continues to activate and the dough to rise -- which makes for fluffier, lighter beignets once they're rolled out and immersed in oil. If you like a denser dough, don't bother letting it rest. But it you like airy pastries, let it sit out for a bit, and sit out again after you roll and cut the dough. I imagine, though I have no proof and haven't asked, that this is how Chicago's Grand Lux Cafe achieves such incredibly light, yet rich beignets. In any case, they warn you to wait if you order them, so I have my suspicions...]
On a heavily-floured surface, place a fourth of the dough, and roll out with a well-floured rolling pin to about 1/8-inch thickness. Cut into 2-inch squares. Heat oil to 370°, or until two matches floating in oil ignite. [Disclaimer: the cookbook from which this recipe was copied was definitely published no later than 1983, and has an avocado green, burnt orange and gold color scheme to prove it. Kitchen safety was probably not front of mind.]
Drop beignets a few at a time into oil. They will rise to surface and puff up. As they puff up, turn over to brown other side. Remove and drain on paper towels; dust with powdered sugar. Serve warm. Unused dough can be refrigerated for up to one week.
Makes 4 dozen. [You'll need them.]
So there you have it. Nothing better to coat the stomach, or perhaps soak up the remainder of last night's liquid escapades than some highly permeable and delicious carbohydrates. If anything involving yeast seems daunting for your kitchen exploits, the Cafe du Monde sells a beignet mix, which is available in Chicago at Fox and Obel, along with the Cafe's chicory coffee. I've tried the mix before, and it's just kind of adequate -- and really very little less complicated than making beignets from scratch. Try it, enjoy the fruits of your labor, and then give up cooking with hot oil for Lent if you must.
If the thought of hot oil splattering around your friends and family doesn't phase you, consider the possibly variations on the beignet once you've mastered the basics. This week's Top Chef could be a great inspiration, with cheftestants turning out both sweet and savory versions of the beignet.
Chicago restaurants also have you covered if you're now suitably intrigued by this fried phenomenon but use your kitchen for decorative purposes only. Harmony Grill, Schubas' in-house restuarant, serves beignettes, which are presumably just smaller portioned version of the original, served with a raspberry dipping sauce. Green Zebra also features a honey crisp apple beignet with various accompaniments. And Table Fifty-Two has been known to serve up onion ring beignets as a side to their upscale classic American and soul food dishes.
But I say let the good times roll right at home. Give it a try -- the scent of the oil, the dusty sticky mess of leftover powdered sugar, the final sizzling moment when you lift a lump of dough out of the fryer to discover it's become...something else entirely. It'll leave you with less of a headache than an evening of hurricanes. And if you must, make it your last hurrah before giving up fried foods for Lent. Bonne chance.