Beignets: Is It A French Breakfast Or A Dessert?
Image Credit: French Beignets

There might have been a time when someone with a sweet tooth thought of having dessert for breakfast and the beignets came into being. While the history of this crispy food doesn’t follow the same course, it is interesting to note how the beignets travelled all the way from France to become popular in New Orleans. Today, these small nibbles are generally paired with café au lait (milk coffee) for breakfast in France.

Beignets are small, square-shaped bites that are deep-fried and then coated in powdered sugar. Often made with a choux pastry dough, beignets are considered the French version of doughnuts. The word beignet also translates into a fritter in English yet it is said that the origins of its name lie in ancient Celtic language where bigne means to raise. The presence of such pastries is believed to have existed since the 16th Century as recipe books feature them from that time.

It is often categorised as a choux pastry or a French fried doughnut and served hot for breakfast with a side of milk-based coffee that is called café au lait in French. Interestingly, the French beignet is also believed to have connections with the ancient Romans. While there are speculations of its Andulasian influence, it is said that the beignet travelled into Louisiana via French colonists in the 18th Century. The fried fritter settled into the local culture and cuisine, particularly in the French quarter. 

Legend has it that the traditional beignet recipe was replicated in New Orleans around this time and well-adapted to local flavours after the French brought the dessert to Canada. The way the fluffy pastry has travelled far and wide and reached Café du Monde is also quite fascinating. This café in New Orleans is associated with the best beignets in town. Located in the French market, the café began its operations in the 18th Century and has been frying beignets in the traditional way ever since then.

The uniqueness of beignets lies in the fact that the fluffiness comes from a technique of cooking rather than the yeast. The yeast is added in some recipes but it is the steam that comes from the dough that helps it rise and become puffed up. Another aspect of these beignets served in New Orleans was that they were not called so for the longest time. Instead, they were referred to as the French market doughnut. Later, these doughnuts were accorded the status of the official doughnut of Louisiana in 1986.

Today, there are several cafes in the city that serve these airy and pillowy pastries but for Café du Monde, it has a special connection as it is believed that the Ursuline Nuns brought the original recipe with them from France. The sweetened yeast dough, fried and covered in powdered sugar gradually became a staple breakfast cum dessert not just in France but in New Orleans too.