The Islamic-Christian culinary connection is one that fascinates lots of readers of my blog. So when I saw that Cathy Kaufman had published this piece in the IACP history of food newsletter, Prandial Post, I asked her if I could re-publish it here since many of you are not members of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
Cathy is always worth reading on food history. Her dual training and (more important) work as both a lawyer and a professional cook means that she brings kitchen experience and a sharp eye for argument and evidence to whatever she talks about.
She will be happy to respond to comments. Thanks Cathy.
The Roots of Rhythm: Where does the New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Beignet Come From?
New Orleans’ famous Café du Monde has an equally famous limited menu: chicory-laced coffee (served black or au lait) and beignets, gossamer pillows of fried yeasted dough buried under an avalanche of powdered sugar. This simple combination delights tourists and locals (who call them “doughnuts,” using the term in its non-cakey sense) in the never-ending revelry that marks New Orleans. Like so much of New Orleans’ culinary culture, the beignet is part of New Orleans’ French ancestry.
Beignets are widely claimed to have been introduced to New Orleans in 1727 by a group of Ursuline nuns who founded an academy for girls in what was then New France. Nuns are always good for origination myths (think of the nuns in New Spain who are popularly credited with inventing molé poblano for a visiting bishop in the late sixteenth century), so the culinary fakelore antennae should be on high alert. There may be yet-undiscovered beignet recipes hidden in early Louisiana manuscripts, but among the first beignet recipes published in New Orleans (under the name “doughnut”) is the one found in The Creole Cookbook, dating to 1885. The recipe is worth quoting because it may offer clues to the origins of beignets and their migration from the Old to the New World:
Doughnuts. Three lbs of sifted flour, 1 lb of powdered sugar, 3 lbs of butter, 4 eggs, ½ cup of the best brewers’ yeast, 1½ pints of milk, 1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon, 1 grated nutmeg, a tablespoon of rosewater, fry them in lard and grate fine sugar over them.
Tracing the possible origins of the Mardi Gras Beignet
At the risk of preaching heresy to denizens of The Big Easy, Mardi Gras did not originate in New Orleans, nor was New Orleans the first place in what was to become the United State to celebrate Mardi Gras (that honor goes to Mobile, Alabama, which can trace Mardi Gras to 1703). Literally “Fat Tuesday,” Mardi Gras had been a Christian feast throughout Catholic Europe since the Middle Ages. On the day before Ash Wednesday, when the strictest fasting requirements of the Church year would settle in for the Lenten season, Catholics (and even some post-Reformation Protestants) would stuff themselves silly with soon-to-be-forbidden foods. During the nearly seven weeks of Lent, devout Catholics forewent foods that might excite venality—meat, dairy, animal fats, and eggs— to put themselves in the proper mindset for the Holy Week culminating in Christ’s crucifixion, burial, and resurrection. To work down the stores of proscribed foods, Catholics indulged in Carnavale, where these foods featured prominently during the few days prior to Ash Wednesday. The derivation of the name “carnavale” is open to dispute, but many believe that it is the vernacularization of the Latin caro levare, meaning to lift [away] meat.
Whatever the derivation, foods rich in meat, eggs, dairy, and animal fats mark the holiday, although unlike the essential Thanksgiving turkey, different regions and ethnic groups favor variations on the theme of fried dough. Pancakes are consumed in England for Shrove Tuesday, while oliebollen, a type of doughnut are found in Holland. Jelly-filled malasadas from Portugal, cream-filled German fasnachts, and custard-filled Polish pạczki all are closely related. Many different Italians treats are popular; a relatively unusual dish from Emilia-Romagna (albeit eaten year-round) pairs yeasted fried dough with an assortment of cured meats and is known as gnocchi fritti con affetati. These gnocchi are worlds removed from the familiar boiled and baked dumplings served in a rich sauce: these are finger foods, hot balloons of slightly sweetened dough that the diner wraps around prosciutto or other fatty meats. Served immediately out of the fryer, the heat gently softens the fat in the meats and forms an unctuous sweet and salty mouthful. A fuller description and recipe is available at http://convivial.blogs.com/my_weblog/2006/01/gnoccho_fritto_.html
Allowing for some irregularities in spelling, beignets have been a part of the French kitchen since at least the Middle Ages, and many recipes for beignets appear in French works around the same time when the Ursuline nuns allegedly introduced beignets to New Orleans. Massialot’s Le Cuisinier roial et bourgeois (1691), Le Cuisinier gascon (1747) and Le Dictionnaire portatif de cuisine (1767) all acknowledge beignets as a type of pastry fried in butter, lard or sometimes oil, leavened either with brewers’ yeast or eggs that can either stand on their own or act as a dense batter for sweet or savory morsels. According to Le Grand Robert de la langue française, the term seems to have acquired its modern spelling in Olivier de Serres’s Théâtre d’agriculture (1605). De Serres commented that apples worked particularly well in “tartellages, beignets and similar delicacies.”
Beignets have been associated with Mardi Gras in France since at least the sixteenth century. Edmond Huguet’s Dictionnaire de la lague française du seizième siècle (1925) identifies “bignetz” as something eaten during “les Jours gras Bancquetz,” citing the usage by Pierre Gingore in his play Le Jeu du Prince des Sotz et de Mere Sotte, first performed on Mardi Gras in 1512. A seventeenth-century work by the Dutch Calvinist Philips de Marnix was quickly translated into French as Différences de la Religions; it identifies “bignets” as a food for the last day before Lent.
Le Trésor de la langue française traces the earliest known use of beignet as a culinary term to the Roman de Fauvel of 1314, which lists an array of medieval pastries: “Il y ot gauffres et oublees. . .pommes d’espices, darioles, crespines, bignez et roissoles.” Mots de Table, Mots de Bouche (1996), an etymological and historical dictionary of gastronomy, suggests that beignet might have been adapted from “bugne,” meaning either an architectural bosse or a bump in the Provençal dialect. The visual affinity is obvious. Mots de Table goes further, however, to suggest that “buignets” were introduced into Provence by Saracens (i.e., Muslims living in Europe) in the twelfth or thirteenth centuries.
The Saracen connection is intriguing. Numerous scholars have persuasively argued that medieval European courtly cuisine was heavily influenced by the sophisticated cooking of the Islamic world, primarily through the proximity of the Moorish courts in Andalusia, Sicily, and southern Italy. Karen Hess has suggested in The Carolina Rice Kitchen (1992) that there may be underexplored connections between the cuisine of Provence and the cooking of the Caliphates. I propose that Mardi Gras beignets may have their origin in the medieval Islamic dish luqam al qadi, a version of which appears in the Baghdad Cookery Book of 1226 AD/623 AH. That recipe, as translated by A.J. Arberry, instructs: “Make a firm dough. When fermented, take in the size of hazelnuts and fry in sesame oil. Dip in syrup and sprinkle with fine ground sugar.” According to Claudia Roden in A Book of Middle Eastern Food, the syrup would be flavored with rose and orange blossom waters, two of the Islamic world’s outstanding culinary inventions.
There is more circumstantial evidence supporting an Andalusian introduction of beignets into Mediterranean France. The Spanish name for yeasted fritters is “buñuelos,” and while I have not traced the etymology of the Spanish term, I would be surprised if it did not share a common root with the Provençal bugne. Moreover, pets de nonne, deep-fried balls of airy choux paste, were known as “Spanish beignets” in the late Middle Ages, again associating deep-fried dough with Spain. Keeping in mind that Andalusia was under Islamic rule from the eighth until the end of the fifteenth century, many Islamic foods had ample opportunity to be integrated into what has evolved into Spanish cuisine.
Another reason to believe that beignets may have migrated from the Islamic to the Christian worlds is that the deep-frying used to prepare beignets is a relatively expensive technique, requiring a profligate use of fat and preferring metal pans to clay to withstand the high temperatures that the hot fat reaches. Deep-frying thus would have been more typically practiced at the elite end of the spectrum, so that recipes for fritters likely were distributed at the courtly level, only later to be diffused downwards. Cordoba, in Andalusia, was home to one of the wealthiest courts in the High Middle Ages when the buignet made its way to Provence, and the Islamic world had a more developed written recipe tradition in the thirteenth century than anything in Christian Europe.
The similarities between the luqam and the beignet are unmistakable. All of the key elements of the Creole Cookery Book’s doughnuts are found in luqam, save the choice of frying medium. However, what ultimately makes luqam al qadi so tempting as the origin of the Mardi Gras beignet is the use to which devout Muslims put the little pastries: they were a traditional part of the meal breaking the Ramadan fast. Sephardic Jews also used sweet fritters called bimuelos to break the Yom Kippur fast, according to David Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, authors of A Drizzle of Honey. (In recent years these treats have migrated through the calendar to become associated with Hanukah.) The bimuelos are the Jewish dialect for the Spanish buñuelos, and in the relatively tolerant and cosmopolitan world of Saracen Spain in the High Middle Ages, it is hardly surprising that Muslims, Christians, and Jews might have traded recipes, making the necessary adjustments for their dietary restrictions. Thus, while Muslims could never use the pork fat for frying called for in the Creole Cookery Book, the presence of rose water and the association of fritters with fasting among the three European religions of the medieval period suggests an Islamic origin for the Mardi Gras beignet.
Mardi Gras Beignets
The original brewers’ yeast as been omitted in favor of dry yeast.
1 lb all purpose flour plus more for shaping
14 grams instant yeast
20 grams granulated sugar
1/3 cup milk
1 tablespoon orange flower water
6 oz sweet butter
3-4 extra large eggs, room temperature, as needed
14 grams slat
Lard or other fat for deep frying
Superfine or confectioner’s sugar
1. Combine 4 oz flour with the yeast, granulated sugar, milk, and orange flower water to make a leavening dough. Form into a ball, cover with a bowl, and let double in volume.
2. Paddle the butter until aerated in a stand mixer. Add 3 eggs, 1 at a time, until incorporated. Combine the salt and remaining flour and fold into the butter mixture. Add the leaven and paddle to incorporate. If the dough seems dry, ass as much of the last egg as needed to make a pliable dough.
3. Turn into a greased bowl, cover, and let rise until doubled. Deflate the dough, cover again, and let rise until doubled.
4. Roll the dough on a lightly floured surface into a ½ inch thick sheet and cut into 2 inch squares. Cover with a floured cloth and let rise for 30 minutes.
5. Heat the cooking fat to 370° F. Working in batches, fry the beignets until golden brown, turning once. Drain on absorbent toweling, dust with sugar, and serve immediately.