Photo by Marialisa Calta
Eat now, repent later. Light, sugar-drenched New Orleans pastries called beignets are the perfect Fat Tuesday treat.
The season of Lent is almost upon us. Quick, eat something fattening!
That seems to be the game plan for much of the Christian world. Celebrations such as Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday” in French) or Carnevale (which means, more or less, “Goodbye, meat” in Latin) span many nations. From Rio to Dublin, folks use the festival culminating on the day before Ash Wednesday — the official beginning of the Lenten season — as a reason to eat, drink and be merry.
Foods for the festivities include lots of delicacies made with milk, butter, oil and eggs, dating from the time when home cooks took Fat Tuesday as a way to use up these ingredients, all forbidden once Lent began. In Polish communities, jam-filled doughnuts called paczki are still a Fat Tuesday (or “Paczki Day”) treat. In the United Kingdom, butter-drenched crepes are served on Pancake Day.
In the United States, New Orleans is arguably the go-to city for Mardi Gras. “The Big Easy” is a city known for treats; bananas Foster was invented there, and it is famous for bread pudding, Doberge cake, pralines, creme brulee and more. Don’t forget beignets (“ben-yays”).
There is nothing redeeming about a beignet. Despite its elegant name, it is a deep-fried piece of dough coated in sugar. It is, in other words, the perfect Mardi Gras treat. You can repent during Lent.
Beignets are almost as easy to make as they are to eat. The most difficult part, for some of us, is getting over a fear of frying. Here’s how you start:
First you select a good recipe, such as the one in “DamGoodSweet” by David Guas and Raquel Pelzel. Next, get your ingredients in order, and make sure you have enough oil for frying. You will need a candy thermometer and a heavy pan (a 4-quart Dutch oven is perfect), a slotted spoon and tongs.
It’s almost Lent. Fry a beignet — and enjoy.
Yield: about 4 dozen
¾ cup whole milk
1½ cups buttermilk
4 teaspoons active dry yeast (not “rapid rise” or instant)
2½ tablespoons sugar
3½ cups bread flour, plus extra for flouring work surface
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Peanut oil for frying (7 to 10 cups, for a 4-quart pot; canola or safflower oil can be substituted)
Confectioners’ sugar for serving (as much as you think you’ll need — then double that)
Heat the whole milk in a small saucepan over medium-high until small bubbles form at the surface. Remove from the heat, add the buttermilk, and pour into the bowl of a stand mixer. Whisk in the yeast and the sugar and set aside for 5 minutes. Add the flour, baking soda and salt, and mix on low speed, using a dough hook, 3 to 4 minutes. Increase the mixer speed to medium and continue mixing until the dough forms a (very) loose ball and is still wet and tacky, 2 minutes longer. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set the dough aside in a draft-free spot for 1 hour.
Pour enough oil into a 4-quart Dutch oven to fill it to a depth of 2 to 3 inches and bring to a temperature of 375 degrees over medium heat (this will take 10 to 15 minutes). Line a platter with paper towels and set aside.
Generously flour your work surface and turn the dough out on it. Sprinkle the top of the dough with flour, gently press to flatten, fold it in half, and gently tuck the ends under to create a rough-shaped round. Dust again and roll the dough out into a circle, about 10 inches in diameter and ½ inch thick. Let the dough rest for 1 minute before using a chef’s knife, a cleaver or a pizza wheel to cut the dough into 1½-inch squares.
Gently stretch each beignet lengthwise a bit and, using a slotted spoon, slip a few into the oil. Don’t crowd the pan, or the oil will cool down and the beignets will get greasy. Fry until puffed and golden brown, turning them often with a slotted spoon or tongs, for 2 to 3 minutes.
Transfer to the prepared platter to drain while you cook the rest. Serve while still warm, buried under a mound of confectioners’ sugar, with hot coffee on the side.
Note: The dough can be made up to eight hours ahead. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spray it with nonstick cooking spray. After cutting the dough, place the beignets on the paper and place another greased sheet of parchment paper, sprayed-side down, on top. Wrap the entire baking sheet with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The beignets can be fried straight from the refrigerator.
(Recipe from “DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style” by David Guas and Raquel Pelzel; Taunton Press, 2009)
Marialisa Calta is a syndicated food writer who lives in Calais.
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