The Magical Beignet
February 9, 2009
Everybody loves donuts. Almost every culture has the compulsion to throw a wad of dough into a hot pile of oil, fry it, cover or fill it with something delicious, and eat it. In Austria, krapfen stuffed with vanilla cream or apricot jam, are a particularly popular Carnival food. In Indonesia, a ring-shaped dough of flour and mashed potatoes is fried and coated in powdered sugar or confectioners icing and called donat kentang. China, Israel, Germany, Greece, and a slew of other countries have their own version of a donut. In France, they have beignets.
I’ve never had a particularly good relationship with beignets. I burned my arm once making them when I was twelve years old. One spoonful of dough dropped too hastily in a deceptively still pool of oil, and three kiss-shaped scars were suddenly splattered on my arm. Since that encounter, every time someone said the word beignet, drawing out the last syllable with nasal panache, I’d grimace and think, What a pretentious way to say donut. Although I can just barely find the scars now, I hadn’t had another beignet until last Sunday after the Super Bowl.
Two of my regular cooking companions had invited me to a study hall featuring beignets and black coffee. Drawn to any event involving food, I packed a bag with reading and headed to the kitchen in which they were busy mixing dough. The recipe was one from Gourmet, part of a Middle Eastern feast, and featured rose water, orange juice, and lemon zest in addition to the flour, butter, and eggs that formed the basis of the batter. The gathering involved little studying–I read nothing–and a lot of cooking, chatting, and eating. These beignets were nothing like the flat pads of dough I had tried to make as a twelve year old. Moist, bite sized packets flew assembly-line style from the hot oil into a bowl of almond flour and sugar and into our mouths.
Intrigued at my increasingly positive relationship to this delicacy, I looked into the history of the beignet and its relationship to the less sophisticated donut. In France, beignet is a disparate term for fried pastry filled with something–fruits, vegetables, meats, small children–really anything the French decide to put in it. Donuts with jelly or custard fillings most resemble the beignets of France.
Beignets, however, evolved outside of France, most notably in New Orleans, where the pastry was brought to the area in the 18th Century, most likely by the Ursuline Nuns. These beignets, precursors for the hole-in-the-middle donuts sold in every grocery store, have since become the Louisiana State Donut, making Louisiana one of two states with a state donut (the other is Massachusetts with the Boston cream donut). Versus their French cousins, American beignets are not filled with anything, but are fluffy piles of deep fried dough usually topped with confectioners sugar or icing. They can be large, small, or intermediate, but always, they are sweet.
The nice thing about living in a country where the flavors of one culture can be superimposed on the basic food of another culture, is that something like an orange scented beignet can exist. Middle Eastern flavors plus a French dessert put together in an American magazine. In retrospect, I think, that’s fusion food at its best. At the time, the only thing going through my mind was delicious.
Check out the recipe for Orange Scented Beignets at: Epicurious.com-Orange-Scented-Beignets