12 THE NATIONAL CULINARY REVIEW • JULY/AUGUST 2018
NEW ORLEANS dear beignet
of century-old antique stores—Cafe Beignet likewise takes a
classic approach, hand-rolling choux pastries and frying them
to order before applying an avalanche of confectioners’ sugar.
The owners have since opened two more locations—each
designed with an open-air ambience and front door flung wide
to maintain a connection to the living, breathing city outside.
Despite arriving late on the scene, Cafe Beignet didn’t experience
traditionalist backlash, says general manager Donna Shay.
“We are the new kid on block, but we keep the traditional
vein going,” says Shay, who’s been with the company for 20
years. “These guys want to keep it real and keep it going.”
THEY’RE FRIED DOUGH
And yet, as emblematic of New Orleans as beignets have
become for a city that lays claim to a dozen dishes that are both
native to and symbolic of it (from jambalaya to red beans and
rice to gumbo), they’re arguably among the least controversial.
This is partly by design.
“There are New Orleans foods that I’m protective of—
gumbo being the most important one and most oft-bastardized in
various ways,” Elie says. “I’m not protective of beignets because
they’re fried dough. There’s nothing special about the recipe,
prep or ingredients. They’re a food onto which we’ve attached
meaning, not a food that for me has meaning within itself.”
What’s more interesting to Elie has been watching these
fried delicacies evolve from an edible constituent of daily life
to being sold on nearly every street corner by the time he moved
back to the city in the ’90s.
“When I was growing up, there were two,” he says. “Now
if you go into the French Quarter, you’ll find four or five
other places serving beignets. I’ve seen lots of them on menus
throughout the city, too, usually as a dessert.”
Chefs at upmarket spots throughout the Big Easy have spun
off numerous sweet and savory variations on the pastry. La
Petite Grocery offers a blue crab beignet with malt vinegar aioli,
in line with its purview of offering traditional NOLA fare with
a twist. Newish French Quarter restaurant Trinity offers sauteed
crawfish and fontina beignets with tarragon aioli, while a recent
Asian-tinted version on the dessert menu at Susan Spicer’s
Bayona paired sweet potato beignets with ginger crème anglaise.
SoBou, the latest addition to the Commander’s Palace
family of restaurants, has probably menued 100 different beignet
variations since opening in 2012, by chef Juan Carlos Gonzalez’s
estimate. Even so, the first spinoff was the one that stuck: a sweet
potato beignet with foie gras fondue and chicory coffee ganache.
“SoBou is a different animal compared to the rest of the group,
with food inspired by Louisiana street food. So we can get away
with savory beignets,” Gonzalez says.
He begins by adding shredded sweet potatoes to a batter of
cake flour, baking powder, buttermilk, sugar, fines herbes, salt
and pepper that he lightly folds by hand, then fries. He makes the
fondue by sweating shallots, onions and garlic, then deglazing
the pan with brandy before adding heavy cream. When it’s
reduced by half, he seasons it with salt, pepper, Crystal hot sauce
and brown sugar, and blends it while slowly adding duck liver
until velvety. The doughnuts are arranged atop the fondue and
streaked with a syrupy mixture of reduced chicory coffee with
sugar and spices, resulting in a sweet/savory appetizer.
Gonzalez adapts beignets seasonally by swapping in a
fig fondue when the fleeting fruits are in season, or folding
berries into the batter for a sweet summertime variation on the
dessert menu. During crawfish season, he smokes the coveted
crustaceans and folds them into an assertively spiced batter, then
pairs with typical crawfish boil accoutrements such as potatoes,
sausage, corn and mushrooms. A swipe of beer butter on the
plate cools singed palates.
His homage to crawfish-boil beignets offers a neatly
packaged microcosm for what Elie has observed with beignets
in the context of New Orleans’ elevated profile on the national
“It all has to do with tourism, and a sense of giving tourists
what they come to expect,” he says. “In a similar way, all these
changing foods popping up on menus in New Orleans the past
30 years has to do with the national popularity of Cajun food
and less to do with indigenous ingredients and dishes. Beignets
are one of the things you expect to find, so everyone has them
on the menu.”
After all, who doesn’t expect a beignet—or three—when
they come to the Big Easy?
ABOVE: La Petite Grocery’s blue crab beignets with malt vinegar aioli.
MAGGIE HENNESS Y IS A CHICAGO-BASED RES TAURAN T CRITIC, FREELANCE FOOD AND DRINK
WRITER AND CHEF. SHE’S BEEN COVERING THE RES TAURAN T INDUS TRY FOR MORE THAN 10 YEARS.