Hot, fried, rice fritters dusted with powered sugar—delicious!
When you think of food and New Orleans most people think of beignets. But there is another delicacy that doesn’t get as much press and should. New Orleans native and chef, Gisele Perez, suggests trying this unique and mostly forgotten native recipe: calás, a traditional rice fritter that was a very popular breakfast food or dessert in Creole households in New Orleans in the early 20th century.
The history of calás is very similar to many other traditional New Orleans food, coming from both African and European heritage. The name “calás” comes from the African Nupe word “kara,” or fried cake. The first documented mention of them was by Lafcadio Hearn, one of the earliest Creole cookbook authors, in his 18th century cookbook. Calás have a long history of being sold by slave women on Sundays (as unlike other places in the South, slaves in New Orleans had Sunday’s off). Many were able to buy their and their family members freedom from their sales of calás.
The calás tradition continued among the “free women of color” Creole street vendors, who sold the fresh hot calás in the city’s French Quarter until WWII, after which street vending stopped. These women would sell their pastries in covered baskets or bowls during the early morning.
“My mother told me stories of her grandmother who packed her freshly fried calás in a basket-along with stuffed crabs and oyster patties, gathered my mother, her sister and their young cousins, and took them with her on her rounds,” Chef Gisele explains. “She would sell her food to worshippers exiting church after early morning Mass, revelers exiting bars after a very late night of partying, and to workers starting their day.”
“Although I had heard these stories many times, calás were not something we normally ate when I was growing up. I had no taste memory of them, and, in fact, it was a dish in danger of dying out completely until post- Katrina, when it began enjoying somewhat of a comeback, as New Orleanians like me and most notably, Poppy Tooker, sought to preserve and revive our traditional foods.”
Traditional calás are deep fried rice cakes, made with sugar, flour, eggs and rice. They are mostly served for breakfast or brunch and are a traditional treat for post-First Communion celebrations and during Mardi Gras. Chef Gisele says they were also a favorite after-mass treat on St. Joseph’s Day for the expatriate Creole community in post-war Los Angeles. Calás can also be served as a dessert or snack with coffee or hot cocoa.
This recipe, provided by Chef Gisele, comes from the chef’s mother’s 90-year-old cousin, Louis. “A few years ago, my mother and I drove out to visit him,” Gisele recalls, “He took me step-by-step through making Calás while regaling us with old family stories.”
Recipe by Chef Gisele Perez PainPerduBlog.com
Yield: 5 dozen
½ pound white rice
1 pound flour*
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
2 cups sugar
1 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1. 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.
2. Mix in the eggs, sugar, the remaining flour, and the nutmeg. The dough should be the consistency of a cream puff dough (pâte á choux). If it’s too soft, add a bit more flour.
3. 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.
*You can use self-rising flour (yes-as well as yeast), and it works perfectly well, although the recipe worked fine with regular flour, too.
Quick Blackberry Compote
While this is not traditional, Chef Gisele makes a quick blackberry compote to eat with them.
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 slightly. Spread the compote on the warm calás.
Want more of Chef Gisele’s recipes? Check out her recipe for Bread Pudding with Sauteed Pears.