Beignets: It’s air time

Los Angeles Times/January 2008

DEEP-frying is the bacon of cooking techniques: It makes everything taste better. Do it with beignets, though, and you get the irresistible results in a more lyrical package. The word is almost as satisfying to say as the real thing is to eat. Beignets sound so much lighter and airier than fritters, but they are no easier to pass up.

The most famous beignets in this country are a New Orleans specialty: squares of yeasty dough fried until puffy, then smothered in powdered sugar, to be eaten with the local chicory coffee. But beignets in other shapes and forms, both savory and sweet, are constantly turning up in restaurants. The word looks so seductive on a menu — scallops and cauliflower sound nice enough together, but beignets make them impossible not to order.

Beignets could be considered “freedom fritters.” Not only is the name (pronounced bayn-YAY) French, but beignets also can start with any number of doughs or batters, be left plain or filled with anything from anchovies to zucchini and be served as hors d’oeuvres, side dish, garnish or dessert. Learning to make them is also liberating — something as simple as apples can be transformed with a dunk in a frothy batter and a dip in bubbling oil, and the method works with nearly any ingredient.

A rich history

YOU won’t find beignets in Julia Child’s masterwork, but they are a staple of French cuisine. Just to give a sense of how versatile they are, consider the number of entries in Larousse Gastronomique (which, oddly enough, uses the English translation as the heading for the whole section). The straightforward recipes include sweet versions such as apricot, banana, rice and fig, and savory variations with cheese, eggplant, artichokes, chicken liver, shrimp, salsify, mushrooms, even fish roe, lamb’s brain and calf’s tongue. Then there are Viennese beignets (brioche-like, with jam), Nanette beignets (brioche sandwiched with custard and candied fruit), Hungarian beignets (with onion and paprika) and Bernese beignets (like deep-fried mini croques monsieur). The “see also” beignets include local versions from Lyon, Montpellier, Strasbourg and Nantes, among other cities. And 17 other recipes are scattered throughout Larousse for beignets by other names, such as acra (made in the Caribbean with salt cod) and fritto misto.

Beignets go back centuries in France, but they are still evolving there and here. has recipes for them made with okra or with apple cider, not to mention with very American peanut butter. references versions made with edible flowers, zucchini blossoms, chocolate, frogs’ legs, Dungeness crab and kumquats. In Britain you could probably find them made with Mars Bars.

The simplest beignet is that most famous one from New Orleans, which is like a flat doughnut without a hole. The yeast dough is a speedy production, with no rising or real kneading needed; then you just have to roll it out very thin and cut it into squares to drop into hot oil and fry fast. The classic recipe uses very little sugar and no spice, but a little ground cardamom, cinnamon, nutmeg or ginger will add a jazzy undertone. If you aren’t daunted by deep frying in the morning, they can be a great start to a Saturday or Sunday.

Beignets made with a fritter batter are much more common. It can be as simple as a cup of flour beaten with three-quarters of a cup of milk, an egg, half a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of butter; this works for coating sliced vegetables such as onions or zucchini or for oysters or shrimp. Add a quarter of a cup of sugar, a teaspoon of baking powder and cinnamon to taste and you get a puffier batter for sliced fruit.

An even airier beignet batter can be made with club soda or beer as leavening, with no eggs or milk needed. It can make even a sturdy vegetable like cauliflower seem light, as chef de cuisine Josh Emett does at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze in New York City.

The pastry variations

Achoux paste — melted butter and milk mixed with flour and lightened with beaten eggs, the usual dough for gougères or cream puffs — can also be the basis of a sensational beignet, especially with grated Gruyère blended in. In France those are considered soufflé beignets because the dough expands so much in the hot oil; they can be filled with cheese or with jam before frying. In Spain they are called buñuelos (literally, puffs).

The late chef and cookbook author Leslie Revsin made her name in New York City in the early 1980s with Roquefort beignets, a whole different production. The pungent cheese is encased in crepes, like blintzes, that are dipped in fritter batter and deep-fried so that the Roquefort oozes. They take a little more work than the usual but are richly rewarding as the first course for a dinner party. Unlike most beignets, they need a knife and fork.

If there is a trick to beignets, it is only in the cooking. The oil should be at 375 degrees, so a candy thermometer is essential if you do not have an electric deep-fryer. The beignets will sink to the bottom, then pop right up as they lighten and cook to golden brown. If the oil is too hot they burn before cooking through; too cold and they turn to grease sponges.

Beignets should be fried a few at a time, without crowding the pan. Otherwise they clump together and bring down the temperature of the oil too fast.

You can hold beignets briefly in a warm oven, but they really should be eaten as soon as they have drained on paper towels. Luckily, resistance is futile.

New Orleans-style beignets

Total time: 30 minutes, plus rising time for the dough

Servings: 12 (Makes 3 dozen beignets)

Note: Adapted from a recipe by chef Bryan Gilmore of the Creole Creamery in New Orleans, from “86 Recipes.”

1 teaspoon plus 1/2 cup sugar, divided

1 envelope active dry yeast

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

4 cups flour, plus extra for work surface, divided

1 cup whole milk

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 1/2 teaspoons ground cardamom, nutmeg or cinnamon (untraditional and optional)

1 large egg, at room temperature

Peanut or vegetable oil for deep-frying

At least 2 cups powdered sugar for dusting

1. In a small bowl, combine one-fourth cup warm water and 1 teaspoon of the sugar. Sprinkle the yeast over the mixture. Let sit 5 to 6 minutes; if the yeast is not absorbed, stir lightly until the mixture is creamy.

2. Combine the remaining one-half cup sugar, salt and 3 cups of the flour in a large bowl with a whisk, or in the bowl of a stand mixer with the whisk attachment.

3. Combine the milk and butter in a small saucepan and heat over low heat just until the butter is melted.

4. If you are using a standing mixer, swap out the whisk attachment for the dough hook. In a slow, steady stream, mix the milk mixture into the sugar-salt-flour mixture. If mixing by hand, stir with a fork or wooden spoon. Add the egg, the yeast mixture and the remaining 1 cup of flour. Mix until a soft dough forms (you may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula). Cover tightly with plastic wrap and set aside in a warm spot until the dough doubles, 1 to 2 hours.

5. Heat about 3 inches of oil in a deep fryer or Dutch oven until the temperature reaches about 370 degrees.

6. Divide the dough into thirds. Working in batches on a floured work surface, knead each piece briefly. Using a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle less than one-fourth-inch thick. Cut the dough into roughly 3-inch squares and gently drop them, 2 or 3 at a time, into the hot oil. Cook 1 to 2 minutes, until golden brown, then flip them over carefully with a slotted spoon. Cook 1 to 1 1/2 minutes longer, until the beignets are puffed and evenly browned. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the beignets to paper towels to drain off excess oil. Dust thickly with powdered sugar and serve hot or warm.

Cheese beignets

Total time: About 1 hour

Servings: 10 (Makes about 52 small beignets)

Note: Adapted from “Larousse Gastronomique”

5 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces

1 teaspoon dry mustard

1 teaspoon kosher salt, or to taste

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

Freshly ground black pepper to taste

1 generous cup flour

4 large eggs, at room temperature

1 cup grated Gruyère or Parmigiano-Reggiano (about 4 ounces)

Peanut oil for deep-frying

1. Combine the butter, mustard, salt, cayenne and black pepper in a medium heavy saucepan over medium heat. Add 1 cup water and bring to a boil. Add the flour all at once and beat quickly with a wooden spoon until the ingredients come together into a ball that pulls away from the sides of the pan.

2. Remove the pan from the heat and immediately beat in two of the eggs, beating until they are completely incorporated. Return to the heat briefly while continuing to beat, then remove from the heat and beat in the remaining eggs, beating until the dough is very smooth. Return to the heat and cook, stirring, for 1 to 2 minutes, until the dough is shiny and smooth. Cool slightly, then beat in the cheese.

3. Pour about 3 inches of oil into a deep fryer and heat to 375 degrees. Working in small batches, drop the dough by the rounded teaspoon into the hot oil. Fry, turning once, until each beignet is puffed and evenly browned on all sides, 3 1/2 to 4 minutes. Drain on paper towels before serving.