Sitting on the river side of Decatur Street, across from Jackson Square, Café du Monde customers sit covered in powdered sugar. It starts out heaped on top of hot beignets, then falls to their feet, dissolving on the pavement. A look around the wrought iron outdoor dining area shows hundreds of patrons deliriously happy, eating fritters on the banks of the Mississippi River.
Café du Monde serves beignets in sets of three, in the tradition of old New Orleans coffee stands. Opened in 1862, current owners purchased the café in the 1940s. “The business has been in our family for three generations, and over the years I’ve been amazed at how people identify with the taste of the beignet,” says Burt Benrod, vice president.
In French, beignet means fritter, or fried pastry dough. “Most cultures have fried dough, and in New Orleans our version is the beignet. People grow up eating them for breakfast,” says Benrod. The beignet’s history in the city dates back to the arrival of French colonists in the 18th century, who brought with them, “the custom of serving sweet entremets such as beignets with compote from the mother country,” according to a 1902 Times-Picayune piece.
The French also brought chicory coffee, an integral part of the café au lait which accompanies beignets at New Orleans coffee stands. Café au lait is strong, dark roast coffee with chicory served in equal parts with hot milk. Chicory comes from the root of a flowering plant, and the French incorporated it into their coffee during Napoleon’s 1808 blockade to make dwindling coffee supplies go further. New Orleanians did the same during the American Civil War. Chicory adds a depth and evenness to strong coffee that people desired after the end of the shortage, and the tradition stuck.
A freed slave, Rose Nicaud, opened one of the French Quarter’s first coffee stands in the early 1800s and several other free women of color quickly followed suit. By the mid-19th century, New Orleans had hundreds of coffee stands, dozens of which offered beignets. One of these shops was Morning Call, opening in 1871 on the same block as Café du Monde at the opposite end of the French Market, which marked the beginning of a century-long contest for the French Quarter’s best coffee and beignets.
Older New Orleanians remember Morning Call for its aluminum powdered sugar shakers as well as the curbside service. “I can remember my parents driving us to Morning Call as a kid, for beignets early in the morning. I would try to get a glimpse of the strip joints as we went down Canal,” says local Susan Rogers. “They came to the car to take your order and brought it out to you, and I always thought Morning Call had the best beignets. They don’t drown them in the sugar - you add your own.”
Not just a powdered sugar concoction
In the 1970s Morning Call left the French Quarter, moving to a bustling area of Metairie (a nearby suburb) known as Fat City, and many devotees followed. In 2012, the business returned to Orleans Parish, opening an outpost in City Park. Like Café du Monde it is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, but unlike its competitor, the new Morning Call has expanded its cash only menu to include red beans, jambalaya, crawfish etouffee, alligator sausage and gumbo, as well as desserts.
Most commonly, beignets in New Orleans appear like those at Morning Call or Café du Monde: square, fried pastries with powdered sugar as accompaniment, but chefs also prepare savory beignets utilizing south Louisiana ingredients like crawfish and crab. Myriad possibilities exist. In traditional French cooking, beignet refers to a range of fried dough balls, sometimes with other ingredients in their centers.
When in season, crawfish beignets appear on many fine dining menus. Commander’s Palace chef Tory McPhail created a crawfish boil beignet, rolling spicy crawfish tails and red chilies into a sweet corn dough, served with a red pepper aioli and remoulade sauce. The crawfish beignets at Brennan’s restaurant Café B feature a tempura style batter with Abita Beer, as well as bits of bacon dispersed throughout the fritter.
Crab beignets also routinely pop up on menus. At John Folse’s Restaurant R’evolution, each beignet sits atop a different remoulade on a long and narrow plate. Each sauce, including a white remoulade, a fire roasted variety, salsa verde and saffron, add different layers of flavor to the dish. A citrusy slaw on the side helps cut the richness of the fritters.
“When I was at Bayona we regularly offered different kinds of beignets. Once you have a base dough recipe you can really add anything to it,” says Christane Engeran, former pastry and pantry chef at Bayona. “We would run specials like a sweet cinnamon banana beignet, or a smoked salmon beignet with brandied tomato sauce.”
A beignet is really just dough, and as a result it lends itself well to creative cooking. At SoBou in the French Quarter, Chef Juan Carlos Gonzales offers sweet potato beignets with foie gras fondue, duck debris and chicory coffee ganache - uniquely incorporating the beignets traditional accompaniment into the dish itself. It is rich and decadent and an ideal combination of sweet and savory.
The secret of the light and fluffy beignet
Traditional beignets begin as a choux pastry - the same type of dough used to make cream puffs or profiteroles, but without sugar. “The best beignets have two qualities,” says local food author Tom Fitzmorris. “They’re doughy enough that there’s more than just air inside, but they’re not so heavy that they sink to the bottom of the fryer.”
Cooks agree that beignets require a light hand - the dough must be worked minimally or it will toughen, leaving you with a rock-hard fried object after cooking. The dough will also be wet - almost like a drop biscuit. From there, recipes vary wildly. Café du Monde offers a take-home box version that some say works like a charm, while for others, there’s no substitute for a homemade recipe or the coffee stand magic.
“We use cottonseed oil,” says Benrod. “You need something with a high smoke point - the temperature will need to be between 370-380 degrees. You also need a deep, cast iron skillet. Something that holds heat well. We use a deep fryer for our commercial operation, which is also an option if you have one at home.”
For cooks who would rather not attempt blooming yeast and cast iron cooking, there’s always the beignets of the French Quarter, laced with a lazy river and jazz – and a heaping measure of powdered sugar.
Café du Monde serves beignets in sets of three, in the tradition of old New Orleans coffee stands.
The New Orleans light and fluffy sweet treat is so popular that crowds line up day and night for their fill at shops like Morning Call and Café du Monde.
Most commonly, beignets in New Orleans appear like those at Morning Call or Café du Monde: square, fried pastries with powdered sugar as accompaniment, but chefs also prepare savory beignets utilizing south Louisiana ingredients like crawfish and crab.