buttermilk beignets

When we were in college, a few friends and I spent spring break in New Orleans, where we went on one of those walking tours that take you to the cemeteries and churches and French Quarter. At the end of the walk, our guide - who carried a bright red umbrella to shield herself from the sun and whose background included time as an anthropology professor in Mexico City and a stint as a casting scout for the film Interview with the Vampire - told us that the official part of the tour was over and everyone was free to leave if they wanted. If we wanted to stay, however, we could follow her to visit a "real" voodoo priestess.

"I'll show you where it is," she said. "But it's not a part of the official tour."

For some inexplicable reason, a lot of people did leave. Where could they have possibly been going that sounded better? The aquarium?

So we followed the tour guide to a little storefront where a wood sign painted with "Voodoo Spiritual Temple" hung over the door and an article cut from an old Playboy magazine taped to the window described the place as the "Best Voodoo Temple in New Orleans." "

"Alright, this is where I leave you," our guide said.

We walked into a little storefront where a quick-moving, nervous man greeted us and told us we were free to look around and purchase voodoo dolls, candles and the like. The priestess was just finishing up with a client, he said, so when we were done shopping we'd have to wait in the courtyard until she was ready. We looked at the letters and plaques sent to the priestess from local politicians that hung on the walls of the shop before settling in the plastic patio chairs in the courtyard. It was quiet and relaxing - and mercifully cool, with the sun blocked by the mossy trees - until a gnarly-looking guy started to ring the bell on his bicycle and yell things like, "Ice cream! Ice cream! Ha! Just kidding!" at us before going into his apartment.

Finally an older woman, wrapped in a dark shawl and leaning slightly to one side, shuffled down some stairs that ran next to the store and said something to the group, although she was spoke too softly to hear what it was. She then turned right back around and started to shuffle back up the stairs. We all looked at each other, shrugged, and followed.

We walked up the stairs, down a short hallway where the old, white shelves on each side held jars of chicken feet and colorful powders and something called "Roasted Dragon Flower," past a work bench that had a huge cleaver and butchered chicken carcass on top - complete with beaded black necklace running through the chicken bones - and found places on the floor to sit. I set next to a metal cage, covered in an tattered towel, that contained a large snake.

I don't know if the room was actually small and cramped or it just seemed to be because there was stuff everywhere. There were the things you'd expect to find in a voodoo temple - wooden masks on the walls, colorful tapestries covering the windows, vases, statues, small metal crosses that had fallen into the hot wax of warped candles, etc. There were also bottles of expensive booze, so many glasses filled with water, Hello Kitty purses, strings of Halloween lollipops hanging from huge nails and dollar bills everywhere - stapled to the walls, in wooden boxes, being held by the Virgin Mary. Small notes from admirers (who include Nicholas Cage) were leaning against stuffed animals or tucked into the edges of picture frames. An index card on a small table next to me read, "If nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies."

The small woman we'd met in the courtyard moved to the front of the room and stood on a pile of carpets. She clasped her hands together, smiled warmly and looked over all of us. This, apparently, was the priestess. She looked to the back of the room at a woman standing near the beaded chicken carcass.

"Come out of there, honey! I wouldn't want you to get in trouble!" she laughed.

She waited a moment again, just staring at us, before she began.

"Dresses is so expensive, isn't they?" she said. "I go to Target with $60 and they is like $100. Maybe I need to start charging more!" We looked around at each other.

"Well, what are we here for?" she continued. "Voodoo, right? Well, what we do? It's a process, right? First, you think, I go into the mind of the mind, right?" After almost every sentence she said, "Right?" and then smiled and chuckled to herself.

"And then, when you go into the mind of the mind, you go into the mind of the mind of the mind, right?" This continued for a bit, going into more minds of the mind of the mind of the mind, and then somehow she transitioned to a visit to Russia. "I have been to Russia five times, can you believe it?! Five times, so lucky. But I don't want to live there, but five times, I am glad to go."

And this was how she continued, jumping from one strange topic to the next, seemingly unrelated one, all while laughing and asking us if we agreed. She talked of her childhood, the best way to grow peanuts on the side of a mountain, the connection between her street address and the time of her husband's death and her life as an operating room technician. She said she dipped her feet into the Caspian Sea and somehow this was connected to the demolition of the old Sun-Times building in Chicago.

Some of the people in the room were listening with extreme attention, sometimes nodding their heads vigorously, to show how open they were to foreign cultures and prove to themselves that they were having an authentic experience. Others were clearly annoyed by the whole production, wanting a history of voodoo or a palm reading and instead getting a slightly crazy woman philosophically musing on yams and sweet potatoes.

When she was done, she said we could ask her a few questions. Someone asked why there were dollar bills everywhere and she answered with a long digression on Israel. Somebody asked about their job and she said that someone else in the room had stomach troubles. There were long stretches where I simply couldn't keep up with what she was talking about.

And, after about 45 minutes of this, she thanked us for coming and sent us on our way. The people who were trying too hard jumped up and thanked her profusely, the people who wished they had went to the aquarium grumbled angrily and stomped off and the rest of us sat there confused for a minute or two before walking back past the beaded chicken carcass and jars of roasted dragon flower, down the old stairs, again through the courtyard and store and into the street, where we realized that we had no idea where we were.

Speaking of New Orleans, aren't beignets delicious? Here is a recipe for them:

buttermilk beignets

from David Guas and Raquel Pelzel's DamGoodSweet: Desserts to Satisfy Your Sweet Tooth, New Orleans Style, found at epicurious.com

ingredients
+ 3/4 cup whole milk
+ 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
+ 4 teaspoons active dry yeast
+ 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
+ 3 1/2 cups bread flour, plus extra for flouring surface
+ 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
+ 1/4 teaspoon salt
+ vegetable, peanut, canola, cottonseed or other oil for frying

recipe
Heat the whole milk in a saucepan over medium-high heat until bubbles just start forming on the surface. Remove the pan from the heat and add the buttermilk. Pour the mixture into the bowl of your stand mixer. Whisk in the yeast and sugar. Set aside for 5 minutes.

Add the flour, baking soda and salt to the mixture and mix on low speed, using the dough hook, until all of the dry ingredients are wet, about 3 to 4 minutes. Increase the speed to medium and continue mixing until the dough has come together into a loose ball, about 1 to 2 minutes longer. The dough will be very wet and sticky. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set it aside in a warm place for 1 hour.

Pour enough oil into a large frying pot to fill it to about an inch deep (this is a change from the original recipe, but I find that as long as the depth of the oil is a bit larger than the finished product everything turns out just fine and you don't waste so much oil). Over medium heat, bring the oil up to 375 degrees F.

Line a large plate or pan with paper towels and set to the side.

Flour your work surface with some of the extra bread flour and turn the dough out onto it. Sprinkle the top of the dough with more flour, gently flatten it, fold it in half and press the ends underneath to form a roughly shaped round.

Roll the dough into a roughly shaped square or rectangle of even thickness - about 1/2-inch to 1/3-inch thick.  Cut the dough into 1 1/2-inch squares using a floured pizza cutter, chef's knife or dough cutter. Flour the surface of the dough as needed to prevent it from sticking.

When the oil is ready, take each beignet, stretch it a bit to make a long rectangle and carefully drop it into the oil. Add only a few at a time. They should float to the top within a few seconds - if they don't your oil is too cold. Turn them once or twice until the outside is a beautiful golden brown and they have puffed nicely. Transfer to the prepared plate or pan to rest while you finish the rest.

Serve the beignets still warm under a lot of powdered sugar. For true authenticity, serve with a chicory cafe au lait!

makes about 50 beignets.

  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups bread flour plus extra for flouring work surface
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Peanut oil for frying
  • 3/4 cup whole milk
  • 1 1/2 cups buttermilk
  • 4 teaspoons active dry yeast
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons sugar
  • 3 1/2 cups bread flour plus extra for flouring work surface
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Peanut oil for frying