Monday, February 28, 2011

Cashew Shortbread



















Cashew Shortbread
Lucky Palate, $2

Sweet and buttery, cashews in their natural state are about as close to shortbread as a nut can get. Vegetarian meal meal service Lucky Palate just nudges them a little further by adding sugar, vegan margarine, flour, and vanilla. The resulting shortbread is rich and sweetly mellow, crisp on the edges with a slightly chewy middle. Unlike some alternative sweets, cashew shortbread doesn't taste like an impostor. It tastes like it was meant to be.

307 W McGraw St
Seattle, WA
206/352-2583

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Sugar and New Orleans


















Sugar and New Orleans: Some Notes

Shortly after arriving in New Orleans, I stopped by the visitors' center just off Jackson Square. Although I already had a sweets-centric itinerary drawn up, I wanted to be sure I wasn't leaving out anything important (or delicious). I approached the perfectly coiffed matron at the information counter, explained my interests, and asked if there was anything I should be sure to try.

After a few seconds' thought, she shook her head and delivered the bad news: "In New Orleans, we don't particularly care for sweets."

Although I would never say "hogwash" to a well-meaning volunteer, I was certainly thinking it. In rebuttal, I offer my previous week's worth of posts plus the following collected notes that didn't quite fit into those posts. Taken together, they form a portrait of a city that is positively steeped in sugar. To quote a 19th century souvenir apron on display at the Cabildo Museum (in the very room where the Louisiana Purchase was signed):

"Cotton is King; Sugar is Queen; Rice, the Lady-in-Waiting."










By the late eighteenth century, Europe's appetite for sugar and rum was such that in the cane-growing colonies of Haiti and Santo Domingo, slaves outnumbered free citizens by eight to one. Even as depicted on these decorative French plates (above, right and left), cutting (with knives like the ones above, center) and processing cane was arduous and dangerous work. In 1789 the island of Santo Domingo exploded in a series of violent slave uprisings. The aftermath shifted attention to Louisiana, where the humid climate was well suited to sugarcane. Refugees from Santo Domingo included many who would shape the region's nascent sugar industry, as well as others who would leave their mark, such as Antoine Peychaud, father of the cocktail.

One particularly suitable site was a lush stretch of land beside the Mississippi River that was inhabited by Houmas Indians and grazed by bison when French explorers arrived in 1682. The
Houmas House that still stands there today was built in the 1820's by Wade Hampton, then the state's chief sugar producer and the region's largest slave holder. In 1858 the plantation and columned mansion were bought by John Burnside, "The Sugar Prince of Louisiana" and owner of more than 300,000 acres. Full of art and fine furnishings, "The Sugar Palace" draws many tourists to Darrow, an hour's drive from New Orleans.

After the Civil War, many former slaves returned to the sugar fields as employees, but the situation proved unproductive and untenable. Plantation owners began to recruit foreign workers--from China, Northern Europe, and Italy--adding to the diversity of cultural influences still felt in New Orleans today. During the same period, the block of Decatur Street that now houses the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park was almost entirely made up of confectioners' kitchens and shops; the row of candy stores was a major attraction for visitors until the block burned down in 1937.














Louisiana was home to many of the milestone innovations that contributed to the modernization of the sugar industry. The enormous Audubon Park in the Garden District, for example, was formerly the site of large plantation where the first controlled granulation of sugar was achieved in 1794. The legacy of that discovery is alive and well in neighboring St. Bernard Parish, where Domino Sugar's sprawling Chalmette Refinery (above) produces 6.8 million pounds of sugar every day. The refinery is easily seen from the tour boats that travel up and down the river.

The Chalmette plant opened in 1909, replacing two obsolete refineries on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. It was such a major employer that the city built a streetcar line to deliver workers to the factory door. In the past century the Chalmette Refinery has withstood a number of challenges--WWI, the Great Depression, rationing during WWII. During Hurricane Katrina, nine feet of floodwater ruined the ground floor machines, but the refinery's sturdy buildings withstood the winds and became a refuge for stranded neighbors and a mustering station for the National Guard. The plant was renovated and running 98 days after the storm.









At Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World, old parade floats are stored in a huge hangar until they can be harvested for re-purposeable parts. We were there in time to catch some still-intact floats from a sweets-themed parade a few years back : (above, from left) Mandarin Orange Cheesecake, Gooseberry Fool, Shoofly Pie. I flashed back to my elementary school glory years by calling out their names before the tourguide had even finished asking if anyone could identify them.

Even more sweet stories are featured the Southern Food and Beverage Museum's exhibition "
Tout de Sweet: All About Sugar" and Kit Wohl's cookbook, New Orleans Classic Desserts.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Meltdown Pops














Meltdown
Pops, $3/each

On our very last night in New Orleans, up popped a Groupon for a French Quarter sweet treat that I had totally overlooked: Meltdown, an artisan ice pop store just a block from the French Market.

Meltdown makes what might be called "popsicles" (were that word not trademarked by Unilever) but are more properly known as paletas. These frozen treats originated in Mexico and take their name from the wooden stick, or palo, which forms their handle. The hallmarks of a true paleta are fresh, natural ingredients, creative flavor combinations, and impeccable texture, whether icy or creamy.

Meltdown is one of the youngest members of a loosely affiliated extended family of paleterias. Their ancestral hometown is Tocumbo in central Mexico's Michoacán state, where confectioners have long used local produce to create delicious frozen pops. In 1941 Agustin Andrade left Tocumbo to launch Mexico City's first paleteria, La Michoacána. He was so successful that a Tocumbo relative soon arrived to start a second store. Many more paleta entrepreneurs followed, setting up shop wherever they could find sufficient demand; they trained their sons or apprentices, who in turn extended the paleta network. According to a recent story in Saveur magazine, there are now more than 15,000 paleterias in Mexico and the US.

Among those ranks is Las Paletas, a Nashville, Tennessee paleteria that was one of the first to be owned by women. Sisters Norma and Irma Paz grew up in Guadalajara and moved to the US as adults. Struck by the absence of their beloved paletas, they returned to Mexico to learn the ropes, then started Las Paletas. Along the way to becoming a high-profile success, the store helped expand Nashville's palate, revitalize a formerly grim neighborhood, and inspire a new generation of paleta makers.

Among these is Meltdown's Michelle Weaver. After being initiated into the art in Nashville, she spent several years selling her wares from a Good Humor truck in LA, before moving again to New Orleans. She initially sold at markets and from another truck, but demand allowed her to open a small storefront last year. It houses her production kitchen, a small retail counter, and a couple of coolers holding a cache of fresh pops.

On our last morning in town, I left my bags in the hotel coat check and headed to Meltdown first thing. The shop wasn't open yet so I had time to study the chalkboard list of the day's flavors:

strawberry hibiscus
pineapple cilantro
blood orange
lavender lemon
grapefruit poppyseed
salted caramel
Vietnamese coffee
saffron rosewater
chocolate lavender
black sesame seed

The saffron rosewater was a lovely pale peach color--like a faintly embarrassed vanilla--and threaded with a generous amount of the bright orange spice. I gulped it down while hustling back to the hotel for the airport taxi and found that the floral sweetness helped to temper my sadness over leaving New Orleans. I might even have tried to run back for a second pop, but I didn't want to risk having a paleta headache on the plane.

Meltdown
508 Dumaine
New Orleans, LA
504/301-0905


















Meltdown on Urbanspoon


Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sno-balls


















Sno-ball
Mother Nature's Cupboard, $3

Back when I was still a pre-schooler, Kentucky experienced a couple of really tough winters. I'm sure it was a terrible and challenging time for most adults, but I remember it fondly: I loved the rapier-long icicles hanging from the eaves, the sledding marathons, and especially a homemade treat that my mother called "snow cream." She and I would bundle up and venture out onto the porch to heap a mixing bowl high with all the fresh snow it would hold. Once back in the kitchen, we would stir it together with milk, sugar, and vanilla extract, then race to eat the sweet slush before it melted.

It turns out that my mother wasn't the first to think along these lines. Back in ancient times, people living in Sicily used to bring snow down from Mt. Etna, store it in caves and crevasses until summer arrived, then enjoy it drizzled with wine or flavored syrups. Later generations of Sicilians would master the arts of gelato, sorbet, and granita, and spread their specialties around the world--and one Sicilian-American would re-introduce us to the delights of eating snow.

In 1936, a New Orleans grocer of Sicilian descent named George J. Ortolano designed and built a machine that transformed blocks of ice into edible snow--and not rough, crunchy crystals, but soft, fluffy powder. With wife Josie cooking up creatively flavored creams and syrups, Ortolano began selling the refreshing concoctions at his grocery store. Word soon spread, and Ortolano was deluged with requests for the snow-making machine. His industrial model, the Snow-Wizard, spread across the South and became a staple of summertime snack stands.










I arrived in New Orleans hungry for a sno-ball and totally ignorant of how hard it would be to find one. I came prepared with the names of two popular stands, Hansen's Sno-Blitz and Plum Street Sno-balls, both of which have been around since the the 1940's. I called ahead to check hours and got endless ringing at one and a "closed for the season" recording at the other. Sno-ball season, it turns out, runs from March through October. February is not even on the calendar--however hot and sunny it may be. Nevertheless, I kept my hopes up and my eyes peeled; it seemed like I couldn't go three blocks without being taunted by shuttered sno-ball shacks and their tattered lists of unimaginably intriguing flavors: Orchid Cream, Nectar, Tiger's Blood, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle...

Just when I was starting to think I had a snowball's chance of finding an open sno-ball stand, I spotted Mother Nature's Cupboard in the French Quarter's French Market. Although Mother Nature's is primarily a farm stand, they augment their produce sales with tourist-friendly snacks and drinks, and the proprietor was more than happy to make me my first-ever sno-ball.

He took an enormous ice block from the freezer and placed it in the belly of the squat, blocky "Southern Snow" machine (a Snow-Wizard competitor), which started to chug when he flipped the switch. The shavings sprayed out a chute in the side, and to demonstrate what separates a sno-ball from a crushed ice "snow" cone, he tossed a handful into to the air, where the glittering snow cloud hung briefly before the flakes drifted to the ground: "You can say you saw it snowing in the French Market!" After filling the cup with snow, he packed it down and poured on a swig of my chosen syrup, almond-based "Wedding Cake" (below, right). He repeated the layering process until the cup would hold no more, ensuring the the last bite would be as soft and sweet as the first. A swirl of condensed milk was the finishing touch.

Not every treat I spend days searching for lives up to the anticipation, but the sno-ball was even better than I had hoped, even better that the snow cream of my memories.

Mother Nature's Cupboard
1008 N Peters St
French Market Farmer's Market
New Orleans, LA

Bananas Foster


















Bananas Foster
Court of Two Sisters, $8

Like a rock star who relies on showmanship in lieu of youth, looks, great hair, or straight teeth, Bananas Foster is homely dessert that puts on one hell of a show. Its basic constituents are sliced bananas, vanilla ice cream, butter, sugar, cinnamon, and booze. What makes Bananas Foster extraordinary is that these ingredients typically come together at tableside and over an open flame: it's a performance dessert.

The dish originated in 1951 at famed New Orleans restaurant Brennan's, and was named for a local politician who was friends with the owner. I ordered it at the Court of Two Sisters, another venerable restaurant, named for sisters Emma and Bertha Camors, born 1858 and 1860, who ran a fashionable "notions" shop on the site. The restaurant's courtyard is the largest in the French Quarter, a romantic expanse dolled up with wisteria, fountains, and gas lamps. It's a great place for dinner at dusk, and a perfect stage for dessert course pyrotechnics.

Our affable server, Jay, set up a prop table with all the necessary accouterments, including a battered copper pan that looked like it might have belonged to Emma or Bertha; Jeff explained that all the waiters fight over that one because it works the best. He cooked the butter and sugar over a small brazier, then added the cinnamon and bananas. Finally, he checked that no one was walking nearby, told us to get our cameras ready, and added the rum to the hot pan: it instantly ignited into a tower of flame. Seconds later the bananas were spooned over the ice cream and dessert was served. I was digging into the warm, gooey mess before my eyes had even recovered from the rum flare.

Court of Two Sisters
613 Royal Street
New Orleans, LA 70130-2181
504/522-7261


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pralines



















Pralines

Several New Orleans guidebooks suggest that a cash-strapped tourist could make a meal out of hitting the sample trays at the French Quarter's many praline shops. Pralines aren't especially expensive, but as a quintessential souvenir they add up to big business. Competition is fierce, with some shops specializing and others casting a wide net in an effort to have something for everyone: you want your pralines creamy? Crunchy? Flavored with chocolate, peanut butter, coconut, maple syrup, or rum? Or how about Tabasco?

Pralines have come a long way since they first appeared in France in the early 17th century. Although candied nuts had been around since the Middle Ages, almonds coated in caramelized sugar only came to be called "pralines" through association with the Duke de Plessis-Praslin. One story has it that the recipe was discovered when the household cook Lassagne caught his children improvising a fragrant treat using
stolen almonds and sugar, which was then an expensive luxury. Another says that Lassagne added sugar to help the Duke digest almonds, since sugar was also considered to have medicinal properties. The treat became popular across France, and the praline shop founded by Lassagne is still in business today.

The recipe for pralines arrived in New Orleans with the French, but the confection quickly took on a New World form. Almonds were replaced by pecans, which then grew in abundance throughout the city. Refined sugar was replaced by cheaper brown sugar, and the candy coating increased in proportion to the nuts until in New Orleans "praline" meant a matrix of solidified sugar studded with whole or crushed nuts.

The beginnings of the local praline industry also reflect New Orleans' unusual socio-political structure. In contrast with other areas of the US, New Orleans was subject to
the French Code Noir; under its terms slaves were given Sundays off and permitted to meet, play music, and dance in Congo Square to the north of the Quarter. With their owners' permission, slaves were also able to engage in trade, and at the Congo Square public market they were could earn extra income by doing odd jobs or selling food or crafts.

Pralines were a common sight at the market. Made from byproduct sugar and nuts gathered from public land, they cost next to nothing to make, and even when sold cheaply, represented almost pure profit. As noted by Liz Williams of the Southern Food and Beverage Museum, "Selling pralines and other candies offered a regular and socially sanctioned source of income for many free women of color and slaves." Some of this income could have been directed towards a particular purpose; under New Orleans law, slaves also had the opportunity to purchase freedom, and at least some praline vendors were able to contribute to buying freedom
for themselves or their families.















In the period after the Civil War, pralines continued to be a popular treat and an important source of income for women who might have few other options. With their bright kerchiefs and fly-shooing fans, the praline marchandes became a city icon (see vintage postcard, top). In SoFAB's "Pecan Candy" display, curator Chanda Nunez explores the complexity of this image: "Because of the popularity of these confections, the highly visible praline vendors were simultaneously celebrated and caricatured by white observers who depicted them as 'mammy' figures. However, these women were entrepreneurs adapting to their time and place." As praline making became more industrialized, manufacturers exploited that historic association; an "Aunt Sally" emblazoned on a candy wrapper amounted to a seal of authenticity (above, two 20th century examples).



















Pralines continue to evolve today, with consumers rewarding both tradition and innovation, and tending to define both in terms of ingredients. Laura's Candies (established in 1913 and possibly the city's oldest candy shop) sells an "original Creole" praline ($1.85) based on an 18th century recipe. The crisp, translucent treat is made from brown sugar and pecans with a touch of vanilla.

331 Charters St
504/525-3880



















The next generation of pralines were made more complicated and luxurious with the addition of butter or cream. Typical of this type is Southern Candymakers' tender and rich "Original Creamy Praline" ($19.95/lb).

Southern Candymakers
334 Decatur St
504/523-5544




















As the food culture in New Orleans evolved, so did the praline, reflecting new technologies and new cultural influences. Recipes were modernized to include convenience ingredients such as condensed or evaporated milk, or updated with flavorful additions such as coconut or chocolate.

Wandering through the Marigny, a more workaday neighborhood that borders the French Quarter,
I poked my head into Loretta's Authentic Pralines looking for something they didn't have, and walked out with a couple of free pralines; it happened to be Valentine's Day and the woman behind the counter said she just couldn't let us leave empty-handed.

The pralines were delicious--creamy, slightly chewy, one plain and one chocolate, both huge and distinctively ovoid. Even luckier, it turned out that I had also stumbled across one of the most fascinating stories of the new praline economy. Loretta's motto, "Not just a creamy, chunky, delicious piece of candy, but a piece of New Orleans", holds true from almost every angle. When Loretta Harrison started her company 30 years ago as a divorced single mother, her only assets were $700 in seed money and a praline recipe four generations old. Loretta's Authentic Pralines became the first candy company in New Orleans to be owned by an African-American.

Loretta's retail shop in the French Market was destroyed
by the flooding during Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, with insurance payouts delayed and debts mounting, Harrison had to go back to the drawing board. With help from a Seedco development grant she remodeled her production kitchen to accommodate a new retail store and a popup restaurant, which attracts crowds for Friday lunch. Today, Loretta's has two locations and 15 employees and Harrison is a local figure, even appearing in a 2010 Super Bowl commercial with a tray of her signature pralines.

2101 N Rampart
504/944-7068
or
1100 N Peters St Stall #9
504/529-6170


If your mouth is watering, have a look at some posts from other WanderFoodies!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Angelo Brocato's



















Torroncino
Angelo Brocato's, $2.75

As a child in Palermo in the late 19th century, Angelo Brocato served a formal apprenticeship in a gelateria. After immigrating to Louisiana, he labored on a sugar plantation until he could save enough money to strike out on his own, opening first a small ice cream store, and then an elegant sit-down ice cream parlor in 1905. Brocato's has since operated out of several locations, moving to its current Mid-City location in the late 1970's. With its tile floors and delicate wirework chairs, the glass-fronted shop feels like something from another era, the time-travel aura enhanced by the fact that Brocato's is most easily reached by streetcar.

Just two months after celebrating its 100th birthday in July, 2005, Brocato's was swamped under five feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. Repairs and rennovations took more than a year to complete, and the reopening was greeted with fanfare and a brass band. The parlor is still operated by Angelo Brocato's decendants, who use his original Sicilian recipes for gelato, fruit ices, and pastries.

Some of the baked goods are familiar pan-Italian favorites (biscotti, torrone, cannoli, rum baba) but Brocato's also bakes treats that are less known and more specifically Sicilian. As their website explains, "...the nations which occupied Sicily at various times in its history have all left their mark on its cooking. So authentic Sicilian confections have Arabic, Greek and French overtones in addition to traditional Italian influences." More exotic offering include cuciada fig cookies and pigniolata, fried, sugar-coated nuggets of dough that resemble large pinenuts. A glass jar on the counter holds scadalina, a crispy, creepy "Deadman's Bones" cookie darkened with copius amounts of cloves and cinnamon and topped with a white cylinder that looks like an ossified marshmallow.

Brocato's still makes thirst-quenching Sicilian ices made from real fruit such as blood oranges and passionfruit, as well as a range of charmingly old-fashioned composed frozen desserts. These include tortoni (a frozen mixture of whipped cream, cake, and almonds), spumoni (layers of pistachio, tutti-frutti, and lemon gelato plus whipped cream), cassata (spumoni with cake and candied fruit).

Torroncino (above) was Brocato's first creation. The mixture of vanilla gelato, cinnamon, and crushed almonds is frozen into a brick and served in thick slices on an anachronistic paper doily. It's a simple concoction but satisfying on a number of levels--slightly spicy, light but creamy, and with a fine-grained crunch.

Angelo Brocato's Italian Ice Cream Parlor
214 N Carrollton Ave
New Orleans, LA
504/486-1465









Monday, February 14, 2011

Roman Chewing Candy


















Chocolate Chewing Candy
Roman Chewing Candy Company, $1.00


While the French and the Spanish have had a more noticeable influence on New Orleans' architecture and language, the city has also been shaped by centuries of Italian migration. Given opportunities to work in fishing and agriculture, Italians from the poorer and more rural south of the country were particularly drawn to Louisiana. Towards the end of the 19th century, New Orleans' Sicilian population grew to be one of the largest in the country, exacerbating racial tensions and leading to a notorious criminal case. In 1890, Police Chief David Hennessey was murdered while investigating a vendetta killing within the Sicilian community. An enraged mob took eleven Sicilian suspects from the jail and lynched them.


Twenty-five years later, New Orleans saw the start of a much happier cross-cultural exchange. In 1915, a young street vendor named Sam Cortese had the idea that the traditional taffy his Sicilian mother made for special occassions might be a big seller. Angelina Napoli Cortese was happy to share her recipe but too busy to make as much candy as Sam needed. So in collaboration with a local wheelwright, Sam Cortese designed and built a mobile candy kitchen, a trim little cart equipped with a stove, a marble cooling slab, and a sturdy hook for pulling taffy. With the jaunty red-and-white cart hitched to a mule, Cortese crisscrossed the city making and selling his taffy--dubbed "Roman Chewing Candy" since "Sicilian" still had some negative connotations.


Sam Cortese continued to trade in taffy until his death in 1969, always keeping to the original price of 5 cents per foot-long stick. His grandson Ron Kottemann took over the business in 1970 and still sells Roman Chewing Candy from the original cart, changing only the stove (a butane replacement for the old coal-burner), and the price (now $1 a stick). Roman chewing candy is available in vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate (think "artisanal Tootsie Roll"), and if you don't happen to live on Kottemann's route you can also buy it online.

Swiss Confectionery


















Swiss Confectionery

Founded in 1921 by emigre Henri Moecklin, Swiss Confectionery is now run by his great-grandson Larry. The shop's Alpine-crowned logo promises "The Peak of Perfection" and Swiss has built its reputation by living up to that promise at the most crucial of times. The staff estimate that of the 200 weddings that take place on an average weekend in New Orleans, they supply the cakes for 60. There's even a custom-built adjoining room where Swiss holds regular cake tastings for brides-to-be.

They also do a brisk business in traditional doberge cakes, beautifully iced birthday cakes, and prim little petit fours (bottom, left). Swiss can make any flavor you'd like, but around here, what most people want for their birthday cake is "wedding cake"--which in New Orleans means almond cake with almond buttercream. The bakery's air was so saturated with almond extract I could smell it in my hair for the rest of the day; it was like the heavenly flip side of enduring a smoky bar.













There's also an appealing quirkiness about the place--nothing forced or hipsterish, just a humor that seems to stem from being relaxed and confident. When I commented on the huge fish tank in the main room, the woman behind the counter joked that some people see it and assume they're a sushi restaurant. Asked if he was the baker, a guy in full kitchen whites grinned: "I'm the candlestick maker."

A sense of playfulness is also evident in Swiss' immaculate creations. The pastry "pattie shells" (below, right) are same kind you'll see elsewhere used to hold oysters or savory vol-au-vents; at Swiss they're filled with jelly and iced in Mardi Gras colors. If you look closely among the photos of elaborate wedding cakes in the shop's brochure, you'll spot this groom's cake: a perfect chocolate buttercream replica of a rumpled four-poster bed.

747 St. Charles Ave
New Orleans, LA
504/522-7788









Swiss Confectionery on Urbanspoon


Sunday, February 13, 2011

King Cake



















King Cake Cupcake
Swiss Confectionery, $2

Although the Mardi Gras parades won't start until the day after I leave New Orleans, I timed my trip just right for indulging in one of Carnival's quieter traditions: eating king cake.

King cake season starts on Epiphany, the holiday celebrated on the twelfth night following Christmas when tradition has it that the Three Kings (or wise men) arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts for the infant Jesus. Between Epiphany and Mardi Gras, Catholics in many countries gather for king cake parties. The rich, sweet cakes are an efficient and festive way of using up luxurious ingredients such as sugar, butter, and eggs before the beginning of Lent.



















Depending on where you find it, king cake can mean very different things. One old-fashioned version is made from a yeasted brioche dough with candied or dried fruit. Another, the "Galette des Rois," is a golden disc of butter-rich puff pastry filled with almond-flavored frangipane; those pictured above, in four party-appropriate sizes, were on display at La Boulangerie on Magazine Street.



















In New Orleans alone there is considerable variation in king cakes, but the version most common today is akin to a cinnamon roll. The cake is usually formed into a ring, heavily drizzled with icing, and encrusted with sugar dyed in the Carnival colors: purple (for justice), green (faith), and gold (power). Many bakeries offer king cakes customized with your choice of fruit or cream fillings. The king cake boxes above, from the Croissant d'Or on Ursulines Street, list seven standard choices as well as a space for write-ins.

One key feature of the king cake is actually inedible: hidden somewhere inside is a small token. In the past, it might have been a dried bean, a coin, or a porcelain figurine. Today in New Orleans, the treasure is most likely to be a small plastic baby. The tradition probably derives from a the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, when the hidden bean was used to select a man who would reign as Saturn incarnate before being sacrificed to ensure fertile crops in the following year. These days the guest who finds the baby in his or her slice of king cake has it relatively easy, being expected merely to host the next king cake party.



















Although king cake is not difficult to make at home, New Orleanians have long been accustomed to buying them. Many of the region's bakeries also send cakes around the country and overseas. Owned and operated by the same family for three generations, Haydel's Bakery has built up a strong following. According to the company brochure, their king cake operation is the world's largest, and during the Mardi Gras season Haydel's ships "tens of thousands" of oven-fresh cakes. Each package is a party waiting to happen, with beads, doubloons and a bag of chicory coffee included with the cake.

I couldn't justify buying an entire king cake, but thankfully I had plenty of chances to sample. During the season, many coffee shops offer a free slice with a drink purchase, and some tourist shops that have nothing to do with food sell slices on the sly. It's also possible to get personal-sized king cakes (top photo), king cakes made from doughnuts or ice cream, or tiny king cake charms fashioned from silver or gold.

At any time of year, a tour of the float workshops at Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World includes a cup of coffee and a slice of Gambino's king cake (above). Gambino's is another one of the big players, shipping up to 4,000 cakes a day during the season. When I asked our guide if that meant that Kern's considered Gambino's to be the best, she cautioned me not to see it as an endorsement, but then added, "We go through a lot of king cake, and we do have a lot of choices about where to get it..."

For more on king cake sources, here's an article from New Orleans Magazine.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Beignets


















Beignets
Café Du Monde, $2.10/3

One of my fondest memories of a childhood trip to New Orleans involves eating beignets from Café Du Monde--but not at Café Du Monde. My parents and I picked up a couple of orders of the deep-fried square doughnuts on our way to the airport. Our flight home was delayed on the runway, and we were stuck in our seats for several hours while our plane went nowhere. How to pass the time? Break out the grease-stained paper bags! As a rule fried foods don't travel very well, but those beignets were one of the best picnics I've ever enjoyed--although, of course, they never made it off the ground.

Beignet derives from an old Celtic word meaning "to raise", and the pastries are made from a yeasted dough that turns to a golden pillow when dropped in hot oil. Beignets probably arrived in Louisiana by way of France, possibly introduced by Acadians expelled from Canada in the mid-18th century or by Ursuline nuns who arrived in New Orleans in 1727. While French versions were generally filled with fruit, the American beignet is pure dough, served in a thick drift of snowy confectioner's sugar and usually paired with milky, chicory-tinged café au lait.

Café Du Monde opened in the open-air French Market in 1862, rival beignet stand Morning Call in 1870. When Morning Call moved to the suburbs a century later, Café Du Monde became a quintessential experience for French Quarter tourists. Franchises began to appear in the 1980s and they now include more than 50 locations in Japan alone.

The original French Market location is open 24 days a year, every day but Christmas--and, as their website notes, "...on the day an occasional Hurricane passes too close to New Orleans." Café Du Monde closed during Hurricane Katrina and reopened two months later, having undergone renovations rather than repairs.














Café Du Monde
French Market
800 Decatur Street
New Orleans, LA
504/525-4544


















A newer player on the beignet scene, Café Beignet has two French Quarter locations. One is attached to the "Musical Legends Park" and boasts everything you'd expect from a Bourbon Street address--live music, late hours, and strong cocktails--plus fresh beignets ($2.95/3). On more sedate Royal Street there's a tiny full-service cafe; at a lacy cast-iron table on the patio it shares with the neighboring police station, you can enjoy an order of light, airy beignets and share your pound of excess powdered sugar with some very jazzed birds.



334-B Royal St
New Orleans, Louisiana
504/524-5530