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Parlez Beignet? An Exploration of New Orleans' Famous Treats

September 6, 2008: Beignets in Seattle
Our beignet story began with a brow wax. Now, generally "brow wax" and "delicious pastry" aren't things that go together--but it turns out, the aesthetician was originally from New Orleans, which inevitably led to a discussion about the best sweet stuff in the Crescent City. She waxed poetic about one specialty in particular--the beignet. (Cakespy Note: To avoid potential embarrassment later--it's pronounced "ben-YAY"--in your Frenchiest voice possible, please.)

What's a beignet? The answer may differ depending where you are in the world.

The word beignet itself comes from the early Celtic word bigne meaning "to raise", and according to our French dictionary, the literal translation is "fritter". If this seems simplistic, there's a reason why--according to this site, "In France, beignet is an umbrella term for a large variety of pastries made from deep-fried dough with fruit or vegetable filling". However, though French in origin, the beignet's legend seems to lie in New Orleans, so we like this definition (from What's Cooking America) best:
Beignets, a New Orleans specialty, are fried, raised pieces of yeast dough, usually about 2 inches in diameter or 2 inches square. After being fried, they are sprinkled with sugar or coated with various icings. It is like a sweet doughnut, but the beignet is square shaped and without a hole. Beignets are the forerunners of the raised doughnut. When you hear people in New Orleans say, "Goin' fo' coffee an' doughnuts," they mean coffee and beignets. In 1986, beignets became the Louisiana State Doughnut.
And certainly, even if you've never tried a beignet, you'll recognize it as looking like a cousin to many other treats--at moments close to, but not quite the same as--doughnuts, zeppole, funnel cake, pączki, buñuelos, boules de Berlin...the list goes on.

But back to that pivotal brow wax.

Beignets from Cafe Beignet
Turns out, the N'awlins-bred aesthetician wasn't pining over the fried treats, for she had found beignets right in Seattle--in the unlikely spot of the Center House in the Seattle Center. The Center House, under the shadow of the Space Needle, isn't much of a destination--it's more of a mall-type food court, not exactly a foodie mecca--but as she had learned, this little spot makes their beignets using the same mix (note: though the thought of a mix might scare off some, the ingredients were decidedly tame--Enriched wheat flour, enriched barley flour, milk, buttermilk, salt, sugar, leavening (baking powder, baking soda, and/or yeast) as Cafe Du Monde, which is probably the most famous of the beignet joints in New Orleans, having garnered mentions in Jimmy Buffet songs and in John T. Edge's donut book, if you're into pastry name dropping (we totally are).

When we went to Cafe Beignet on a Saturday afternoon, there was no line, and we watched the young employee roll out, shape and then fry the beignets to order. Now, we've never been to New Orleans so we don't really have a point of reference--but we can say that our beignets, taken piping hot to go and liberally dusted with a cinnamon-sugar topping, tasted hot, fried, sugary--that is to say, in our estimation, pretty delicious.

In Seattle? See for yourself at Cafe Beignet, Center House, 305 Harrison Street, Seattle, WA; (206) 441-0262.

Not in Seattle? We found this recipe (below) which we're gonna try next time, or you could buy the Cafe du Monde mix at cafedumonde.com.

Beignet Recipe
  • 1 cup lukewarm water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg, room temperature & 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*
  • Powdered sugar for dusting
* Use just enough vegetable oil to completely cover beignets while frying.

Using a mixer with a dough hook, place water, sugar, salt, egg, butter, evaporated milk, flour, and yeast in the bowl. Beat until smooth. If using a bread machine, select dough setting and press Start. When dough cycle has finished, remove dough from pan 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.

To prepare dough, remove from refrigerator and roll out on a lightly floured board to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut into approximately 3-inch squares.

In a deep fryer or large pot, heat vegetable oil to 360 degrees F. Fry the beignets (2 or 3 at a time) 2 to 3 minutes or until they are puffed and golden brown on both sides, turning them in the oil with tongs once or twice to get them evenly brown; 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, then sprinkle heavily with powdered sugar. Serve hot.

NOTE: The dough can be kept for up to a 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.)

Makes 18 beignets.

Cafe Beignet on Urbanspoon

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Reader Comments (30)

Hey, have you ever had a beavertail, Cakespy? They are of beignet origin and I highly recommend them! They're an eastern Canada thing, but all the more reason to go out that way, right?

September 7 | Unregistered CommenterWandering Coyote

i love, love, love beignets... almost better than cookies and cupcakes. we have them every christmas morning with hot chocolate.

you can also buy the cafe du monde mix at cost plus world market, if you don't want to make them from scratch.

September 7 | Unregistered CommenterKrysta

Yum - never heard of these before. They look delish.
You're too cruel showing so many photos of the lovely treats with the sugar coating...mmmmm, sugar....

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterThe Caked Crusader

these look so so good. Thanks for the interesting info. The photos are really nice made me drool on my keyboard ups

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterSnooky doodle

I want one now!
I think you'll enjoy this: I once made a project at school about french pastries and the beignet was there of course. looking for it's history I found that they said it was invented by a nun that was making dough in the kitchen and started passing gas. As she was so embararessed she started frying the dough in a hot oil pan she had beside her to distract the other nuns from the noise. Lol!

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterClumbsy Cookie

Made to order?!? That is truly a wonderful way to sell a donut!

In reference to WC above, although the beavertail is kin to the beignet, I'm not a huge fan. I think a NOLA biegnet is better. (I hope this doesn't mean I'm going to get kicked out of Toronto.)

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterDana McCauley

Though I generally HATE things made from a mix, the beignet mix from Cafe du Monde is outstanding. And simple. Little kids just go ape for hot beignets with powdered sugar!!! Mmmmm......frying beignets....

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterBMoreSweet

Thanks for the find! FYI, it looks like your blog content is being stolen. http://blogs.tagaormoc.com/atlantahairstylists/2008/09/08/love-lock-down/

September 8 | Unregistered Commenterlastcoursediscourse

lots of savory beignets served down there as well- crawfish, lobster, etc

September 8 | Unregistered Commenterredman

Those look pretty good but true NOLA style beignets will be covered with straight white powdered sugar. It is also key to have them with a mug of Cafe Au Lait.

Man this makes me miss the city. You should really go!

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterCasasailer

It has been a looooong time since I've had one, but I still remember how good they are!

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterVegan_Noodle

"She waxed poetic"?! Ohhhhh Cakespy....groan!

: )

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

I concur with Casasailer, and must say it a little stronger: real beignets must be covered with powdered sugar. To be truly authentic, they should be served with cafe au lait and a glass of ice water.

Vive la Louisianne! (and Go Away Ike!)

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

more often than not, if something has both a french name and an english name, i go with the english name. my ability to say things with a french accent is nonexistent. :)

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterGrace

To add my 2 Canadian cents to the beaver tail comments, do not bother. If you really must taste for yourself, they sell them at Lonsdale Quay in North Vancouver, but if you make it up here (and I really want you to!), there are so many better pastries to eat than those.

I will definitely be adding this to my "must eat" list next time I'm in Seattle!

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterLydia

I SOOOO love Cafe Du Monde - no hesitation on dropping that name! I have been known to eat beignets until the powdered sugar is flying and it appears that there's a snowstorm in the Bayou.

I LOVE beignets!

September 8 | Unregistered CommenterChristina

I recently discovered beignets....& fell in love with them. Making them was delightful...YAY for beignets Jessie!

Mmmm...I love all things warm and sugary. I'll have to try these!

Fried to order? Now that sounds good!

September 9 | Unregistered CommenterPeabody

Beignets have that "bet you can't just have one" danger attached to them. I agree that they're similar to the eastern Canadian beavertails and they're to die for. Kind of the best kept Canadian secret.

September 10 | Unregistered Commentergiz

C'est trés magnifique!

September 11 | Unregistered CommenterVeggieGirl

How can anything be wrong in the world when you have fried goodies coated in sugar??

September 11 | Unregistered CommenterSarah

I looked at the New Orleans in the title right over the picture of the Space Needle and thought, "What???"

I'll definitely have to check them out next time I'm on that side of the lake.

September 11 | Unregistered CommenterCookie baker Lynn

Beignets have always sounded so dreamy to me! I hope one day I can try the real thing too!

September 13 | Unregistered CommenterMy Sweet & Saucy

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