I can’t do beignets justice nor have I met anyone that could do them as well as Café du Monde in the French Quarter of New Orleans — though this recipe is close. The inside is so soft and pillowy with a crisp skin doused in powdered sugar.
If you have never been, you need to stop by Café du Monde in New Orleans. It is a non-stop place to get the best beignets and some café au lait (coffee and steamed, not frothed milk). As you walk up to the side window, you can look into the kitchen and watch them roll out the beignets and blindly toss them behind them into the 350 degree fryer. It is unlike any experience you will have anywhere else.
This is a yeast doughnut dough. Beignets are usually square and the dough is slightly more moist to help with the puff as it fries. You could cut back a little on the milk, make it the shape of a tire, and no one would know the difference. With that being said, yeast needs a little finesse. The milk needs to be warm (100-ish degrees), but not too hot to kill the yeast (120-ish degrees). To get the yeast started, you make a sponge consisting of a little sugar and flour to jump start the yeast and help with the structure of the final dough.
The dough takes time. I’m sorry to say this is not a quick breakfast item. You can’t really throw some good beignets together on a Saturday morning. But you can pre-plan just a little bit on Friday night and whip the dough together quickly for it to proof overnight, to make your Saturday beignet production come together much more quickly.
This is a dough that can be made in one bowl and without a mixer. Just make sure to take into consideration the total amount of the dough. Don’t start your yeast in a small bowl. You don’t want to have to transfer it to a larger one to proof. A 12-inch mixing bowl or 5-quart mixer bowl or larger should work. Make sure to also have some clean counter space to knead the dough, as well as roll and cut the dough. Keep plastic wrap or a damp towel on hand to cover the dough while it proofs.
It seems like a lot, but you really need to let the dough proof twice — once after making the dough, and again after rolling and cutting the dough. The first time helps you develop the yeast and the dough, the second helps you have extremely soft pillowy dough as it goes into the fryer. Your goal is to have enough gas in the dough to separate the top and bottom, to create a void in the center. This helps create the signature pillow shape with a crisp outer skin and soft steamy inside.
Invest in a candy or fry thermometer. You can do it without one, but it helps remove some of the guesswork. You will want to use a large shallow pan. It should be at least 2½ or 3 inches deep, but not too deep, so you don’t have to use too much oil.
Use the dough to help judge the temperature. If there are no bubbles when you put in a corner of dough, it is way too cold. If there are just a few bubbles, you might be able to add the whole piece and turn the heat up and wait until you see more bubbles. The heat is too high if you see extremely vigorous bubbles and immediate browning. You want steady bubbles all around the dough, without any roaring sound with it.
After you get the dough in the oil, tweak the heat up and down as needed. Some people want to flip the beignet constantly. I find it works best if it is at least completely submerged at first, or flipped once just after being added to the oil. The beignets should be evenly puffed and evenly browned before removing.