As someone with a serious lack of a sweet tooth, a fairly dogged dislike of anything fried, and an overall health-conscious mindset, I’ve often marveled at the irony of my job as a test cook. I’ve also been on the receiving end of many an incredulous and more-than-slightly-disapproving stare from coworkers for these very preferences. (Usually as they dig into fried chicken or biscuits with gravy.) As I prepared for my upcoming travel assignment for Cook’s Country, I realized with dismay that three of the four dishes I was slated to research were deep-fried; one of those dishes was beignets. The upside: It would be my very first time visiting New Orleans, and since I was pretty sure griping about a job that required me to eat doughnuts all day wouldn’t win me any sympathy, I moved on, steeling myself for a week of overindulgence. Poor me.
A beignet, which is the French word for doughnut or fritter, is basically a piece of fried dough. Often yeasted, and usually coated with an ample layer of powdered sugar, they were brought to New Orleans by the French Acadians, and have been inextricably linked to the city ever since. Without a doubt the most well known place for beignets is Café du Monde in the French Quarter, but I began instead with the aptly named Café Beignet, a younger, less iconic (thus less tourist-riddled) establishment, also in the French Quarter of NOLA.
It was my first day in the city, and I was still becoming inured to the stifling heat which accentuated all the diverse and interesting odors of the city. Needless to say, when I wandered into Café Beignet, even the smell of fryer oil was a welcome departure—especially when paired with the marginally cooler interior of the place.
I gave my order at the counter and sipped an iced coffee at one of the tables while I waited.
My basket was delivered, heaped with three puffy beignets the size of floor tiles.
The diners at neighboring tables eyed me suspiciously as I nibbled, sniffed, and dissected my food, scribbling notes between bites. My conclusion? They were a lackluster version of fried dough. These beignets weren’t as yeasty as I’d expected, and I likened the flavor to somewhere between a big, tough pancake, and a cheap, doughy bagel. Buried beneath a blanket of sugar, they weren’t objectionable, just… unremarkable. (On a side note, eating a basket of beignets under a ceiling fan while sweating profusely is somewhat akin to a sugary tar and feathering.)
When I talked to the manager of the café, she revealed that the beignets are indeed yeasted, but they’re fried right after the dough is mixed. This gave me pause. Anyone who knows a whit about baking knows that this step will impart little yeasty tang, there being no time for the flavor to develop.
She also said that they use the same premade beignet mix sold in the shop to make their doughnuts. I was still unconvinced, but I duly noted her words and purchased a box of the mix. When I later scanned the ingredient list on the box, I noticed that both sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium bicarbonate (baking powder and baking soda, respectively) were included, whereas yeast was not. The presence of chemical leaveners would explain the pancake taste, but the ideal doughnut I was after needed to be yeasty—both in concept and flavor. If I was going to waste calories on something fried, it had better taste good.
The next day, I hoofed it to Café du Monde early in the morning to beat both the crowds and the heat. The green striped awning acts like a beacon to tourists, and—if I was to believe the hype—no trip to NOLA is complete without a stop here.
Even at 7:30am the indoor seating area was nearly full, and a few brave souls were taking their seats on the patio.
The surprising part was that I saw plenty of seeming locals waiting in the take-out line in business suits and on cell phones, getting their fix on the way to work. Promising. I found a little round table dusted with only a modest film of powdered sugar and pulled up an olive-drab vinyl chair.
The menu is printed on the side of the napkin dispenser and consists of little else than beignets, which come in orders of three, and beverages—café au lait, chicory coffee, chocolate milk, etc. When my trio of beignets arrived, they were clearly a different species than what I’d eaten the day before.
Smaller and flatter, with an irregular, Dali-esque squiggly-square shape, these beignets were also darker in color and less tender, with the corners bordering on crispy. And while yesterday’s beignets were covered with a dusting of sugar, these were literally drowned. It hadn’t been attractively sifted on, either, but seemingly dumped. Café Beignet’s sugar application was like a charming December flurry; today’s was like a bank of snow unceremoniously deposited on the side of the road by a passing plow.
Once I got past the saccharine coating, the flavor was, again, pancakey. The texture was very open, with a honeycombed interior of bubbles and holes interspersed with denser, more regular pockets, the texture of which was slightly doughy. I liked the crisp exterior—the textural contrast was definitely an improvement—but I was still underwhelmed.
Maybe beignets just weren’t for me…
Although the café was buzzing, the back kitchen was a veritable frenzy of employees, mostly women both young and old. They were clad in collared shirts and bow-ties, with “Café du Monde” paper hats topping off their utilitarian garb. To get a closer look at the action, I loitered for an inordinate amount of time outside the restroom, which afforded me a view of what was going on in the kitchen.
A giant machine rolled the dough into sheets, after which it was ferried down a conveyer belt to a man who swiftly cut it into pieces and stacked the floured squares. Employees then dropped the beignets into the deep-fryer, fished them out three at a time, and deposited them into paper trays. Then, they received the sugar from a contraption resembling the bulk bins at the grocery store (the ones that send grains of rice skittering across the floor no matter how careful you are).
On went the sugar, and out went the hot beignets to the waiting customers. Servers made a pass along an alley of beverage machines and dispensers, filling cups and glasses with the appropriate libations, before depositing it all, stony-faced, to the appropriate table.
If you want warm-cuddly customer service, look elsewhere.
The following morning, I made the third and final stop on my self-designed NOLA beignet tour. To get to Morning Call out in Metairie, you need a car, but luckily I was renting one that day to drive up to Natchitoches, Louisiana, to research another regional dish. This 24-hour café used to be on Decatur Street in the French Quarter, just like Café du Monde, but in 1974, after 100 years in business, it moved the 8 or so miles to the Metairie neighborhood. The upside? Plenty of parking.
The place oozed authentic charm: marble counters with fixed wooden stools, globe lightbulbs bordering wood-framed mirrors, and Formica tables—each equipped with napkin dispenser, sugar dispenser, and a well-worn metal powdered sugar shaker. The smells of fried dough and fresh coffee were pervasive and irresistible.
And when I tasted Morning Call’s beignets, they were undeniably different: neat and uniform in appearance (and served naked, each diner sugaring their own). Breaking into one of the pillowy squares revealed cavernous pockets within—almost like a popover or a cream puff.
The texture was flakier and more delicate than ones I’d had before, and the flavor was tangy and sour. Finally, proof of yeast! Seeing me capturing my half-eaten beignets on film, a fellow diner approached and introduced himself. An elderly gentleman, Dr. Merlin was a NOLA resident and professor at a local university, and was not only interested in what I was doing, but was bent on helping me. First, he ordered me a “split”: a beignet that’s slit several times through the middle to create a ladder-like appearance before being fried.
This is how the locals order them, the doctor told me, because that way they know they’re being fried fresh. The split was a different animal; more surface area meant it was much crisper, and a crunchy browned exterior replaced the airy insides of more traditional beignets. Next, my new friend insisted that the manager let me into the back kitchen to look around. My behind-the-scenes tour guide—the young baker—was as eager and informative as could be. He showed me where the dough is mixed, rolled out, and cut, and then where the resulting dough scraps go.
You see, at Morning Call, they use the leftovers from every batch to start the next batch.
The scraps are left to sit until they take on their signature sour aroma, and are then mixed into a fresh batch of dough—the secret to the pronounced tangy, yeasty flavor, no doubt.
The baker rolled each batch of dough to a 1/8-inch thickness and cut it swiftly into squares—four fingers by four fingers is the standard size.
The squares were fried in a roiling vat of cottonseed oil, and then—if they weren’t going straight to a customer—transferred to a perforated pan to keep warm.
Of the three places I visited on my beignet bender, Morning Call definitely stood out. Sure, Café du Monde is an institution and worth visiting for the people-watching and tourist cred if nothing else, but Morning Call had character. It had spunk. Café du Monde may be the fan favorite, but in my book, Morning Call was the best across the board. Not to mention the fact that, based solely on a sensory evaluation of the food, it trounced the competition—this place is definitely worth the drive. When I returned to Boston after the trip, I started developing my own beignet recipe (after a short detox, of course). I may not ever love fried food—I certainly won’t ever love the way I smell after standing over a pot of hot oil—but the beignets at Morning Call gave me a reference point. As I developed my own beignets, I kept them in mind, and I’d like to think I did them justice—but you’ll have to go to Metairie to find out.