- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2004

Mardi Gras in New Orleans means music, parades, picnics, floats and excitement rolled into one big celebration — a last blast on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the somber season of Lent.

Purple, green and gold are the holiday colors, and revelers are adorned with long strings of beads caught as they are tossed by riders on the floats in the parades.

Sooner or later, almost everyone heads to Cafe du Monde, where it is a tradition on any day of the year to sip cafe au lait while munching on beignets, those warm, sweet, puffed-up confections that are crispy on the outside and either hollow or soft on the inside and are showered with confectioners’ sugar.

Early French colonists get the credit for introducing the beignet tradition to New Orleans. Early Creole cooks knew a good thing when they ate one, and beignets quickly became a staple for breakfast. In New Orleans’ French Quarter, beignets obey no clock and are wonderful for either breakfast or a snack.

Beignet is the French word for fritter. Under the culinary umbrella of deep-fried dough is a world of other addictive confections, including doughnuts, fruit fritters, hush puppies, Indian fry bread and Southwestern and Mexican sopaipillas.

Beignets are easy to make. The classic New Orleans version uses a yeast-raised dough that is rolled thin and cut into squares. When deep-fried, it puffs into a hollow pillow-package.

A second version of beignets is a perfect recipe for yeast-averse home cooks because it is so easy and the dough can be made in advance. This dough, which produces the beignet souffle, is a quickly prepared cream-puff dough, or pate a choux. Instead of dropping the soft dough onto a baking sheet for baking into cream puffs, the cook drops it into hot fat, where it swells, puffs and browns.

Another New Orleans tradition is a breakfast fritter, called a calas, that is mixed with cooked rice, flour, sugar and spices and then deep-fried. It’s a natural leftover recipe that makes good use of the previous night’s rice.

According to “The Dictionary of American Food & Drink,” the word calas was first printed in 1880 and comes from one or more African languages. It may be a variation on the word kara, which means fried cake. In fact, black street vendors sold fresh, hot calas in the city’s French Quarter.

Keep leftover beignets because, although they won’t be nearly as good as when freshly made, they still will be fine when heated up briefly in a toaster oven.

Try either of the two following recipes. They were so good that it was hard to pick a favorite. As for deep-frying, the depth of the oil in a saucepan is more important than width. A two-quart saucepan with 11/2 to 2 inches of oil is about right. You’ll need a chopstick and a slotted spoon to assist in turning and removing the beignets when done.

Serve them anytime. For breakfast with coffee is a given. For a dramatic dessert, fry the beignet souffles while dark-roast coffee brews. Pour a puddle of bottled raspberry or strawberry sauce on a dessert plate and place three sugar-showered puffs on the sauce. Enjoy the applause.

French market beignets

This dough is flexible. It can be made, raised and fried in one step or refrigerated, covered, until you are ready to make the beignets. Just punch it down when it rises in the fridge. I like to fry half (about 20) the day I make the dough and half (the other 20) a day or so later. Accompany them with cups of cafe au lait or a rich dark-roast coffee.

1 envelope active dry yeast

¼ cup sugar

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon nutmeg

1 large egg, beaten

3/4 cup evaporated milk

2 tablespoons vegetable oil or melted shortening

3½ cups flour

Oil for frying

Confectioners’ sugar

In a small, warm bowl, sprinkle yeast over ¼ cup warm water, 110 degrees. Add a pinch of the sugar. Allow to rest for 5 minutes until a bit foamy and creamy.

In a large bowl, combine remaining sugar, salt, nutmeg, egg, milk, oil or melted shortening and 1½ cups flour. Add the yeast mixture. Beat for 2 minutes. Add 1½ cups more flour and beat with a wooden spoon until a soft dough forms. If the dough seems too sticky, add an additional ¼ cup flour, reserving the other ¼ cup for flouring the board.

(Options: Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place — 75 to 80 degrees — until doubled in bulk. Or divide dough in half, allow one part to rise at room temperature as described, and refrigerate the other half to rise slowly and reserve for fresh beignets in a day or so. Punch it down from time to time. Fry within 2 days.)

Punch down the dough, and knead 4 or 5 times on a floured surface to remove air bubbles. Divide in half. Roll half the dough on a lightly floured surface into a rectangle about 12 by 15 inches and ⅛ inch thick. Making 5 slices one way and 4 the other way, cut the dough into 20 roughly 3-by-2-inch rectangles.

Add oil to a wok, heavy skillet or deep fryer to a depth of about 1½ inches. Heat to 365 degrees. Fry 2 or 3 beignets at a time until beignets puff and turn golden brown on both sides. Drain on paper towels. Shower with confectioners’ sugar from a sieve or drop beignets into a paper bag ⅓-filled with confectioners’ sugar and shake until coated. Serve hot. Makes about 40 beignets.

Beignet souffles

This is the beignet to make if you have a fear of yeast dough. Pate a choux, or cream-puff dough, is one of the easiest, lowest-risk doughs in the pastry cook’s repertoire. Heat, beat, fry, eat. That’s it. Add orange oil or rum for subtle flavor. Serve as finger food or as a plated dessert. To do so, pour a pool of strawberry syrup onto a dessert plate and top with 3 sugared beignets.

4 tablespoons butter, at room temperature

Pinch salt

½ cup flour

2 large eggs

⅛ teaspoon orange oil or 1 tablespoon dark rum, optional

Oil for deep-frying

Confectioners’ sugar

Combine ½ cup water with butter and salt in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Remove from heat and add the flour all at once. Stir vigorously until the mixture leaves the sides of the pan and forms a ball around the spoon. (If a ball does not form almost immediately, hold saucepan over low heat and beat briskly a few seconds. Cool slightly.)

Add eggs, one at a time, and beat vigorously until mixture is smooth and glossy after both additions. Add orange oil or rum, if desired, and beat again.

Add oil for deep-frying to a wok, heavy skillet or deep fryer to a depth of about 1½ inches. Heat to 365 degrees. Drop dough by tablespoons into hot fat. Fry until browned on all sides and center is cooked through, about 2 minutes per side. Fry and test one first to determine approximate cooking time. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot, sprinkled with confectioners’ sugar. Makes about 20 golf-ball-size beignet souffles.

New Orleans rice fritters, or “calas”

Make these deep-fried indulgences with leftover rice. The rice balls are soft, moist and spicy. To cut the recipe in half, halve ingredients except eggs and baking powder. Use 1 extra-large egg instead of 3 large eggs, and 2 teaspoons baking powder.

2 cups cooked rice

3 large eggs, beaten

½ cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla

2¼ teaspoons baking powder

1 cup flour

Oil for deep-frying

Confectioners’ sugar

In a large bowl, combine rice, eggs, sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, vanilla and baking powder. Add flour, and stir to make a heavy batter.

Heat oil for deep-frying in a medium saucepan or deep-fryer to 365 degrees.

Drop batter by teaspoonfuls into hot oil. Fry in batches until crisp and golden, about 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle generously with confectioners’ sugar.

Makes 40 to 50 calas.


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