Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Beignets kick off Mardi Gras celebration

Since the late 1800s, Fat Tuesday has kicked off Mardi Gras in such places as New Orleans, a ritual to coincide with the Christian celebration of Lent (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 22 this year), when penance is given over 40 days. In other words, you gorge yourself with good food before fasting.

In honor of Mardi Gras, I’m teaching a Creole cooking class on Sunday in San Francisco through Lifecrowd (https://www.lifecrowd.com/activity/celebrate-mardi-gras-with-creole-cuisine), then search in San Francisco). I spent several days coming up with the following menu:

  • Mint juleps
  • Creole-spiced Crab Dip
  • Chicken and sausage gumbo
  • White rice
  • Bread pudding with a butterscotch sauce

The menu was inspired by two missions trips I’ve made, one to rural Louisiana in 2006 in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita and the other to Haiti in 2010 after an earthquake devastated the nation. I learned how to make gumbo from a southern belle at a country hunting lodge (gator jaws everywhere). She had learned how to make gumbo from her mother and had never written down the recipe before graciously giving it to me. Bread pudding is probably my favorite dessert to make.

Gumbo and bread pudding are staples to Creole cooking. During Mardi Gras, the Acadians of the plains would ride on horseback from house to house collecting items for the community stew in town. Stale bread is used in bread pudding recipes to fortify the custard, because wasting food is not an option.

When I was searching through my recipes, I stumbled upon Beignets (pronounced ben-yahs), a fancy French doughnut. I had to try it. My first attempts – I topped them with a raspberry sauce – was so delicious, my wife ordered me to not make them very often. They are, after all, just a little fattening.

Tuesday was Fat Tuesday, so I got up early with my leftover dough and made Beignets for the teachers at the school in Walnut Creek at which I’m doing my student teaching this spring. They loved them as much as my wife.

One teacher – claiming to be on a strict calorie count – wanted to know how many calories a single Beignet had, so she looked it up online. Each one has … oh, you don’t want to know that fact.

Now, I must decide whether to include bread pudding or Beignets to my cooking class on Sunday. The only way to find out is to sign up and show up. For $25, you get to eat what you cook.

Here’s the recipe I used for Beignets, which I halved.


Prep time: 15 minutes. Total time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Yield: 18-20


  • 3/4 cups lukewarm water
  • 1/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 1 egg, slightly beaten
  • 3/4 teaspoons salt
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/2 cup evaporated milk
  • 3 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/8 cup shortening or lard
  • Oil, for deep-frying
  • 1 cup confectioners' sugar


Mix water, sugar, and yeast in a large bowl and let sit for 10 minutes.

In another bowl, beat the eggs, salt, vanilla, and evaporated milk together. Mix egg mixture to the yeast mixture. In a separate bowl, measure out the bread flour. Add 1 1/2 cups of the flour to the yeast mixture and stir to combine. Add the shortening and continue to stir while adding the remaining flour. Remove dough from the bowl, place onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Put dough into the bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a towel. Let rise in a warm place for at least 2 hours. The ideal rising temperature is between 70 and 72 degrees.

Preheat oil in a deep-fryer to 325 degrees F.

Add the confectioners' sugar to a paper or plastic bag and set aside.

Roll the dough out to about 1/2-inch thickness and cut into 1 1/2-inch squares. Deep-fry, flipping constantly, until they become a golden color. (Often, the dough flips itself when it’s done.) After beignets are fried, drain them for a few seconds on paper towels, and then toss them into the bag of confectioners' sugar. Hold bag closed and shake to coat evenly.

Serve warm.