Calás-the Search for a Lost Food Tradition
My mother had for years told me stories of her grandmother, Ma Mere, (“the forerunner of catering trucks” Mother says), who in the early mornings packed her freshly fried calás (a traditional New Orleans rice beignet or fritter) in a basket-along with stuffed crabs and oyster patties, and gathered my mother, her sister and their young cousins, to take them with her on her rounds. She would sell her goods to worshippers exiting church after early morning Mass, revelers exiting bars after a very late night of partying, and to workers starting their day.
Calás remained a special treat in New Orleans Creole households, even after the street vendors disappeared, served particularly on special days (post-First Communion brunches, for example, where they were served with hot cocoa), in the very Catholic community.
Although I had heard these stories many times, calás were not something we normally ate. I had no taste memory of them, and, in fact, it was a dish in danger of dying out completely (only a couple of our community members in their 80’s still made them), until post- Katrina, when it began enjoying somewhat of a comeback, as New Orleanians (me in Los Angeles, and most notably, Poppy Tooker of New Orleans, especially in the case of calás) sought to preserve their traditional foods.
Mom had urged me, when I expressed an interest in them, to call her friend, Bobbi, who until a few years ago, still made them for our expatriate New Orleans community’s St. Joseph’s Day celebration, and ask to watch her make them. I stupidly procrastinated, and unfortunately, Bobbi passed on a little over a year ago. Shortly after that, my mother pulled a small scrap of paper with an old hand written recipe for calás out of a book and handed it to me. That began my quest, in earnest, for them. As word spread throughout the family, my Uncle Paul sent word that Louis, married to my mother’s cousin, Grace, made the best calás he’d ever tasted. So out to Chino Mother and I traveled about a month ago, to learn at the hands of the master. (BTW, I highly recommend cooking traditional recipes with older relatives, as they’ll drop wonderful stories of their youth into the conversation, as Louis did that afternoon.) I posted pictures the next day on my Facebook page of the calás Louis and I made, and apparently hit a chord of nostalgia, as I have never gotten so many comments on anything- anywhere. I’ve cut and pasted of few of them below to share with you.
Oh- another great aspect of the story, I got the chance to share the story of calás with Evan Kleiman of KCRW’s Good Food, which will air on March 5, the Saturday right before Mardi Gras. I hope you’ll tune in to listen (or you can listen to the segment below)-and I hope you’ll give this recipe (continue on to the next page) a try.
traditional New Orleans rice beignet
- 1/2 pound white rice
- 1 pound flour*
- 2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 2 cups sugar
- 2 eggs
- 1 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- Boil the rice in @ 6 cups of water. The rice should be very soft, like a watery porridge. When the rice is cooled to warm room temperature, mash it slightly and mix in the yeast and half of the flour. Let rise overnight at room temperature.
- Mix in the eggs, sugar, the remaining flour, and the nutmeg. The dough should be the consistency of a pâte á choux (cream puff dough). If it’s too soft, add a bit more flour.
- Drop by tablespoons full into oil (oil should be maintained at 350 degrees), and fry until brown on both sides. Let drain on paper towels, then sprinkle with powdered sugar to serve.
*Louis used self-rising flour (yes-as well as yeast), and it worked perfectly well, although the recipe worked fine with regular flour, too.
While this is not traditional, I made a quick blackberry compote, of sorts, to eat with them.
Quick Blackberry Compote
- 1 cup blackberries
- @ 1/4- 1/3 cup maple syrup
- Place the blackberries on a baking sheet, and pour the maple syrup over them. Roast them at 350 degrees until they begin to soften and the maple syrup begins to bubble (about 12 minutes). Add a little water to them if the maple syrup begins to dry.
- Remove them from the oven when they are soft, and mash them slightly. Spread the compote on the warm calás.
Yield: @ 5 dozen
For another post on the African influence on Creole cuisine please see : Gumbo x’herbes- New Orleans Green Gumbo