The first (and only) time I visited Commander’s Palace, in New Orleans’ Garden District, it was for Sunday Jazz Brunch on the occasion of a friend’s 40th birthday. I’d flown down from New York for a whirlwind weekend of celebration, having packed my “sophisticated” New York clothes. As soon as I walked into the dining room, I knew I’d made a mistake.
I was wearing a black a-line skirt and a tight-fitting blue blouse with a v-neck, but all of the other women (I should probably call them “ladies” in this context) looked like they had come from church, wearing dresses with high frilly Peter Pan collars in pastel floral patterns. I’d somehow forgotten that New Orleans was in the Deep South. And Commander’s Palace is old-skool New Orleans.
This is a place with a dress code, which is important enough to appear on the front page of its web site: “Shorts and t-shirts are never allowed. Jackets preferred at dinner. Men must wear closed-toe shoes.” Yes, these “rules” seem to apply more to men than to women, but I think that’s because women are supposed to just know. Some of the others in our party were from old New Orleans families, and they certainly knew.
Commander’s Palace was built in 1880 to serve the “distinguished neighborhood families,” and, while it developed a risqué reputation by allowing riverboat captains into its upstairs dining room, the downstairs, according to the web site, “was maintained in impeccable respectability for family meals after church and family gatherings of all sorts.” Honestly, it was probably the garb of the other folks in our gathering that made me especially self-conscious, as I was among people who’d known each other a long time, and I was the interloper.
However self-conscious I felt, I delighted in the music, the atmosphere and the food and drink, especially the drink. New Orleans, whatever the social class, knows how to party, and brunch anywhere features some classic cocktails — bloody marys (my favorites), mimosas, and (at Commander’s Palace) brandy or bourbon milk punch. The food, too, was amazing, and the bread pudding soufflé with cream whiskey sauce inspired me, years later, to purchase the Commander’s Kitchen cookbook, in an effort to conjure up that incredible taste, if not the music and atmosphere, at home.
So it was that this morning I got a hankering for that classic New Orleans breakfast (best consumed after a night of Hurricanes, Hand Grenades or the like), the beignet. I remember taking Michael to New Orleans for his first visit there. It was the week before the Sugar Bowl, so it was especially lively, even on a weeknight. We were on a cross-country road trip and had only contrived to stay in The Big Easy at the last minute, so it was short, but sweet, and capped off by a morning at Café du Monde, where I tried to explain the place’s cultural significance while Michael hungered for a big British-style fry-up.
When I got the urge to cook up some beignets at home, I immediately pulled out the definitive New Orleans cookbook, and, there, I was lucky enough to find just what I sought.
With just a glance at the recipe, I wondered why anyone would buy pre-made beignet mix, when the ingredients were so simple and right at hand.
Recipe: Commander’s Palace Beignets
- 2 pints fresh blueberries
- 1/4 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup water
- 1 cup milk
- 1 medium egg, beaten
- 1.5 quarts vegetable oil, for frying (I used peanut oil but Cafe du Monde recommends cottonseed oil)
- 1/2 cup powdered sugar (for sprinkling on top)
- For the blueberry sauce (optional), process the blueberries, water and sugar in a food processor, then strain out the solids.
- Add sugar to taste.
- For the beignets, the process is very similar to pancakes or waffles. Sift together the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt and sugar) in one large bowl.
- Mix together the wet ingredients (milk, water, egg) in the other.
- Then pour the wet into the dry and mix together.
- Heat the vegetable oil in a large pot or deep fryer until it reaches 325 degrees.
- Use one spoon to scoop up some batter, and another spoon to push the batter off the first spoon and into the hot oil. Don’t crowd the fryer, so just cook a few beignets at a time. These aren’t the rectangular Cafe du Monde-style beignets, but more like fritters.
- They’re done when they’re dark golden brown and cooked through (check one by cutting it apart to ensure it’s cooked in the middle).
- Place on a paper-towel-lined plate to dry and dispose of excess grease.
- Sprinkle with powdered sugar and top with blueberry sauce, if you’ve made it.
Cooking time: 4 minutes
Number of servings (yield): 6