The history of doughnuts is intrinsically linked to the celebration of Mardi Gras. "Fat Tuesday" -- the Christian day of revelry and indulgence before the austere season of Lent -- features dough deep-fried in fat as its main staple.
Among the first foods to be fried were Roman scriblita, a precursor to today's doughnuts and fritters. Originating in the medieval era, most Christian European traditions have developed a version of fried dough for Shrove Tuesday (another name for the day before Lent starts). The rich treats presented a way to use up all of the butter, sugar and fat in the house prior to the self-denying diets of Lent. Traditionally it was an opportunity for indulgence, a day when, once a year, communities would go through the labor-intensive and expensive process of deep-frying in order to partake in a luxurious treat.
Beignets are the most widely known Mardi Gras doughnut. The recipe for the light and eggy pillows of fried dough was brought to Louisiana when French Acadians were deported there in the 18th century. But there is another, lesser-known Carnival doughnut in New Orleans — calas. Sweet, fried rice dumplings, calas originate from the West African enslaved people who were brought to the area in the late 1700s. The recipe was passed on among Catholic African-American families who served them at Mardi Gras and other celebrations, and they're making a comeback in New Orleans restaurants, where they're offered as both savory and sweet dishes.
As it goes with traditional recipes that have undergone many relocations, transitions and generations, there are many variations and not one definitive source for all of these varying Carnival delights. Whichever variety you choose, celebrate Mardi Gras the way it's supposed to be — with a hearty helping of dough and fat.
A longer version of this post was originally published on NPR's Kitchen Window
Adapted from What's Cooking America
I recommend making the dough the night before so you can fry and eat them fresh first thing the next morning.
Makes 18 to 24 beignets
1 cup lukewarm water
3 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup white sugar, plus a pinch
4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup evaporated milk
Vegetable oil for deep-frying
Powdered sugar for dusting
1. In a medium bowl, place water, yeast and pinch of sugar. Whisk together and let sit to dissolve yeast, 5 to 10 minutes.
2. In a large bowl or bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine flour, 1/4 cup sugar and salt. Add yeast mixture and stir until incorporated. Add egg, butter and evaporated milk and mix until well combined and dough is smooth.
3. Remove dough from bowl and roll out onto a lightly oiled surface. Form dough into a ball and place in a lightly greased bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until chilled, 3 to 4 hours or overnight.
4. Once chilled, remove dough from the refrigerator and roll out on a lightly floured surface about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into squares and place on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Cover with a cloth and set aside while you heat the oil.
5. In a deep heavy saucepan with high sides, heat 3 inches of oil to 360-375 degrees F. Working in batches, fry the beignets for 2 minutes on each side, until puffed and golden brown. Using a wire skimmer or slotted spatula, transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Transfer to a baking sheet and let cool completely. Dust with powdered sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.
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