Enjoyed with a hot cup of New Orleans’ chicory coffee, the beignet, pronounced “bayne-yay”, is the official doughnut of Louisiana. True to an American migration story, the beignet’s journey to Louisiana has roots across the globe. From Rome and Gaul to the Great White North and the Big Easy, beignets are an American success story. Europeans have been eating fried dough as far back as ancient Rome when scriblita, a type of Roman pastry made of moist dough dipped into boiling animal fat, was popular. Over time, French cooks developed two basic types of pastry: doughs that use yeast as a raising agent and those that rise with their own steam. Doughs that are moist enough to use steam to fluff up are called choux pastries, under which category traditional beignets fall.
In the 17th century, French settlers brought beignets with them as they migrated to the eastern coast of Canada, to a region called Acadia. When the British took control of the region a hundred years later, thousands of Acadians endured a forced migration, with many Acadians settled in Louisiana where their descendants became known as Cajuns. Acadians brought their cuisine and their language with them as they migrated south. In their journey to New Orleans, Acadian culture collided with the cultures of Native Americans, African-Americans, Spanish, French, and Caribbean influences already present in the city. Though their roots have traveled long and far, today, beignets are most associated with the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana.
Since its opening in the mid-nineteenth century, Café Du Monde has been a popular sensation for all ages and classes alike. The Café’s doors are open year-round, with the exception of Christmas Day and the occasional hurricane headed to New Orleans. Unlike most doughnuts, beignets are square with no hole in the center. Traditionally served on a plate of three, beignets are covered with a thick coating of powdered sugar. Because they are typically fried in vegetable oils that have a high “smoke point”, they can reach a high temperature without burning.
In 1928, Louis Gillette of Cafe du Monde told the Item that one tourist had offered him $250 to give up the doughnut recipe, the equivalent of roughly $4000 in today's currency. He wouldn't spill the secret at any price, but he did offer some details on how they were manufactured.
"The dough is rolled out very thin -- about one-eighth of an inch thick," the paper wrote. "An ordinary table knife, the blade broken off at the middle, is used to cut the dough in strips. The strips then are cut in squares and dumped in a vat containing six or seven gallons of hot grease. They immediately puff out and turn a beautiful golden color. They are done in two minutes and are served with a sprinkling of powdered sugar."
In 1958, the French Market doughnuts were rebranded as beignets, according to Times-Picayune writer Howard Jacobs in his column titled, “Good ole doughnut has gone cultural on us”. In reference to cultural roots and the pastries being “made the way they were in Belgium”, the name change faced minimal resistance and has become a household nickname for tourists and locals.