Open for over 150 years, New Orleans Café Du Monde in the bustling French Market has become the gold standard for two of the city's signature dishes: beignets and coffee and chicory served au lait. Eater spoke with Café Du Monde's VP Burton E. Benrud, Jr., who explained that over generations in operation, Café Du Monde has been committed to keeping things the way they've always been: recipes have gone relatively unchanged. The beignets, a French-style doughnut, remain the only food item on the French Market menu and the most radical innovation in the coffee program was the addition of iced coffee with the arrival of an ice machine in 1988.
Benrud, whose wife's grandfather bought the Café Du Monde in 1942, explains that the shop's legacy helped "popularize" the beignet. The storied pastries are "the standard against which everyone else's beignet are judged," which is why he refuses to "mess with tradition." The shop's coffee and chicory (which is only served black or au lait) has also become a barometer of sorts, and Benrud says their blend has become a go-to for Vietnamese coffee vendors. Eater NOLA editor Gwendolyn Knapp explains:
There are many reasons why Café Du Monde is a landmark. The white hats. The endless powdered sugar. The gorgeous open-air location in the French Market that's open 24 hours a day, which means you can eat beignets with the tourists for breakfast, or use them to soak up a boozy night on the town at midnight. Sure, the lines reach cringe-inducing lengths on weekends, but even locals are known to wait for that iconic New Orleans beignet and a cup of cafe au lait, a pairing which Cafe du Monde has perfected.
Below, the elements of Café Du Monde's beignets and café au lait:
1. The Dough
At the original French Market location, the beignet dough begins with a 50 lbs of flour in a 60 qt mixer. Bakers add water and milk and "base," a mix of ingredients that remains a "family secret" to this day. (Benrud says that "base" is also used in the boxed beignet mix which includes enriched wheat flour, enriched barley flour, milk, buttermilk, salt, sugar, and "baking powder, baking soda, and/or yeast".) The dough is mixed until it reaches the very specific desired consistency. Benrud stresses that the dough is "not smooth" and that over-mixing creates "rubbery" beignets. (He says the texture is most similar to a biscuit dough.) The beignets are made by hand, but the popular French Market location uses a double pass sheeter to speed up the production process and ensure uniform dough thickness. The sheeter also cuts the dough into consistently-sized portions. (Benrud says when service slows the bakers will roll and cut the dough by hand.) The dough is extremely sticky, so the bakers keep the prep table well-floured as they discard any scraps or uneven beignet. All beignets are picked up by hand by the bakers to be fried, resulting in pastries that are "not perfect squares."
The beignet are fried in cottonseed oil, as they have been for generations. Benrud has "experimented" with other shortenings, but found that cottonseed oil is integral to the taste, texture, and even the smell of the beignets. It's critical that the oil is kept at the extremely high temperature of 360-365 degrees, allowing the dough to basically boil in the oil and cook in about two minutes. After six to eight seconds in the oil, the beignets rise to the surface. The bakers then look for the perfect "golden brown" color to know when they are done. The bakers also evaluate the heat of the oil, making sure not to add too many beignet at a time, which would drop the temperature.
2. The Sugar
The beignets are topped with 10X powdered sugar after they are plated. The servers are responsible for plating and sugaring: they choose the beignet (customers can request "crispy" or "puffy") and then add "copious amounts" of powdered sugar before serving. On why the beignets are topped with powdered sugar, Benrud simply says: "Why does the river flow to the gulf?" The beignets are not cooked to order as such; rather the bakers are continuously baking based on the needs of the dining room. The servers throw away "orphaned" beignets that don't get sold before the next batch comes in. According to Benrud, orphans are "a teeny tiny small percentage of what we do." The beignets are served in orders of three and Benrud says he has no plans to "mess with tradition."
3. The Coffee
Café Du Monde's café au lait begins with their signature blend of coffee and French chicory. Café Du Monde works with an off-site roaster, and Benrud notes the coffee brokers and roasters in New Orleans have been in town for generations since New Orleans is one of the largest ports of entry for coffee in the country. Café Du Monde uses a blend of robusta and arabica coffee beans, which Benrud says ensures consistency in taste year to year. The chicory (endive root) is ground and roasted, and then added to the roasted coffee blend (the ratio of coffee to chicory is also a family secret). The coffee and chicory blend is ground coarsely and brewed using a French drip. The slow method involves "spraying" hot water over the grounds. The hot water extracts sugar from the chicory, and the slow brewing process brings out more flavor from the coffee as well.
4. The Milk
Café Du Monde's au lait is made from equal parts brewed coffee and chicory and hot whole milk. Benrud clarifies that the milk is not steamed (as with a standard espresso drinks, for example). Instead, the milk is heated using large double boilers and then added to the brewed coffee. Benrud notes that the Café Du Monde's café au lait has remained relatively unchanged over the years, and that it was perhaps most popular in the 1950s. He says that the cafe will keep "plugging away" at their au laits,and that having been making them for so long, Café Du Monde's coffee and chicory au lait has become the quintessential example of the beverage.