The history of doughnuts is intrinsically linked to the celebration of Mardi Gras with Fat Tuesday featuring dough deep-fried in fat as a main staple.
Over the centuries the period of penitence and fasting known as Lent, gave rise to varied decadence in the days leading up to it, from parades to masked balls to sinfully rich foods.
During medieval times most Christian European traditions developed a version of fried dough for Shrove Tuesday, the day before the start of Lent. 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 process of deep-frying in order to enjoy a luxurious treat.
The English made pancakes, the Poles jelly doughnuts called paczki, and Germany women fried up doughnuts called fastnachts (German for “Eve of the Fast”).
In Poland and Polish communities in the United States, such as in the Midwest, Fat Tuesday is known as Paczki Day, referring to the dense yet puffy jelly-filled doughnuts enjoyed on the occasion. Paczki were traditionally filled with rose hip jam or a stewed plum concoction called powidla, though today they often contain a variety of different jams and custards.
The history of colonization and immigration from the Old World to the new can be traced through the evolution of doughnuts such as paczki. These celebration foods were important, and were both preserved and altered as they interacted with new ingredients and other influences in their new homes.
Portuguese malasadas, also enjoyed on Shrove Tuesday, or Malasada Day, were another such confection. The raised doughnuts were brought to Hawaii by sugar plantation workers in the late 1800s. Though originally they had no holes or fillings, they have evolved there to include fillings with Hawaiian ingredients such as guava and coconut. They are also popular among Portuguese communities in New England.
The German take on pre-Lenten doughnuts, fastnachts (or fasnachts), bear the same name as the traditional Carnival celebration, which translates as “fast night.”
Traditional fastnachts are fried in lard and, like malasadas, do not have a hole or contain filling. Most German fastnacht recipes consist of milk, sugar, shortening, yeast, eggs, and flour.
The Pennsylvania Dutch version generally includes mashed potatoes in the recipe, making a heartier and denser doughnut. A rectangular shape was usually specified, which after cooking was sliced in half like a bagel and spread with syrup or molasses—something to stick to your ribs until the end of Lent.
Others followed the German tradition of making all sorts of shapes, from knots and braids to pretzels and ladder-like rectangles. The pretzel itself has a Lenten derivation, and according to legend, the shape was invented by a seventh-century monk who wanted it to symbolize two arms crossed in prayer.
In Maryland, the same doughnuts are called kinklings.
Beignets (pronounced bey-YAY) are the most widely known Mardi Gras doughnut. The word beignet comes from the early Celtic word bigne meaning “to raise.” It is also French for fritter. The recipe for the light and eggy pillows of fried dough was brought to Louisiana by the Acadians when deported from Nova Scotia during the 18th century.
They’re made with deep-fried choux paste, which differs from a traditional yeast-based doughnut dough because it relies on moisture in the dough to create steam as the leavening agent, rather than yeast.
Beignets are usually about two inches in diameter or two inches square. After being fried, they are sprinkled with powdered sugar. When served hot, they are absolute perfection.
Beignets were most often enjoyed with café au lait. In New Orleans, café au lait is strong dark roast coffee and chicory, served with equal part hot milk. Originally used as a cheap way to boost coffee during the Civil War when the bean was scarce, chicory is still blended into coffee because it tastes good, and, well, it’s tradition.
But what exactly is it? The root of endive lettuce, believe it or not, which is then roasted and ground to soften the bitter edge of dark coffee. The chicory also created a smoother, richer brew.
The most famous place to get a plate of beignets is the iconic Cafe du Monde.
The original Cafe du Monde coffee stand was established in the New Orleans French Market on Jackson Square in 1862 and still operates today. The cafe is considered a New Orleans landmark that’s open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
At Café du Monde, there is only one food item you can order—beignets. Beignets come in orders of three on plates completely covered in powdered sugar. Expect to wait in line if you arrive during peak hours—and even longer if you want a table.
In 1986, beignets became the Louisiana State Doughnut.
Again, all you need to know: Beignets are delicious!
Eat dessert first. Life is uncertain.