Saturday, July 16, 2016

Cécile's Beignets

Also known - as per Lottie LaBouff - as Tiana's Man Catching Beignets.

I've always been intensely intimidated when it comes to deep frying. Frying anything in oil is bad enough because if not done properly, it makes a huge mess, can start fires, and might leave you with annoying or extremely painful burns all over your hands, wrists, face, etc.

So, needless to say, I've always talked myself down from trying to make any doughnuts, especially after the mess I made making latkes for Hanukkah in 2013, when I was quasi forbidden from ever frying anything ever again because the oil took so long to clean up.

Well, that changed. I'm still not sure I'm ever going to become a deep frying guru or rabid enthusiast, but I did give it a shot, and things went pretty awesome, if I do say so myself. Somewhat ironically, the person who encouraged me to give this a try was my mom, the person who originally said she never wanted me to fry anything ever again! It turns out with the proper equipment, deep frying is not as hard as it seems and can create some pretty tasty treats to enjoy in the comfort of your own home.

Even if it's still a lot to clean up. And kind of makes your house smell like oil for hours and hours.

I think I can thank our trip to New Orleans for being given this second chance with frying. You might remember me gushing about the National WWII Museum, but we did do other things during our visit too. One stop you absolutely cannot miss when visiting the French Quarter is Café du Monde, a cafe that literally only sells beignets and coffee. Well, okay, and water and juice too, but mostly just beignets and coffee. What is a beignet?

Beignets are apparently descended from the Roman fritter, a pretty basic fried dough. Although the term could technically be applied to a variety of ed pastries or goods, generally speaking a beignet is a square shaped donut that might have some spices in the dough, but is definitely covered in heaps of powdered sugar and served hot. It's a breakfast food, but also a perfect snack for just about any time of day. They're extremely iconic in the Louisiana food scene, especially in New Orleans, and were originally brought to the region by French and Acadian (you now know them as Cajuns) settlers.

Café du Monde was first opened in 1862, and still occupies the same building as when it originally opened. This means that it's very possible a grown up Cécile and Marie-Grace would have enjoyed breakfasts and snacks there! It's notable among both tourists and visitors, and does a very good business. Although it has other locations in shopping malls and even in Japan, the original is the most popular.

We ate breakfast there before going to the WWII Museum on our first day in the city. Obviously I was very impatient to get going and visit the museum, but it was fun to stop for breakfast and be brought out a small tower of beignets that just came right out of the fryer. One order of beignets gets you about six of them, and they're big enough to be eaten in three or four bites. They're covered in powdered sugar. Like, literally covered, almost to the point where you can imitate Tony Montana by sticking your face in them (P.S. don't do this). This means they can be a little messy to eat, but it's totally worth it. We noticed while walking around the French Quarter that you could tell if someone had ordered beignets and ate them on a park bench instead of at the restaurant because there was a fallout radius of powdered sugar on the sidewalk.

Honestly, I've become pretty fussy about doughnuts and fried food in general as I've gotten older. This is going to make me sound like an old lady, but I honestly can't digest it as well as I used to and tend to pass on going out for doughnuts or getting fried dough at a fair. But if I lived in New Orleans? I'd have a hard time not eating these.

They were delicious. Airy and soft on the inside, just a little crisp on the outside, they definitely filled me up without making me feel sick or overwhelmingly regretful about eating more than one. But I think the true testament to how good they are is the fact that my mom asked if we could eat there for breakfast again on our last day in the city, and she's someone who hates doughnuts! Aside from Café du Monde just being a cool piece of history in general, you really can't miss stopping by to try some beignets if you're ever in the neighborhood.

Me being me, I immediately started wondering how easy it would be to make these at home. After all, Cécile and Marie-Grace's collection did include a food set with doll sized beignets, and they're such an important part of New Orleans food culture that it just seems crazy not to even attempt making them, right? But I was still reluctant thanks to my past bad experience with frying.

Enter the Pioneer Woman! My mom and I (and to a lesser extent, my siblings) are big Food Network people, and apparently my mom watched an episode of Ree Drummond's show that showed her deep frying in a large iron pot. My mom has been wanting to purchase a bigger pot like this, and when she did, she gave me the okay to try it out as a deep fryer. We hoped the pot having steep sides would help contain the mess, and it turned out it did!

Selecting a recipe to try out was super easy. After having so much success with the gumbo from Tiana's Cookbook, I thought the beignet recipe in there would be worth trying. Some doughnut recipes are really involved and require you to use yeast, which I've had really mixed results with over the years. Because this is a cookbook aimed at kids, I figured the recipe would probably be on the less stressful side, and hoped that the end product would look just as tasty as Tiana's beignets do in The Princess and the Frog!

To make Tiana's beignets, you take 2 3/4 cups of flour, 1/3 of a cup of sugar, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/2 of a teaspoon each of baking soda, salt, and nutmeg. This all gets whisked together. You add this to a bowl of 1 cup of buttermilk, 1/3 of a cup of water, 1 egg and 1/2 of a teaspoon of vanilla and mix it all together into a a thick dough.

You turn this out onto a floured work surface and get it into a square, according to the cookbook. I made mine a rectangle, probably because I got distracted and decided to just go for it. It should be about 1/2 an inch thick, and if it gets sticky, the recipe says to add more flour. Mine only needed a little to be workable and not wet.

You're supposed to cut this into squares that are about 2 1/2 inches big, but I got sloppy and made mine roughly square shaped. I wound up with maybe twenty or so doughnuts to work with, which was good because I wanted to make sure I had some test subjects in case the worst should happen.

To fry them, you heat two inches of vegetable oil in a heavy saucepan with tall sides until it gets to 325 degrees on a deep fat thermometer. Fun tip: a candy thermometer also works for this, so don't buy both if you already own one. This is something you need to constantly monitor, and if it gets too hot, turn it off. If it gets too cold, turn it back up! It needs to stay in the deep fry range on your thermometer to work properly.

The cookbook says to only cook three dough squares at a time, and I found this was a good number. It let you cook a couple at a time without getting overwhelmed or confused about how long they'd been in the oil. I also discovered that resting cold beignet dough on your carpal tunnel ravaged wrists feels lovely!

The beignets are supposed to cook for three minutes on each size, but I noticed that after maybe two or so minutes, the beignets flipped over on their own and refused to stay on the cooked side for the full three minutes no matter how hard you tried to convince them to stay. My mom and I figured this must mean that they were fully cooked and saying hey, I need to cook on this side now! So I let them be.

After they've cooked on both sides for about three minutes, you can scoop them out with a slotted spoon onto a wire rack. Said wire rack should be on a cookie sheet with a paper towel under a cooling rack.

Dust them with lots of powdered sugar as soon as they're out of the oil!

You're left with a gross mess in the pan to clean up, but nothing on the stove!

And lots and lots of super tasty, hot beignets. Eat them while they're hot!

I'm a tiny bit on the fence about how much these really tasted like Café du Monde's. My parents and brother said they tasted pretty similar to the real thing, but I don't remember them having any extra spices or flavors added to their beignets. Don't get me wrong, I definitely didn't mind the addition! They had a nice texture that was slightly chewy, but soft and cakey as well. There wasn't much of a crunch on the outside, but just a sort of subtle hint of one. Much like Café du Monde's, the doughnut isn't really sweet by itself, so the powdered sugar really does punch it up to being a sweet rather than just fried dough with some cinnamon. They're also extremely filling, and as much as I wanted to keep eating them, I could only have a couple before I knew I should call it quits.

Unfortunately for my stomach, the recipe does make a lot of beignets, so I'd recommend passing them out among any friends or family you might have nearby. I got to play delivery girl to my local family members to help me get rid of the excess, and they all said they tasted pretty amazing even when they weren't right out of the fryer.

Overall, this was a really fun experience. I'm not sure I'm going to quit my day job (please ignore that I already did quit my day job...) to become an expert deep fryer at the Texas State Fair or something like that, but this was much less stressful and frustrating than I'd always imagined it would be. Also, I've got to admit, I think this is one of my better accomplishments when it comes to adventures in food! When I started this blog, I definitely wouldn't have been confident enough to try something like this by myself, and now I've made from scratch beignets that almost tasted like the real thing! Not to toot my own horn, but toot, toot. Guess it really does go to show that sometimes you've just got to power through and hope for the best when you get a crazy idea.

Sometimes it means you'll have a tasty breakfast to look forward to!


  1. Oh my cow's potatoes, I love beignets, sometimes we eat ours with Nutella

    1. Ooh, that sounds delicious! Next time, I think we're doing that. :D

  2. Yum! I have had beignets from Café du Monde and they were amazing! More recently I had them at a local restaurant here in the midwest claiming to specialize in New Orleans cuisine. They were terrible. They were way too crunchy and round like a hush puppy. If I get brave sometime I will try this! As always, your pictures are adorable! I feel quite an urge to go watch Princess and the Frog now!

    1. Oh no! That's terrible, I hate ordering something and finding out they just don't know how to cook it properly. :( Did you watch the movie??

    2. I totally did! It was the perfect stay-inside-in-the-air-conditioning sort of activity! :-)

  3. I went to Cafe du Monde when I went to N'awlins with Cecile some years back. I have to get a new coffee cup, mine is fading from repeated use. I also purchased their beignet mix, and I love making them for me and the Bae. I also had some at Bastille days this weekend but they were--well, nah, man. Anyways. Sometimes I'm super lazy and make them out of buttermilk biscuits that I dust with cinnamon and cardamom and those are DIVINE.

    1. Oh awesome, we were definitely wondering if the beignet mix was any good, glad to know it's got your seal of approval! :D Also cinnamon and cardamon? Yes please! Thanks for the awesome idea.

      I definitely want to bring Cecile with me next time I visit the city, I felt really guilty leaving her and MG home, haha. Maybe next time I'll pack them a 40's dress to change into when I visit the museum.

    2. One of my best friends took that same mix home with her, and we made it. I had never had beignets before, but she said it was really good, and just like the beignets she had there. I actually did the deep frying in a deep soup pot, and that worked well because all the oil stayed put.

    3. Awesome! Maybe next time I'm in the area I'll pick up a bag. :D

    4. I'm spoiled and we actually have a deep fryer that I use for all my fried dough food needs.

  4. See even though I gave you bad advice about the flourless chocolate cake, I came around on the frying. Well done!

    1. Thank you! I had a lot of fun experimenting with it. Thanks for giving me a second chance with frying, too!