Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Versatile Beignet

Beignets are a dish closely associated with the city of New Orleans and were in fact declared the official state doughnut in 1986. In an article by Linda Stradley at, the etymology of beignet stems from the Celtic word bigne, meaning "to raise." Coincidentally, the word bigne also means "fritter" in French. The pastry was brought to New Orleans in the 18th Century, with Stradley crediting the Ursuline Nuns of France who came to the city in 1727. The 1902 Picayune Creole Cookbook had this to say about the dish's origins and popularity:

"The ancient French colonist brought the custom of serving sweet entrements and eatres, such as Beignets, Compotes, Souffles, Gelees, etc., from the old mother country to Louisiana. . . The custom of serving these sweet entrements spread from New Orleans to other portions of the United States, till now no fastidious chef would think of keeping a fashionable hotel or restaurant with including some of these in the daily bill of fare."

According to Wikipedia, the beignet is a type of choux pastry which is made of butter, flour, water and eggs, but unlike most choux pastries, the beignet is fried rather than baked. The high moisture content acts as the raising agent of the pastry, puffing it out during cooking. Wikipedia also correctly notes that the pastry, though usually served with a coating of confectioner's sugar, can be served as a savory dish as well with the addition of crawfish or shrimp., the online edition of The Courier of Houma, Louisiana, has an article by Laura McKnight dated November 16, 2007. In the article, McKnight reports a number of southern Louisiana family traditions related to the beignet. Windell Curole of South Lafourche remembers that the pastry was named from the French baigner, meaning "to swim" or "to bathe." Curole said, "The lump of dough 'swam' or 'bathed' in the hot oil to become a beignet."

Charlene Breaux of Raceland recounts this story told to her by her grandmother:
"In the very early days, the Cajun women would make their own bread each day. A small portion of the bread would be pulled and stretched thin, then deep fried for a quick breakfast. This could be given to the men as they left for the field to begin their day’s labor."
Breaux added that the beignet would be served plain, with cane syrup or with fig preserves.

Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook offers a savory beignet recipe stuffed with crawfish with a tomato-tarragon tartar sauce on page 324. According to the book, this recipe can also be made with shrimp, lobster or a mixture of crab and smoked, flaked redfish.

SOURCE: "History of Beignets" 2004
SOURCE: "Beignet" 04/03/08
SOURCE: "Choux Pastry" 03/26/08
SOURCE: "Beignets: More Than Just a Doughnut" 11/16/07
photo couresy of elizabethtrittpo, used under this Creative Commons license

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