Sweating in syrup one dessert at a time in NOLA.
“In rainy weather, the streets turned to red slop; grass grew on the sidewalks, the courthouse sagged in the square. Somehow, it was hotter then: a black dog suffered on a summer’s day; bony mules hitched to Hoover carts flicked flies in the sweltering shade of the live oaks on the square. Men’s stiff collars wilted by nine the morning. Ladies bathed before noon, after their three o’clock naps, and by night fall were like soft tea cakes with frostings of sweat and sweet talcum.” (Harper Lee).
Probably since these Dessert Correspondents first read “To Kill a Mockingbird” during the middle years of high school, some fifteen odd years ago now, visiting the South has been on our travel wishlist (among a hundred other places, of course). Although we have since read other great novels set in the South, “To Kill a Mockingbird” has had the most resonating effect on us. Aside from an intellectual curiosity to learn more about a segment of history where the unimaginable cruelty of human slavery was the foundation of an entire society and culture, New Orleans has also evoked for us, images of a less sanguinary nature: of the romance of lazy jazz tunes, cupcake ballgowns and food that feeds the soul — the steamy stew of gumbo, the multi-layered seasoning of jambalaya, the satisfying crunch of fried chicken, and sweet sticky desserts. So many years later, we finally visited.
The first major site we visited was of course, the historic French Quarter. At night, Bourbon Street bisects the the district, and transforms into a haven for yelping humans dressed in loops of Mardi Gras beads, slurping alcohol from fishbowl-sized containers on every street corner. During the day however, the French Quarter is a quiet grid of heritage shopfronts, not entirely French, but rather, also intermingled with a dash of Italian and Spanish influence. Many have Juliette-like balconies, dripping with bold red geraniums in the same way that sweat slowly drips from the ill-prepared tourist visiting during the summer months.
First dessert stop: Beignets
At the edge of the French Quarter, towards the Mississippi River on Decatur Street, there is the “everyone-must-go” Cafe du Monde. It’s a crowded fiasco of a place, where the stone floor is covered in icing sugar, where one struggles to breathe through tepid claustrophobia caused by almost a hundred fellow diners in one tent-like space, where the wait staff in old-school aprons and hats serve your food from the same tray on which they have piled dirty plates and cups. The “world-famous” beignets are lumps of hot dough showered with icing sugar. They provoke the same emotion when one sees the Mona Lisa at the Louvre for the first time. What was the fuss?
Second dessert stop: Pralines
While ambling further into the depths of the French Quarter, one is bound to come upon any number of praline shops. Made of cream, sugar, pecans, and butter, praline is to America, what toffee is to the English. A dentist’s nightmare. A child’s dream. More memorable than Cafe Du Monde’s beignets, pralines in New Orleans also serves as a remembrance of history — of a time when sugar plantations (and other plantations) were the lifeblood of the South, of people chained from birth to death to toil, of one bite of sweetness in an otherwise troubled existence. Just remember to pronounce it as the local Louisianians do, “prah-lin” (similar in intonation as “Prague”), rather than “pray-lean”, although perhaps one might indeed pray for the dentist after one too many mouthfuls. We visited all four praline stores within the French Quarter — Southern Candymakers, Mister Apple Candy Store (great for cooking demonstrations), Aunty Sally’s and Leah’s (the last being our favourite for souvenirs).
Third dessert stop: Bananas Foster
If beignets are a nod to the French heritage of the city, pralines a token of its African American pride, one would be remiss to leave New Orleans without sampling the Bananas Foster dessert at any one of the old French restaurants. There’s Antoine’s, Commander’s Palace, Muriel’s, and of course, Brennan’s (the original birthplace of this retro-age 1950s dessert). We visited Broussard’s. Brunch is a luxurious affair in New Orleans, certainly not the monotonous “organic avocado toast with an oat milk vegan latte on the side, please” experience that one increasingly finds back in NYC. Banana is flambeed at your table side with butter, brown sugar, cinnamon and because Bourbon Street is around the corner, a generous saturation of banana liqueur and rum. It was truly, after all of these desserts, that these Dessert Correspondents discovered why New Orleans is also called the Big Easy.
Dessert adventure checklist
- ☑ Dessert destinations:
- For beignets: Cafe du Monde, 800 Decatur Street, New Orleans;
- For pralines: Southern Candymakers, 334 and 1010 Decatur Street; Aunty Sally’s, 810 Decatur Street; Leah’s Pralines, 714 St Louis Street; Mister Apple, 201 N Peters Street.
- For Bananas Fosters: Broussard’s, 819 Conti Street.
- ☑ Budget: $-$$.
- ☑ Sweet irresistible: Specialty sweet boutique.
- ☑ Must-eat: Beignets, pralines and Banana Foster.
- ☑ The short and sweet story: Sweating in syrup one dessert at a time in NOLA.