Sunday, February 22, 2004

Let the beignets roll


New Orleans cafe sweetens another Mardi Gras

By Tim Greening
Gannett News Service

Fried sweet dough takes on so many forms, and so many names.

If it's in the shape of a ring and glazed with melted sugar, it's a doughnut. If it's flat and in a mesh-like pattern and sold at the fair, it's a funnel cake. If it's served in a Mexican restaurant with honey, it's a sopaipilla.

But if it's a 2-inch square smothered in powdered sugar and served in the New Orleans French Market with chicory coffee - year round and at Mardi Gras this week - it could only be one thing: a beignet.

It's a simple confection, but the beignet (ben-YAY) has become as much a part of New Orleans culture as a Pat O'Brien's hurricane cocktail.

French in origin, it's basically a fritter that starts with a sweet batter that is cut into squares and deep-fried. It's typically topped with powdered sugar and served with coffee.

"Maybe one of the first three things people think of when they think of New Orleans is the beignet," says Jay Roman, vice president of New Orleans' Cafe Du Monde restaurant and its widely available food products.

While it didn't invent the beignet, Cafe Du Monde did make it famous (and vice versa). The cafe opened in 1862 in the French Market, now a major tourist magnet in the French Quarter.

At night, the cafe served the farmers dropping off their products. The next morning, it served the city dwellers as they did their shopping.

In the beginning, Cafe Du Monde only sold coffee. But it faced fierce competition and needed something to make it stand out.

"There were a number of little coffee stands throughout the Market, all of them selling their unique brands of coffee," Roman says. "With the competition between them, they needed a something to go along with it and that's where the beignet came from."

Roman's family took over the cafe in 1942 when his grandfather, Hubert Fernandez, bought it. The Fernandez family has overseen its growth as New Orleans' tourism industry exploded.

Unfortunately, the history of the beignet has its violent side: the sugar fight. You're in the French Market with your friends, you've had a few drinks and you're feeling a little silly, and in your hand is this dessert that's covered in powdered sugar. Who can resist the urge to blow that sugar all over the unsuspecting fellow sitting next to you?

Next thing you know, the air is full of retaliatory bursts.

"There are some things you learn to live with," Roman says, chuckling. But it's a tradition that's probably just as old as the beignet itself, and one Cafe Du Monde tolerates.

As long as it stays at the table.

• While at Cafe Du Monde's beignet recipe is a company secret, you can buy Cafe Du Monde mix in many grocery stores and online at www.cafedumonde.com. Here is a traditional recipe.

Beignet

1 cup water

4 ounces unsalted butter

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon sugar

1 cup, plus 2 tablespoons sifted all-purpose flour

4 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

Vegetable shortening, for deep frying

Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

In a small saucepan combine the water, butter, salt and granulated sugar and bring the mixture to a rapid boil. Remove the pan from the heat and add flour all at once, stirring vigorously. Cook the paste over low heat, beating briskly, until the ingredients are thoroughly combined and the dough cleanly leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball. Remove the pan from the heat. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

By hand or with an electric mixer set at medium speed, beat the paste until it is smooth and glossy. Stir in the vanilla. In a deep fryer, heat three inches shortening at 370 degrees. Drop dough by teaspoonfuls into the shortening, and fry the beignets in batches, turning them, until golden brown (about three minutes). With a slotted spoon, remove to paper towels to drain. Sprinkle the beignets generously with the confectioners' sugar and serve them hot with chicory coffee.

Gourmet Magazine




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