You’ve heard of beignets, the sweet, eggy pillows, deep-fried and served in New
Orleans under mountains of powdered sugar. But calas? The crisp-tender dumplings made of leftover rice play poor sister to the Big Easy’s more glamorous pastry – when they are remembered at all. But both are part of Mardi Gras. So in the spirit of Carnival, we offer you a beignet-calas faceoff. Think Alien v. Predator, but tastier.
Beignets: Brought to Louisiana by French Acadians from Nova Scotia in the 1700s (or by Ursuline nuns, depending on who’s telling the story.) The first recipes date back to the 1880s.
Calas: Arrived with the enslaved rice-growing people of west Africa. The word is thought to come from one or more African languages, according to “The Dictionary of American Food & Drink,” such as the Nupe word kárá, or “fried cake.” The first mention of “calas” can be traced to 1790.
Beignets: flour, baking powder/yeast, salt, lemon zest (or some hint of citrus), sugar, egg yolks, milk, stiffly beaten egg whites. Rolled, cut and fried in oil.
Calas: cooked rice, eggs, vanilla, nutmeg, sugar, flour,* salt, baking powder/yeast. Traditionally dropped off a spoon into frying oil, they are sometimes formed into a ball and then fried.
*The 1901 “Picayune Creole Cookbook” notes that “true” calas contain no wheat flour, only flour made of pounded rice.
Beignets: light, puffy pillows, generally 2- or 3-inches square. Piled into a pyramid and doused in powdered sugar. Impossible to eat without photo-worthy mess. Most often eaten plain, but sometimes filled with fruit or savory items. Check out New Orleans chef Susan Spicer’s recipe for shrimp beignets.
Calas: the size of a golf ball. Crisp outside, moist inside, lighter than a hushpuppy, but same idea. Traditionally served with Steen’s Cane Syrup for dipping (think molasses lite.) Today more commonly found in restaurants as a savory filled with shrimp, Andouille sausage or other Bayou numkins. And yes, of course we have a recipe.
Beignets: nicknamed “French market donuts,” beignets have traditionally been sold from coffee stands in New Orleans’ French quarter. The famed Café du Monde is thought to have been the first. Opened in 1862, CDM, as it’s known, can serve beignets to as many as 10,000 people every day. Many locals swear by Morning Call Coffee Stand, an upstart from 1870.
Calas: May be the original New Orleans street food. For more than 100 years,
and possibly as many as 200, calas were sold in the streets by Creole women, who carried the fresh, hot fritters in giant baskets on their heads, calling “Calas, bels calas tout chauds!” (Calas, beautiful calas very hot!) Calas women – and calas – vanished after World War II, most likely because of war-time rationing. They were preserved in African-American Catholic families where they were eaten on Mardi Gras and on the morning of a child’s first communion. Today, calas are making a comeback in restaurants. The Old Coffeepot Restaurant – one of the few that never stopped carrying them – serves calas with grits or with powdered sugar and maple syrup. But many chefs prefer a savory version, stuffing them with shrimp or crawdads. Chef Frank Brigtsen, a fifth-generation New Orleanian, makes jambalaya and red beans and rice calas.
Beignets: part of Mardi Gras in France since at least the 16th century. They were the big splurge before eggs and oil were forsaken for the 40 days of Lent.
Calas: In the early 20th century, prostitutes would dress up as baby dolls and parade on Carnival day, says Poppy Tooker, host of the public radio program “Louisiana Eats,” and a crusader to save calas. As the women went from house to house, Tooker says, they were served calas.
So, beignets or calas?:
“In my book, calas. The texture’s more interesting. Sometimes beignets are just so greasy. It’s something about the doughiness of it. Most of the time, if I have two beignets, I kind of feel a little sick. But I can eat calas, particularly savory style, until the cows come home.”
Will Falcon (executive chef and general manager, The Old Coffeepot Restaurant, New Orleans)
“It’s like night and day. Beignets are airy, they’ve got a big empty spot in the center. The calas cakes are almost like a really nice rice pudding, deep fried.”
David Guas (native New Orleanian and chef/owner, Bayou Bakery, Arlington, Va.)
“I don’t know if that’s a fair question. Even though they’re fried, it’s apples to oranges. You don’t have rice in a beignet, you have tons of powdered sugar on a beignet and you don’t have a syrup. … The calas for me, even though you see them on menus as a dessert item, I still associate them with breakfast. It’s my own personal opinion on it.”
Frank Brigtsen (chef and owner, Brigtsen’s, New Orleans, and Charlie’s Seafood, Harahan, La.)
“Since I started doing savory calas, I find it more interesting. Local chefs do make savory beignets with crabmeat, crawfish, etc., but I find the rice adds a more interesting flavor and texture as opposed to the flour-based beignet.”
Where do you come down?
Chef David Guas was born and raised in New Orleans and beignets are the heart of his Bayou Bakery just outside Washington, D.C. “The beignet controls the entire restaurant,” he says, noting that he doesn’t have fried shrimp on the menu because the fryer is always filled with beignets. “We have a $16,000 beignet fryer.” His light, pillowy beignets fly out the door 600 a day. Now you can make them at home. Photo from David Guas’ “DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style.” / Photo for the book by Ellen Silverman
- ¾ cup whole milk
- 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
- 4 teaspoons yeast
- 3/4 teaspoon granulated sugar
- 5 1/2 cups bread flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- Peanut or canola oil for frying
- Powdered sugar for garnish
In a heavy saucepan, heat milk over medium heat until small bubbles form. Remove from heat and add buttermilk a little at a time. Add yeast and granulated sugar. Pour mixture into the bowl of a stand mixer.
Add all dry ingredients and mix on low with dough hook (if you have one) until combined. Place dough in greased plastic container, covered, in a warm, dry place for 30 minutes.
Turn dough onto a floured surface and form a ball. Roll out dough and cut into 1.5-inch squares.
Place beignets on sheet pan lined with greased parchment paper. If not frying right away, cover with plastic wrap and store in refrigerator until ready to cook.
On the stove or in a fryer, bring oil to 350 F. Fry beignets until puffed and golden brown. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with powdered sugar.
Poppy Tooker first understood the power of calas when she cooked them at an event and made a man cry. “He said to me ‘Lady, my mama used to make these all the time when I was a little boy and I had forgotten all about it until just now,’ ” she says. “It was the first time I had ever seen something I had cooked elicit an emotional response at that level.” In the two decades since then, the host of the public radio show “Louisiana Eats” has devoted herself to resurrecting the calas: talking about them, teaching people to make them and, of course, making them herself. She was kind enough to share her recipe.
- 2 cups cooked rice, preferably long-grain
- 6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 3 heaping tablespoons sugar
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
- 1/4 teaspoon vanilla
- 5 to 6 cups vegetable oil for frying
- Powdered sugar
In a fryer or deep pot, heat the oil to 360 F.
In a large bowl, mix rice with flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Add eggs and vanilla and mix well.
Drop by tablespoonfuls into hot oil. Fry until browned on both sides (the calas will turn over on their own after one side browns.) Drain on paper towel. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve hot.