I remember New Orleans as if from a fever dream. I ran away from home at seventeen, all the way to Bourbon Street. I blamed it on an existential crisis. I still do. Well that and an unholy fear of a preordained life. I’d never set foot in Louisiana before that night, middle of the week, in my pale yellow shift dress, my school uniform. My high school textbooks were in the trunk. I smoked cigarettes and drove, untethered, unhinged, and free. I remember thinking I could feel the textbooks getting lighter and lighter, losing their very physical substance, the farther south I drove. I used maps, the paper kind. It was about midnight when I arrived, accidentally went over a toll bridge, spent my last dollar getting back over it, and parked illegally in the French Quarter. I wandered the streets in fake leather pants, ate my first oyster on the half shell, and naively accepted all sorts of charity. I drank like a high school girl who thought she was a woman. I read bad poetry (I thought it was good) with a homeless man. I thought I was living. I thought I was an immigrant. But I was a run away. And so happy. Because I didn’t understand a thing, and girls don’t possess the capacity for horror and anxiety that women do. It was one of the happiest times of my life. I went home a few weeks later because I didn’t want my mother to be sad. The day I left I ate an entire plate of beignets at Café Du Monde by myself, got a muffuletta from Central Grocery to go, and drove back north. That was my first time in New Orleans.
And after that all I wanted was to get back. Something I’d never found anywhere else seemed to live there. I felt at home. I didn’t fit in at the private girl’s school I went to growing up (no surprise), and I’d finally found a land where they spoke my own mad tongue. I ended up going to university there, at Loyola. The Jesuits, they’re good for studying philosophy with. So that’s what I did. I moved to New Orleans and studied philosophy, writing, and painting with the Jesuits. And learned to drink too much and how to wear perilously high heels and sit in a decrepit mansion with a a three-legged cat, how to live the novel I couldn’t write. I was still a girl and proud of everything that would ultimately become my life’s great failure. But that’s neither here nor there. I was fearless, did my nails on the streetcar on my way to work at dicey clubs. But it wasn’t all dark. I learned to eat there. Really eat. I fell in love with the food, and it’s where I learned to cook. I’d gotten a taste for it in Europe, and in New Orleans I found what I thought only existed across the Atlantic. It’s as close as you can get to Europe in the states, that’s what I’d always say.
I still think it’s the most marvelous city on earth. Tennessee is my blood home. And that means a lot. But New Orleans is my soul home. You don’t choose these things. They choose you. I don’t visit anymore. There are too many ghosts milling about, peering out the window above the ice cream parlor on Prytania, grilling eggplant in the Bywater. Too many ghosts. They’ll come a time when I’m ready, and I have a feeling it will be soon. But not just yet; I don’t know how to be who I am in that city. I only know how to be who I was: the girl shaking, blank faced and silently weeping & listening to Lou Reed croon Jesus, help me find my proper place; help me in my weakness because I’ve fallen out of grace as she drove, geeked out of her mind, from her secret-not-so-secret life in the Bywater back to her university existence in the Garden District. New Orleans’ great strength & great evil is that it can make the dark light. Those nights and days, those years, were punctuated by great bowls of red beans and rice, fried oyster po-boys from the corner of Magazine by my house, and my all-time favorites: a muffuletta from Central Grocery and chicory coffee & beignets from Café Du Monde. I’ve recreated that latter experience, best had at midnight, for you here in one bite: airy buttermilk beignets with chicory crème pâtissière and mountains of powdered sugar.
So if you’re like me and always a little broken hearted for New Orleans or if you’ve never been & want a taste: make these, listen to this, and watch this. Tom Waits, Jim Jarmusch, and these beignets will give you a fix. A little. I do, in fact, wish I was in New Orleans. And I actually see it in my dreams. Just the other night I dreamt I was walking across the Audubon green, my heart so light, thinking, “I’m home, I’m home. This is home.” It’s a recurring dream, that I’m back in New Orleans and finally at peace. I miss you, NOLA. So much it physically hurts. That’s the sort of city New Orleans is, one you can’t ever really leave.
Buttermilk Beignets with Chicory Crème Pâtissière
- 1 packet about 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 175 mL 3/4 cup warm (110°F) water
- 50 g 1/4 cup sugar
- 3/4 tsp kosher salt
- 3/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1 large egg
- 120 mL 1/2 cup buttermilk
- 430 g AP flour divided into 180 g, 220 g, and 30 g (3 1/2 cups divided into 1 1/2, 1 3/4, and 1/4)
- 2 oz butter softened and in 1/2″ pieces
- canola oil for frying enough to come about 1.5-2″ up the sides of a frying pan
- powdered sugar for dusting a lot, 2-3 cups
- chicory crème pâtissière for filling recipe below
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook combine water, yeast and sugar. Let sit for 10 minutes until foamy. You want to make sure the water is at around 110°F so that it’s warm enough for the yeast to activate but not so hot it kills it. It should look foamy when ready.
- Add in the salt, nutmeg, egg, and buttermilk, and mix on medium to combine.
- Add in the first addition of flour, 180 g (1 1/2 cups) and mix on medium combine.
- Add in the butter, and mix on medium until incorporated. No worries if there are few bits.
- Add in the 220 g (1 3/4 cups) flour, and mix until dough comes together.
- Turn dough out onto a floured work surface. Dough will be very sticky. And annoying. You haven’t messed up. Knead in the remaining 1/4 cup of flour by hand until dough is smooth, a couple of minutes.
- Form dough into a ball and put in a clean, lightly oiled bowl loosely covered with plastic wrap or covered with a (non-terry cloth) dish towel.
- Let stand in a warm area until doubled in size, about two hours. (Note: I have let it sit as long as slightly over 3 hours due to distraction. It’s still perfectly good, perhaps a bit yeastier tasting, but I like that…so it’s forgiving.)
- Remove dough from bowl onto a well floured work surface and lightly dust top with flour. At this point I am gentle with the dough; I like to leave some of the bubbles in. This is going to make them extra airy.
- Heat 1.5-2 inches of canola oil in a cast iron (preferably) pan to 350°F.
- Meanwhile, roll out dough to 1/2 inch thick.
- Trim the edges and cut with a floured knife or bench scraper into approximately 2×3 inch rectangles. Or whatever shape you want, really. You’re a free agent here. I prefer the classic imperfect rectangles.
- Set a cooling rack over paper towels.
- Using a slotted metal spatula gently transfer the beignets to the hot oil and fry 3-4 at a time, rolling them around frequently, until golden brown on all sides. This takes about 3-4 minutes.
- As they finish transfer them to the cooling rack over paper towels.
- To fill: Let cool until you can handle at then, using the end of a wooden spoon, poke a hole in the end going all the way through the beignet without coming out the other side. Then pipe the chicory cream inside. Dust liberally with powdered sugar and serve warm.
- Alternately: skip the filling and serve so hot they almost burn your fingers, piled high with powdered sugar.
- Repeat with all remaining donuts. While they’re optimal served fresh, you can store them, covered at room temperature. I don’t like to do this and try to eat/give them away while warm. In the event that you do end up with stale beignets on your hands, I’ve been known to do the unthinkable and make French toast with them. Just sayin.
Chicory Crème Pâtissière
- 2 cups whole milk
- 3 tablespoons chicory coffee such as Café Du Monde brand
- 6 egg yolks
- 1/2 cup sugar divided in half
- 1/4 cup flour
- Seeds of 1 vanilla bean
- Put chicory coffee in a French press (alternately you can make the coffee milk in the pot and strain it through a coffee filter).
- Using your fingers rub the vanilla beans into a 1/4 cup of the sugar.
- Bring milk to a boil, stirring frequently to prevent scorching on the bottom.
- Pour milk into the French press and let sit for 5-10 minutes, depending on how strong you like it. (if using a coffee filter remove milk from heat and just stir coffee directly into the milk.
- Meanwhile, whisk the egg yolks and the other 1/4 cup of sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer on medium until pale yellow and falls in light ribbons. Add flour and whisk to combine.
- Press the milk and pour the resultant coffee milk back into the pot along with the 1/4 cup of vanilla sugar and bring to a bare simmer over medium high heat, stirring to dissolve sugar and prevent scorching.
- With the mixer on low slowly pour the hot milk into the yolk mixture. Emphasis on slowly, you don’t want to end up with scrambled eggs.
- Once all the milk is whisked into the yolk mixture, return all of it to the pot.
- Bring to a low boil over medium heat, whisking constantly.
- Cook, while whisking, for two minutes to thicken and cook out the raw flour.
- Transfer to a bowl through a mesh sieve to strain out any bits that may have formed, pressing lightly. Once strained, press plastic wrap to the surface.
- Store in the fridge until ready to use.
- To pipe: fill a piping bag (or a sandwich bag with a tip cut off) with the pastry cream and use a wooden spoon to poke a hole in the beignet, creating a cavity. Insert the bag and pipe until it just comes out the end where you poked the hole, pulling the bag out slowly as you pipe to fill the length of the beignet.