One of the world’s great carbohydrate indulgences is a beignet. Although the French word “beignet” merely means fried dough, the actual creation tends to be more diverse than the American doughnut. The most classic version of a beignet consists of a fried square of dough, which the chef may or may not frost, but typically dusts with liberal amounts of confectioner’s sugar.
The history of beignets extends back many to the Middle Ages, if not before. The Islamic influence of Spanish cuisine produced the bunuelo, balls of choux paste deep-fried in fat. In France, the dough took on a different shape, but the frying and sugar remained. By the 18th century, French people colonizing in the Louisiana region brought their pastry traditions with them, making beignets popular in New Orleans.
Dessert beignets in France and New Orleans share powdered sugar as the primary topping, but many other types of beignets exist. In France, dessert beignets may feature fruit fillings. Savory versions of beignets may include meat, cheese, potatoes or seafood. The United States beignet consists of choux pastry as opposed to a yeast-based dough, drawn from the influence of Italy’s zeppole and Germany’s spritzkuchen.
Beignets in New Orleans
Beignets have folkloric status in New Orleans, prompting Louisiana’s government to officially name them the state doughnut in 1986. One of New Orleans’ star tourist attractions is Cafe du Monde, a 24-hour French Quarter cafe that serves only two items: chicory-infused coffee and beignets. The beignets are square shaped, have no hole, and come three to an order under a signature pile of powdered sugar.
There is some dispute over the origin of the word beignet. The most common explanation traces it from “bigne,” which is an early Celtic word meaning “to raise.” Another theory suggests the Middle French term “bignet,” which means a savory or sweet pastry surrounding meat or fruit, preceded the term beignet. In addition, the Middle French words “buyne” and “beigne” which mean “bruise” or “bump,” may describe the shape of a beignet.
Despite their variations, beignets around the world share the common trait of fried dough. At Cafe du Monde as well as the streets of Paris, chefs serve beignets hot because the dough quickly gets heavy and hardens as it cools. A crispy exterior and a hollow interior create a juxtaposition of textures. Some purists insist on beginning with homemade bread dough and hand-stretching it, rather than using machines. Others swear by peanut oil for the frying, because it won’t burn like other oils when heated to a high temperature.
New Orleans Bignets
- 2 ¼ teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 ½ cups (110 degrees F) warm water
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 2 whole eggs
- 1 cup evaporated milk
- 7 cups all purpose flour
- ¼ cup shortening
- 1 quart canola oil for frying
- ¼ cup powdered sugar for dusting
- In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Add sugar, salt, eggs, evaporated milk, and blend well. Mix in 4 cups of the flour and beat until smooth. Add the shortening, and then the remaining 3 cups of flour. Cover and chill for up to 24 hours.
- Roll out dough 1/8 inch thick. Cut into 2 1/2 inch squares. Fry in 360 degree F (180 degrees C) hot oil. If beignets do not pop up, oil is not hot enough. Drain onto paper towels.
- Shake confectioners’ sugar on hot beignets. Serve warm.