Welcome to The Storied Recipe!
My podcast guest Claire Marie Murray taught me how to make beignets without yeast. Her grandmother made these "bugnes" for Mi-Carême, a French mid-Lenten feast. I invite you to listen to Claire Marie's story in Tales from the French Countryside while you roll, cut, and fry these delicious pastries!
I say Bugnes, you say Beignet!
"Beignet" is the English translation of "bugnes" – a fluffy, golden, crispy, sweet treat, delicious by any name!
While New Orleans style beignets are now made with yeast, French bugnes are still generally made without yeast.
Every town in France has its own variation on these pastries, but Bugnes Lyonnaises are the most famous of all.
However, these particular bugnes originated in the idyllic Loire Valley, just 4 hours from Lyon...
There in the Valley of the Kings, where castles are as common as mushrooms, my podcast guest Claire Marie learned to make these bugnes called Russeroles. Every year, Claire, her grandmother, and all their neighbors made Russeroles for Mi-Carême, a mini-Carnival the region still celebrates halfway through the Lenten season.
Table of Contents (Jump To Section)
What To Expect (Flavor & Texture)
- These bugnes are like magic! You'll roll the yeast-free dough very, very thinly. But as soon as they drop into the hot oil - Surprise! The beignets puff up to 8 or 10 times their original height!
- Because they are made without yeast, these beignets are very fluffy, airy, and light on the inside.
- They are not as chewy or dense as New Orleans style beignets.
- A high ratio of eggs also creates a bit of a stretchy texture inside and a pleasant French toast flavor.
- Every crunchy bite begins with a little shot of sweetness. In French, bugnes are lightly sprinkled with granulated sugar. Here in the US, traditional beignets are dusted with powdered sugar. Your choice!
How can you make beignets without yeast? Isn't that a critical ingredient?
Three things give French bugnes their magical rise and pillowy interior:
- Baking powder is the main rising agent in Claire's russeroles and other French provincial bugnes (like Bugnes Lyonnaises). The baking powder also keeps the interior soft.
- (P.S. I’ve bought bad baking powder multiple times in my life. Although I’m not generally a brand name loyalist, the only baking powder I trust is Rumford Double Acting Baking Powder.)
- Eggs. This yeast-free beignet recipe calls for three eggs compared to just a single egg in typical New Orleans style beignets.
- Moisture. Some versions of French bugnes – and the earliest versions of New Orleans style beignets – were made with choux pastry. Choux pastry dough is made with hot water. The dough is so wet, it must be dropped, piped, or spooned into the hot oil. As the moisture heats and expands, the beignets rise.
- These Russeroles are not made with choux pastry. Nevertheless, the dough is quite sticky and wet. So they get a little lift from their high moisture content as well.
Bread Flour or All Purpose Flour?
- Bread flour was designed to work hand in hand with yeast. Bread flour has more protein, which develops into gluten as yeast causes the dough to rise.
- That's why many beignet recipes call for bread flour - because those recipes are creating a yeast dough and are relying on yeast for the rise.
- However, as explained above, these homemade beignets do NOT depend on yeast for their rise. So feel free to use all purpose flour for these yeast free beignets .
Bugnes to Beignets: An Origin Story
Let's start with this acknowledgement: Fried dough is a pretty ubiquitous food. Every culture has some version of pastry cooked in hot oil! So it's almost impossible to trace the exactly origin of French Bugnes -> American Beignets. With that said...
- French bugnes may date back to Roman donuts, called Globi or Scriblita.
- Some scholars argue that Arabs from the Muslim World taught Romans to add leavening to their fried dough. Before that, Roman donuts were thick and dense.
Rome to France
- In 53 AD, Romans conquered the south of current day France. They brought their version of doughnuts with them.
- Towns throughout France began to develop their own versions, which they named "bugnes" - or "tumor" - for the way the dough swelled in the hot oil. (Personally, I liked the name better before I learned that!)
France to New Orleans
- There's debate on the time and manner in which the French brought their bugnes to New Orleans.
- The most popular version of the story is that the Ursuline order of French nuns brought these with them in 1727 when they established a school in New Orleans.
- However, many scholars agree that this is just a myth. They argue the persecuted French Acadians, who were driven out of Canada and found refuge in the Bayou, first introduced bugnes to New Orleans.
- Bugnes became beignet ("Ben-YAY") in New Orleans. (That's why, in this post, I always refer to the French version as "bugnes" and the American version as "beignets".)
The Evolution of Beignets in New Orleans
- Once in New Orleans, Café du Monde quickly became the gold standard for these French treats. They used the American name "doughnuts" on their menu until the late 20th Century. Then, Café du Monde reverted to the more French-sounding "beignet".
- Around the same time, Café du Monde also began adding yeast to their beignet dough.
- Café du Monde was also responsible for pairing beignets with their famous version of Café au Lait – Chicory Coffee with milk.
More History! Beignets & Mardi Gras
Bugnes & Carnival
- For several centuries in the early middle ages, Carnival was an entire season that lasted between Epiphany (January 6th) and Lent (the 6 weeks of preparation for Easter). Everyday people enjoyed this season to the maximum.
- Later, Carnival became a one week series of celebrations in France that culminated in Mardi Gras , translated "Fat Tuesday". Fat Tuesday was the last day before the Ash Wednesday, a day of fasting that kicks off the Lenten season of abstinence.
- During Carnival - and especially on Mardi Gras - people still indulge in fatty, sugary foods (and alcohol) in preparation for a season of abstinence. (Actually, now many people simply indulge on Mardi Gras - and do not follow their revelries with an observance of Ash Wednesday or Lent.)
Beignets & Mardi Gras
- Now New Orleans is famous for both of these French traditions: Beignets and Mardi Gras.
Russeroles & Mi-Carême
- In Claire Marie's region of the Loire Valley (The Valley of the Kings), the city breaks fast halfway through the Lenten Season to celebrate Mi-Carême together.
- Claire Marie's grandmother and her friends made these Russeroles - the Loire Valley's version of bugnes - to share and enjoy during this festival.
Key Ingredient: What is Rhum?
- Claire Marie's recipe calls for "Rhum" which is the French version of rum. It's made from sugar cane.
- However, when possible, Claire Marie's grandmother used "hooch", which is a homemade whiskey.
- With that said, I'd suggest adding whichever flavor alcohol that you prefer. You could even use vanilla extract, which also has a high alcoholic content.
How do you cut out beignets?
- Always work with a very well-floured surface. The dough is sticky!
- You may want to use parchment paper. If the dough sticks to parchment paper, you can turn it upside down and flip the beignets into your hand. You can't do that with a solid surface.
- Once rolled to ⅛ of an inch, trim the uneven edges so you have a perfect square or rectangle. Add the extra dough to one of the balls chilling in the fridge.
Diamonds or Squares?
- American beignets are cut into squares. French beignets (Bugnes Lyonnaises, Russeroles, and others) are more typically cut into diamonds.
- You sure can cut your dough into either shape. Both shapes will result in equally delicious beignets!
- It's easier to cut a rectangle into squares.
- On the other hand, I think the diamonds look pretty cool!
If you choose to cut the dough into diamonds, use this diagram to help you:
- Start by notching the top edge of the dough into four equal sections. (First, notch the middle. Then, divide each half into half.) Repeat on the bottom and sides.
- Then, "connect the dots" diagonally. First, cut corner to corner, then middle to middle, and finally, quarter to quarter.
- Cut diagonals in the other direction.
- Either fry the leftover triangles OR add them to the next ball of dough.
- You'll need a sharp knife, pastry cutter, or pizza cutter to cut the dough.
- You'll need a Dutch oven, a deep pot, or a deep fryer to fry the beignets.
- I finally bought this fryer several years ago and have never regretted the purchase. It's easier and cleaner to make more consistently successful falafel, onion straws, and Trini Doubles!
Can you freeze beignets?
- No, these really need to be eaten fresh - Nothing like a warm beignet!
- Cook with Belula suggests freezing the beignet dough. I have not tried this but I do trust Belula, who is a trained pastry chef.
Recipe Contributor: Claire Marie
Claire Marie Murray moved throughout France 15 times in 18 years. Eventually, her family of 12 settled near her grandmother in The Valley of the Kings.
Along this river valley, castles are as common as mushrooms and pine trees reach the sky.
However, as Claire-Marie explains, pain touches every person of every generation, even those living in the Valley of Kings.
In this episode, Claire-Marie sets before us an example of redeeming our own pain with empathy, forgiveness, and making things easier for those in our care.
Listen to Claire Marie's Episode on The Storied Recipe Podcast:
Learn more about Claire Marie and her grandmother's bugnes recipe in this episode: