I have never been to New Orleans. I want to, but I haven't made my way there yet. I have therefore never eaten the famous beignets from Cafe Du Monde, a landmark in the city that was established in 1826 in the New Orleans French Market.
Yup. I've never been there but I feel like I have because it's one of Dave Robicheaux's favourite haunts. Dave Robicheaux is a recurrent character in James Lee Burke's books. I love James Lee Burke and have read at least seven books in the Robicheaux series. Robicheaux is a deputy sheriff and he always has beignets with his coffee at the Du Monde. Though Burke's investigative series is compelling, I find myself getting lost in the descriptions off the food as much as the crimes. Especially the beignets.
What in heaven's name are beignets? Well, first of all, they're pronounced ben-yay. According to the Cafe Du Monde website, they were introduced to Louisiana from the Acadians, the French colonists. They're French fried doughnuts basically that are dusted with powdered sugar and sometimes filled with fruit or custard. Some come with savoury fillings too ... anything from cauliflower (now don't scrunch up your nose; it's nice) to cheese to anchovies.
[Read about the variations (new and old) of beignets served in different parts of France and beyond here.]
I really don't know why it has taken me so long to try my hand at beignets. Maybe I have been too busy making cupcakes. Maybe it just never occurred to me. Nevertheless, I was re-reading a Robicheaux novel today and I decided to make the fried pastries rather than just read about them.
I dug out a recipe I'd bookmarked some time ago and was relieved to find that I had all the ingredients. Except the nutmeg but I decided it wasn't really an essential ingredient.
While some versions of beignets are made with choux pastry (the kind of pastry you use to make profiteroles), the ones at Du Monde use a yeasted dough, similar to the dough for doughnuts. Once the dough — kneaded, rested, rolled and cut into squares — hits the hot oil, it puffs up into a light and airy fritter. Don't be afraid by the generous dusting of powdered sugar as the dough in itself isn't sweet.
New Orleans-Styled Beignets
21/4 tsp instant/fast action yeast
3/4 cup tepid water (110C)
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup evaporated milk
1 egg, lightly beaten
1 tbsp vanilla extract
1/2 tsp salt
30g butter, softened
4 cups high protein/bread flour
vegetable oil for frying
powdered sugar for dusting
Dissolve the yeast in the warm water; add a pinch of sugar and let it sit for 10 mins, till the mixture starts frothing.
Add the evaporated milk, egg, sugar, vanilla, salt and half the flour and using the dough hook on your mixer, stir to combine (low speed). Add the butter and remaining flour and mix till a dough forms. Removes and knead for about 5 mins until the dough is smooth and elastic (and passes the window pane test: pinch a small portion of the dough and stretch it. if it is easily stretched to a thin sheet, it's ready. If it tears, knead some more).
Shape into a ball and transfer into an oiled bowl, making sure to coat all sides of the dough with oil.
Cover and leave to rise for 2 hours.
Punch the dough down gently and roll into a rectangle about 1/2 cm thick. Cut into squares (using a sharp knife or a pizza cutter).
Heat some oil in a dutch oven/cast iron skillet (preferably, for even heat) or any deep skillet. The trick is getting the oil hot enough; about 180C. To test, fry a small piece of the dough first. It should puff up immediately. Fry the squares one or two at a time for about 2 mins or until each side gets golden. Drain on paper towels and when cool, dust with the sugar.