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The Allure of Beignets and Café au Lait

Beignets and steaming hot café au lait – is there a better way to start the day? Maybe if I was sitting in the French Quarter, waking up after a night of dancing, frivolity, and spicy food cooled down by Bananas Foster! But then I think that New Orleans is one of those places that is as much a state of mind as a physical location. So, if I can’t be there, I’ll just bring a bit of New Orleans here.

For less than $20.00, you can purchase a little chicory coffee and beignet basket, with 2 logo mugs from world famous Café Du Monde and have a bit of NOLA right in your own home, at a moments notice. Add some blues or jazz, a warm summer breeze, and you are there.

Beignet comes from the early Celtic word “bigne” (to raise). In French, Beignet means "fritter." It is said that French colonists brought the recipe for beignets to New Orleans in the18th century. Café Du Monde opened in 1862 as a coffee stand in what is now New Orleans’ French Market, serving strong coffee and beignets. The Civil War made it necessary for New Orleansians to stretch their stock of imported coffee by mixing it with locally grown ground, roasted chicory (endive) root. This unique blend, still enjoyed today, has chocolate undertones and a rich, smooth texture.

Beignets are easy to make, whether from a mix or made from scratch. These light, sweet little gems are deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. Think square donuts with no hole and smothered in snow white powdered sugar. The owner of Café Du Monde said, during a CBS News interview before Katrina, “When the wind blows strong enough to blow the powdered sugar off the beignets, then we’ll close for a while and then reopen.” They reopened seven weeks Katrina’s unwelcome visit.

Variations of the traditional sweet beignet include mixing ripe banana into the batter or omitting the powder sugar and topping with a drizzle of melted semi-sweet chocolate. Not in the mood for sweets? Then maybe savory beignets with crawfish or shrimp, dipped in a spicy remoulade might just hit the spot.

To make Café au Lait, combine equal parts of strong, fresh coffee in a warmed mug with steamy hot milk. While Chicory coffee is traditional, a dark roast, such as French roast works well too. I can almost hear the lazy sounds of George Gershwin’s “Summer Time” wafting through my kitchen window.

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