Let’s get one thing straight before we begin: it’s pronounced “ben-YAY.”
Okay, we may start.
So, the word beignet actually comes from the Celtic word bigne which means “to raise.” The word also derives from the Spanish for fritters, buelos, but ultimately, the French word for fritters (beignet, of course) stuck for the long haul. Truly, all of the influences go hand and hand.
These Louisiana specialties are fried, raised pieces of dough that make for an excellent treat. After the dough is fried, the squares of yumminess are sprinkled with powdered sugar, and the result is divine. Beignets are choux pastries, which fancily means that they are made of high-moisture dough which puffs when cooked. A beignet is just like a beautiful, fluffy pillow, but made with dough and sugar, and devoured upon sight.
It’s thought that beignets migrated from the Islamic world to the Christian world. Because deep frying was relatively expensive back in the day, beignets were eaten by the elite, though over time, they diffused to the lower classes. Rumor has it the Andalusians first introduced the pastry to France, then known as “Spanish beignets.” The treat became associated with Mardi Gras around the 16th century. You can actually still find beignet recipes from that time (that’s over 500 years ago!), and the ingredients and cooking instructions have not changed too much.
But how did the beignet get to New Orleans? It all started with 18th-century French colonists. French colonists were mainly responsible for bringing desserts to the Americas. The Frenchies introduced this simple pastry to Louisiana, where it has been a staple to this day.
How does one eat beignets? In New Orleans, beignets are washed down with cafe au lait, a traditional Louisiana strong dark roast coffee made with chicory and served with hot milk. The fried goodies are often paired with the coffee and eaten as a breakfast food. Beignets are always served right out of the oven for ultimate tastiness.
Y’all can find signature beignets at Cafe du Monde, a coffee stand that has lived in the French Market since 1862. At Cafe du Monde, there is only one food item on the menu: beignets. You don’t even have to say the name when approaching the counter, a simple “order” will do. Just be prepared to wait in line.
Want a taste of the official Louisiana doughnut but can’t make it to the south? Make ‘em yourself!
French Quarter Beignets
- 1 cup lukewarm water
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 large egg, room temperature and beaten
- 2 tablespoons butter, softened
- 1/2 cup evaporated milk
- 4 cups bread flour or all-purpose flour
- 3 teaspoons instant active dry yeast
- Vegetable oil for deep frying*
Powdered sugar for dusting
* Use just enough vegetable oil to completely cover beignets while frying – approximately 2 inches deep in the pan.
Using a mixer with a dough hook (you can also use a food processor), place water, sugar, salt, egg, butter, evaporated milk, flour, and yeast in a bowl. Beat until smooth. Remove dough from bowl and turn out onto a lightly-oiled surface. Form dough into an oval, place in a lightly-greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until well chilled (3 to 4 hours) or overnight.
Remove the prepared dough from the refrigerator and roll out on a lightly-floured board to 1/2-inch thickness. Using a sharp knife, cut dough into approximately 3-inch squares, triangles, or circles (your choice); set aside.
In a deep fryer or large pot, heat vegetable oil to 360 degrees F.
Slide the dough pieces slowly into the hot oil (this is to avoid splattering) and fry the beignets (2 or 3 at a time) approximately 2 to 3 minutes or until they are puffed and golden brown on both sides. Turn them in the oil with tongs once or twice to get them evenly brown. The beignets will rise to the surface of the oil as soon as they begin to puff.
NOTE: If the beignets don’t rise to the top immediately when dropped into the oil, the oil is not hot enough. Remove from oil and drain on paper towels.
While the beignets are still warm, sprinkle heavily with powdered sugar.
Serve while still warm. Grab yourself a steaming cup of Cafe au Lait or your favorite hot coffee and enjoy!
The dough can be kept for up to 1 week in the refrigerator (it actually improves with age.) Just punch down when it rises.
Dough can also be frozen. (Cut and roll or shape doughnuts before freezing.)