Real Food Origins: New Orleans – Beignets and Cafe’ Au Lait

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Beignets and cafe’ au lait are an iconic New Orleans treat for tourists and locals alike. Once again, they are much more complex than they might appear. While one may be enjoyed without the other, they complement each other so fully that they are best savored together, slowly, while both are still piping hot and fresh. Although they look and sound like dessert, they are most often eaten at breakfast. That being said, Cafe’ du Monde, one of the oldest, most well-known spots for beignets and cafe’ au lait in New Orleans, is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, except for Christmas, or during the occasional hurricane, and all they serve is beignets, cafe’ au lait, coffee black, iced coffee, soft drinks, white and chocolate milk, and orange juice. They’ve been in business in the same spot since 1862 with this menu (iced coffee and soft drinks were added in 1988). That’s a lot of beignets and cafe’ au lait.

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New Orleans beignets are essentially fried doughnuts, usually yeast-risen, rolled thin and cut into squares, fried in oil, and absolutely, decadently, covered in powdered sugar. If you don’t have powdered sugar all over you after your first bite, you didn’t put enough on them. Their origin has been attributed to both French Creoles and Acadians, but clouding the issue, some descriptions of Cajun beignets refer to them as more like fritters than yeast doughnuts. Whatever their origin, it’s very, very, very hard to stop eating them.

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Cafe’ au lait is made with a particular regional blend of roasted coffee beans and roasted chicory root. The practice of combining these two strange bedfellows can be traced back to coffee shortages during the Civil War, when chicory root was roasted, ground, and added to coffee to make it last longer. The resulting flavor is indeed, as the package suggests, bold and bittersweet. It’s brewed very strong, and combined with scalded milk, in equal parts, to create cafe’ au lait.

The first time I tasted cafe’ au lait, I wasn’t sure whether I liked it or not. It has more depth and rooty undertones than regular coffee with milk, and it did seem a bit bitter, but a caramelly sweetness came through at the end. Some people find it tastes like chocolate, but I think it’s more unique than that. Also, the more I drank it, the better I liked it, and the next day when I made regular coffee, I missed it. The second time I made cafe’ au lait, I sighed and made yummy sounds upon my first sip. So, yeah, I definitely like it. A lot.

My first pass at cafe’ au lait did not include beignets, as I was just so curious to taste this mysterious elixir, I couldn’t wait for beignets. My first pass at beignets was almost a colossal failure, with the recipe I was following resulting in a disastrous mess of a dough that didn’t rise. Luckily, with chicory coffee brewing, and hot oil on the stovetop, I remembered a recipe I had read for fritter beignets, and quickly mixed the batter and fried up some tasty little creations. The photos for this post are the second attempt at yeast-risen beignets, using a recipe from Joy of Cooking, and to my horror, they couldn’t be easier to make. It’s only sheer force of will, and the fact that we only have time to enjoy them properly on the weekend, that have prevented me from simply cranking out batch after batch. The dough was easy to handle, fried up into gorgeous, puffy pillows, made perfectly sweet by the blanket of powdered sugar I sifted over the top of them. The cafe’ au lait provides just the right counter to all that sweetness, with its own bittersweet notes and full-bodied warmth. Both are good alone, but far better together.

While nearly everyone in America has likely eaten a doughnut with coffee, particularly here in New England, until you’ve eaten a beignet with cafe’ au lait, you truly don’t know what you’re missing.

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