Beignets: dangerously delicious doughnuts

Fried treats popular in New Orleans worthy of indulgence on Fat Tuesday

February 10, 2010|By Rob Kasper

Fat Tuesday is a day I support in a two-fisted manner, with both of my fists covered with powdered sugar. The idea behind Fat Tuesday, or in French, Mardi Gras, is that sinners get one last day of indulgence before facing 40 days of mortification, also known as Lent.

I have always been keen on the indulgence aspect of this transaction and pretty feeble on the mortification.

Among the foods that shout "pleasure binge," doughnuts lead the chorus. The prime example of a Fat Tuesday doughnut is a beignet. These are the puffy, crusty treats that residents of New Orleans - folks who know a thing or two about Mardi Gras - embrace as their doughnuts.

They are dough fried in hot oil, usually doused with powdered sugar. The only aspect of your health that they might improve is your mental health. But they are so good that after you polish off a plate or two, you feel so fine that you could almost cuddle up to a calorie-counting dietitian. Almost.

Like many visitors to New Orleans, I got my first taste of beignets at Cafe du Monde, a largely open-air cafe on Canal Street near Jackson Square. When you sit at the tiny tables, sipping dark cafe au lait and eating pieces of hot, sweet dough, life seems very smooth. There are whole rafts of ways you can get yourself in trouble in New Orleans, but eating several orders of beignets at Cafe du Monde is one of the most benign.

So to get ready for next week's Fat Tuesday, I made several batches of beignets. I made one batch with yeast dough, following a recipe I found in "Joy of Cooking."

When working with this yeast dough, you have to delay your gratification. That seems contradictory when you are dealing with doughnuts, but the dough has to sit for at least 16 hours in the fridge before the frying starts. I let mine chill for 24 hours. It produced beignets that were pillows of delight.

I made another batch without yeast, using a recipe from the family cookbook of Cajun chef Paul Prudhomme. These beignets were denser, more like cake doughnuts. Dangerously good.

Both were fried in hot oil, a process that can be tricky. I had to keep the temperature of my oil at 365 degrees when frying the yeast beignets, 350 degrees when cooking the Prudhomme recipe. Fortunately, I had a candy thermometer that clipped on to the side of my pot. I manipulated the fire under the pot to keep the temperature in the acceptable range.

Experienced beignet makers warn novices like me not to crowd the pot. So I fried no more than six beignets at a time, keeping a close eye on the thermometer.

The yeast beignets produced a pleasant surprise as they cooked; they expanded like little balloons. It was great entertainment, especially the first time it happened. I had rolled out the dough with a marble rolling pin and cut it into 2-inch squares. Then I dropped the squares in the hot oil, and miracle of miracles, they puffed up. I thought, "That's probably what is going to happen to my stomach, too."

The Prudhomme beignets were heavier, but when they hit the hot oil, they floated in the pot like a bobber on a fishing line on a windy day.

Using a slotted spoon, I scooped the now-brown beauties out of the oil and onto paper towels to dry, and sprinkled them with powdered sugar.

I had spent the morning shoveling snow, so as I settled in front of my plate of beignets, I was eager to eat my reward.

My first batch of yeast beignets was OK but did not produce the sweet thrill I had expected. They were tough. I think I had left them too long in the hot oil; their skin was a very dark brown. So the next batch stayed in oil only long enough to give the skin a slightly golden tone. They were better, but still not up to my memory of the Cafe du Monde beignets.

I called New Orleans for guidance.

"You overmixed the dough," Burt Benrud, vice president of Cafe du Monde, told me when I described my doughnut-making troubles to him.

Benrud said that when beignet dough has been mixed too long, or when the proper amount of moisture has not been added, the dough gets stiff, and beignets get tough.

He suggested that next time I use the Cafe du Monde beignet mix, sold on its Web site, cafedumonde.com.

I fried my beignets in peanut oil, but Benrud stood by the cafe's practice of frying beignets in cottonseed oil. Occasionally, the cooks at Cafe du Monde have tried to fry the beignets in other types of oil, "just to amuse the oil salesmen," he said. But the results have not been good.

"We take a bag home to the kids, and they stick they nose in the bag and say, 'These are not beignets.' So Cafe du Monde sticks to its cottonseed oil tradition. It has been handed down for generations," Benrud said. "We don't mess with success."

As for how long to leave them in the fryer, Benrud said, the pros cook by color. "We go for that nice golden color," he said adding the usual amount of time in the fryer is 2 1/2 minutes.

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