Mountains in New Orleans (a post by Josh)
June 29, 2009
While re-reading some of the archived entries, I remembered that Lyz had written about beignets a while back. Her first post, in fact. If I may quote, “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.” I would subscribe to this statement; I mean with all the thoughts of physical health aside, doughnuts are delicious. Especially hot. You know every time you pass a Krispy Kreme Doughnut factory and that “Hot Doughnuts Now” sign is on, you think about stopping. You may not stop, but you think about it real quick-like. Who doesn’t?
Who doesn’t want to gorge on soft, warm, sugary bread that collapses upon fist bite. And if you coat it in a glaze or powdered sugar? You can’t stop yourself. If you are reading this and saying to yourself “No, of course not, I don’t like sweets all that much,” you’re lying to yourself. I know it, I just know it.
But this is much more than Krispy Kremes. This is ever more than the beignets that Lyz and her friends made in that dorm-room kitchen (sorry blog partner). What I’m talking about are the real beignets. The ones that Lyz talked about in her post too: “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.”
That’s right, my travels have finally brought me to New Orleans (“Nawlins,” “New Or-Lee-ns,” or “New Orlins,” whichever you prefer). I’ve tried the gumbo (file style, of course) and the po’boys and the crawfish and the spices and the bread pudding. I mean there are a thousand different varieties of all of these, but I’ve had at least one of those dishes (maybe a po’boy every lunch? Who cares). But what I keep wanting to do is go back to Café Du Monde. The “original” café that served coffee and beignets.
Well the “original” is sort of true. From what I hear, there was another café that served beignets too, but Café Du Monde did it right, and has stuck it out on Decatur street, just a few blocks from the infamous Bourbon street, for years now. Every day from open to close this place is packed. And by packed, I mean, people are packed around small round tables in an outdoor patio so tightly that you have to excuse most of your movements in or out. And people wait for this place – it has become a New Orleans staple. “You have to try a Po’Boy, some gumbo, go to Bourbon Street, and get a café au lait and a beignet.” “Where should I get all these things?” “Well Po’Boy at Domilese’s, Gumbo with File, Bourbon street during Happy our (3 for 1 specials), and Café Du Monde for the coffee.”
Whoever told me this was right about the coffee. I mean, I guess the coffee has to be good if so many people order it in 90+ degree heat in an outdoor patio surrounded by other sweating people. Or they order the café au lait because it goes so well with the beignets.
So, yes, it is time for me to talk about the beignets. Most times I try to avoid describing the actual sensation of eating foods, because what I eat may affect me differently. But this time, I’m going to try to take you step by step. Since I’ve already set the scene (crowded environment, fans spinning above floors coated white from powdered sugar, waiters hug trays full of food and coffee to the everyday tourist), let’s get to the good stuff.
So at this point I’ve ordered my café au lait, beignet and glass of water (for about three dollars) off of the menu that is plastered on the diner-style napkin dispenser. The waitress takes no time getting the food and drink back to the table, maybe four minutes. What I find in front of me is a medium sized, off-white mug filled with dense-looking coffee and a saucer plate heaped with food. There are three beignets neatly plied one on top of the other, poking their golden bodies out from under an avalanche of powdered sugar. Peaks of sugar make this plate mountainous.
I don’t wait too long to reach for the first beignet. I knock off some of the powdered sugar and bite through the coated crispy layer of dough into the warm innards of the beignet. What I find inside are huge air pockets in between yellow sweet bread. Crispy where the hot oil smacked the dough for the longest and chewy on the inside.
Now that the inside is revealed, I dip the warm, almost moist, dough, into the mountains of powdery sugar to cover as many surfaces with a thin layer. There is something about powdered sugar – its taste, its texture – that goes so well with hot dough. Its taste isn’t like regular sugar, it is more rich, less sweet and a bit denser. The texture adds a lot to it though, because it is powdery sitting on top of the golden beignet but almost muddy after it touches any liquid (saliva for example). It’s hard to divorce the taste from funnel cakes, really.
After a few bites, I interrupt the beignet-fest with a sip of dense, milky coffee that is sweetened with a spoonful of that muddy powdered sugar I love so much.
With the coffee still lingering in my mouth, I dive back into the golden beignet. I study it, really. I want to know why it tastes so much better than the Average American Doughnut. Is it because it is just a little exotic (an American take on French sweets)? Is it because it can’t really be found anywhere else, this good? What I conclude is: the beignet is delicious because of the layers.
Barebones, sugar glaze free, the beignet is fried crispy on the outside, but to any touch, the lemon-shaped pastry condenses due to the doughy inside. The draw is also the inside itself – the chewy dough hidden below a hard surface. I think it is also that the pastries come out warm, making the powdered sugar melt on the beignet’s surface, against the sugar’s will. And of course, it is the taste. The semi-sweet dough that mimics the taste of funnel cake, but classier. Maybe classier because I’m eating it at a Café instead of a carnival stand. I don’t know the reasoning, but trust me.
Okay, okay, I’ll stop. Let’s just say, three beignets and a café au lait are hard to beat for a mid-day snack when touring around the historic French Quarter.