There’s something very attractive about deep-fried anything covered in powdered sugar, isn’t it? Of course, I’m talking about beignets, those sweet treats crafted from flour, lard, milk and sugar. The official state doughnut of Louisiana has a long history in the United States, however it became distinctly identified with New Orleans’ French Quarter by quite the circuitous route.
I recently returned from a trip to New Orleans with my husband, and in preparation I boned up on my foodie history of New Orleans. Like most, I very much fell in love with the diversity of food heritage to be found in the romantic, atmospheric city that calls to mine some of my favorite novels and films… Let’s explore the history of the beignet, shall we?
A History of Choux-Pastry
According to Terence Scully, author of The Art of Cookery in the Middle Ages” Beignet, (pronounced Ben-YAY) a French word for fried dough or fritter, comes from the same original word that turned into bun in England, bugne in Belgium, and buñuelo in Spain. Beignets are usually made with an unleavened, hot water paste, but recipes also exist for beignets made with yeast dough that are related to raised doughnuts, sopapilla, Berliners and funnel cakes. They were associated with Carnival season before Lent and after Easter.
In 16th century England, these fried cakes were called Bennets. They were called spritz kueken and krullers in Germany, and zeppole in Italy.” So, basically every country and culture as their version of fried dough, however the beignet most immediately derives its heritage from France.
French cooks developed two basic types of pastry: doughs that use yeast as a raising agent, and those that rise with their own steam. Doughs that are moist enough to use steam to fluff up are called choux pastries. One of the more signature choux pasteries are traditional New Orleans beignets.
French Beignets feature sweet fruit fillings as well as savory meats, cheeses, potatoes and seafood. These choux pasteries find their influence from Italy’s zeppole pastries and Germany’s spritz kuchen. However, no one travels to New Orleans looking for a savory, a meat-filled beignet, for them – and me – it’s all about the sweet – that fluffy, golden square of deliciousness.
What New Orleans knows of as beignets, come from the French-Creole colonists. Early French settlers brought beignets with them as they migrated to the eastern coast of Canada, a region called Acadia, in the 17th century. The Acadians endured a forced migration as the British took control of the region a hundred years later and brought the concept of this classic New Orleans dessert down with them to New Orleans in the 18th century.
While the Marine and I were in New Orleans, we had beignets everyday. So, of course I compiled a list of the best places to eat beignets in New Orleans – and yes, Cafe Du Monde was on the list. The one thing I learned on my visit to New Orleans, is that beignets are not a Cafe Du Monde-thing, practically every establishment makes beignets, and they don’t all taste the same. Cafe Du Monde is just the most famous for them.
So, there are four places on my list, because once we had beignets twice in one day – once for breakfast and again for dessert later that night. Hardly low-carb friendly (I’m a low-carber, ya’ll.) but what the heck, when in NOLA… Each location on the list has awesome beignets.
I want to give a special shout out to Huck Finn’s New Orleans, a rowdy sports bar that caters to large tourist groups. On our first night in New Orleans, tired from the drive down – almost delirious actually (never drive from North Carolina to New Orleans, no matter how much money it will save you. Never.) we had two conflicting desires. My husband wanted to see a hockey game, something to do with the Stanley Cup… and I wanted beignets.
Enter Huck Finn’s, close to our hotel and with super-friendly and helpful staff, both of our needs were met. The writer in me also approved of the nod to Mark Twain. So, no they were not the best beignets (but they were tasty) and we both knew that, having never eaten any, and they were also spicy – cinnamon, I believe, which is not typical. My husband did not like the sweet heat, but I did.
We were tired and hungry and looking for a sports bar that served beignets and we found it. For that I will forever be grateful. So if you must eat beignets while watching sports, this is your place.